Canada's First Nations People & the Future of Clean Electricity
North America’s electricity sector is in the throes of dramatic transformation, and this is creating a bounty of opportunity for Aboriginal communities across Canada looking to tap the country’s renewable energy potential.
Three mega-forces are driving the change. Antiquated power plants, many built in the 1970s or earlier, are past their prime and must be mothballed. The environmental impacts of coal-based generation have also prompted regulatory changes that place greater value on cleaner sources of energy. And finally, a rising proportion of power authorities—not to mention industrial, commercial and residential consumers—are prepared to pay a higher price for non-polluting power.
The result is that a new electricity playing field has emerged and new players are entering the game. Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities are among them, and it’s a game they’re poised to play well—and potentially dominate.
They have one advantage others don’t have. A high percentage of potential green power development is located on Crown lands, owned by the federal, provincial or territorial governments. Much of it is land that has been used by Canada’s indigenous people for generations to support their traditional way of life.
Supreme Court rulings, government policy and public expectation have reinforced the principle that resource development on traditional territory requires a duty to consult with local stakeholders. First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities are understandably protecting their turf, making strong claims that the development of renewable energy on their territory can only be possible through Aboriginal participation and ownership.
This should not come as a surprise. Native peoples have historically embraced renewable energy business opportunities. The notion of using the gifts of Mother Earth as a source of power is deeply woven into the cultures of the First Peoples of Canada. Simply put, hydro, solar, biomass, earth or wind power are cultural “fits” with Aboriginal communities seeking to build a sustainable and prosperous future. Not to suggest they want to pursue this opportunity alone. There is a squad of strong businesses ready to team up, and already we’re seeing utilities such as Ontario Power Generation and power development firms such as Alterra Power Corp. becoming willing development and financial partners with First Nations and Métis communities.
The score is rising fast. At the beginning of 2010, some 20 Aboriginal communities across the country owned a portion of clean energy facilities. By the end of that year an additional 24 Aboriginal clean energy projects had been approved. These projects are located mostly in Ontario and British Columbia, but action is Canada-wide and the trend is gathering momentum.
The Dokis First Nation, for example, has developed the Okikendawt Hydroelectric Project on Ontario’s French River with partner Hydromega of Québec. The 10-megawatt small hydro facility is a smart sustainability venture using existing infrastructure, and it avoids the use of new dams. About to begin construction, the project has been widely praised for its inclusion of heritage factors, such as the re-building of the historical Chaudiere portage trail, and environmental species protection. Okikendawt Hydro is among over a hundred small- and medium-sized Aboriginal clean energy projects in the pipeline from coast to coast.
The real game changer, however, is the roughly 20 large-scale hydro and wind power projects on the play list. All of these projects are either slated for development by their respective provincial government or under active consideration. These are huge initiatives, requiring tens of billions of dollars of investment. All are on traditional Aboriginal territory and will require the agreement of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities to proceed.
One of those communities is the James Smith First Nation in Saskatchewan. Working with partners Brookfield Renewable Power and Peter Kiewit Sons, it is seeking to develop the 200-megawatt Pehonan hydroelectric project on the Saskatchewan River, east of Prince Albert. The project requires provincial and federal approval, and Crown utility SaskPower plays a major decision-making role.