Canadian Consulting Engineer

Renewable energy promises great future for First Nations

May 1, 2014
By Bronwen Parsons

Renewable energy promises

Renewable energy promises

great future for First Nations

No matter how energy efficient and green our buildings become, a critical factor is still where and how the energy that fires them is generated. Renewable versus carbon-based fuels are one obvious answer for reducing greenhouse gases and important developments are taking place among First Nations in this sector.

The resignation of Shawn Attleo as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in early May exposed some of the divisions and disarray among aboriginal people. But at a deeper level big changes are taking place. Aboriginal people are gathering strength and demanding that they have a much bigger role in developing their economies, including in renewable energy projects. If they succeed, they could establish themselves on a much firmer footing and at the same time sustain and broaden Canada’s energy supply.

Solar, wind and hydroelectricity power relies on land, and First Nations have a lot of it. They also have a particularly close and reverent attitude to the earth, so developing renewable energy seems to be a perfect marriage. Today, First Nations are partnering with companies, government agencies, and engineering companies to develop projects on a large scale.

The First Nations Land Management Act provides for 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.

At the All-Energy Conference held in April in Toronto, on Thursday, April 10, Byron LeClair, director of energy projects for the Pic River First Nation on the north shore of Lake Superior, Northern Ontario, insisted: “Standard energy projects must include First Nations on the development side.” His 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.

Matt Jamieson, director of economic development with the Six Nations of the Grand River in southwestern Ontario near Brantford, also spoke. Six Nations includes the Mohawk, Seneca and Oneida, and is the largest First Nation in Canada by population, with 25,500 people. He explained that after Ontario’s Green Energy Act passed in 2009, Six Nations is now involved in large projects like Samsung’s massive solar and wind Grand Renewable Energy Park.

While the potential is great, the track to the future is rough and steep. LeClair warned that overlapping land claims between First Nations could hinder transmission line projects. Also, First Nations are committed to achieving community consensus before they proceed with projects, which slows things down. Meanwhile financing is tricky, since Bay Street isn’t clear on how to sit down and negotiate with First Nations, suggested Jamieson. Meanwhile communities urgently need housing, roads, water and other infrastructure.

Jamieson had this advice for project proponents: “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.”Bronwen Parsons


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