Canadian Consulting Engineer

First Nations want control over renewable energy projects

April 15, 2014
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

At the All-Energy Conference in Toronto last week, a panel of speakers from First Nations showed how important they are becoming in developing Canada's renewable energy sector.

At the All-Energy Conference in Toronto last week, a panel of speakers from First Nations showed how important they are becoming in developing Canada’s renewable energy sector.

The conference, held April 9-10 by Reed Exhibitions in association with the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association and the Canadian Solar Industries Association, was the first Canadian version of an event previously held in the U.K. and Australia. It aims to draw together people from different renewable and energy efficiency sectors: those that work in building energy efficiency with those in smart grids, renewable energies, energy storage, solar, CHP, etc..

On Thursday, April 10, the Aboriginal Economic Development and Sustainable Energy Session featured speakers from First Nation communities from across Canada where renewable energy initiatives are under way.

Each of the speakers stressed that their communities want to be active players in the renewable energy projects that are being developed on their traditional lands. They see renewable energy as a way to take control over their lands and their economic futures, and even see it as a way for their communities to eventually become self-sustaining.


They are not content to just sit back and accept royalties from outside corporations and agencies, therefore, but want to steer projects as they evolve. That way they can ensure that their traditional access to water “which is sacred,” and hunting and fishing grounds is preserved, not to mention ensuring that the economic benefits find their way back to the people and communities.

Chief Gordon Planes of the T’Sou-ke Nation, a Coast Salish community of 250 people on two reserves at the south end of Vancouver Island, was the first to speak on the panel. He reminded the audience of the sorry history of his people since the 1850 Douglas Treaties were signed, but said that in the last 20 years he has seen young people becoming “smarter,” thanks partly to the elders investing in education.

The First Nations Land Management Act, which received royal assent in 2012, provides for aboriginal communities to opt out of the Indian Act and take control of how the resources on their lands are developed. So far, according to the AANDC web site, 67 First Nations have chosen this route, which requires that they each develop their own land codes.

The T’Sou-ke are one of the First Nations who have chosen to opt out and Chief Planes said this means they can make deals with corporations “in five minutes,” whereas they used to have to wait through the federal government’s backlog. They have set up many “green” initiatives. Half the homes in the village have solar hot water panels on their roofs, he said, and there are PV arrays on larger projects, and other projects such as electric bicycles. They are also looking into developing wind power.

Much bigger renewable energy initiatives are well under way in the Pic River First Nation on the north shore of Lake Superior, Northern Ontario. Byron LeClair, director of energy projects for Pic River, said “standard energy projects must include First Nations on the development side.”

He told of how the Ojibway community first got involved in developing hydro projects about 25 years ago. The chief at the time was invited by the Ontario government to evaluate a proposal for a plant, but instead he said, ‘No” and decided the First Nation should become a proponent and develop it themselves.

The community now has three operating run-of-river generating stations — Twin Falls at 5 MW, Umbata Falls at 23 MW, and the Wawatay station at 13.5 MW — as well as another 140 MW of new wind and water projects on the books amounting to over $500 million in investment.

LeClair believes First Nations also need to become more involved in transmission projects, especially given the $20-30 billion projected development of resources in the “Ring of Fire” area of northern Ontario. First Nations have to have ownership over these transmission lines, he said, but warned that it could also lead to problems with overlapping land claims between First Nations.

Another challenge is financing: “It’s always an issue.” He envisions an aboriginal community energy fund to help finance renewable projects.

Operating on the basis of a triple bottom line of “planet, people, profit,” LeClair said First Nations energy projects must ensure the “highest standards of accountability.”

Matt Jamieson, director of economic development with the Six Nations of the Grand River, also spoke. The Six Nations is a reserve of 18,000-hectares that is part of the Haldimand Tract in southwestern Ontario near Brantford. It includes the Mohawk, Seneca and Oneida, and is the largest First Nation in Canada by population, with 25,500 people, half of whom live on the reserve, and 47% of whom are under age 30. While Jamieson grew up in the community, he left at age 25, travelled and “learned how to participate in the boardroom.” He returned a few years ago.

Though the Six Nations is in the centre of a highly developed area of southern Ontario, close to the border and Toronto, and surrounded by 400-series highways, the community had been struggling. Then, when Ontario passed the Green Energy Act in 2009, the First Nation was able to get involved in large projects like Samsung’s massive solar and wind Grand Renewable Energy Park.

The Six Nations have adopted a community-minded approach to renewable energy projects, said Jamieson. It has developed a land use policy and is meeting with hundreds of project proponents. But it takes a long time (three years with Samsung) to develop a plan that can be taken to the community, and again, he cited the problem of getting direct financing. Bay Street is “unclear on how to sit down and structure an agreement with First Nations,” he said. “Most bankers will walk away if there is a “t” you can’t cross.”

Having the people capacity to review proposals and negotiate them is another big hurdle, Jamieson said. They are reviewing 150 proposals right now. Meanwhile the community’s needs are for housing, roads, water and wastewater treatment plants.

Jamieson had this advice for project proponents and others who would like to get involved: “Have a genuine relationship with the First Nation, not a transactional one… Accept delays. They’re a way of life in these communities.” And lastly, “Make sure you support the First Nations person who is advocating for your project.”


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