Haida Gwaii resident Barbara Wilson being congratulated by SFU president Andrew Petter at her convocation. She received a Master’s of Education degree. (Photo courtesy Greg Ehlers, SFU)

Energy self-sufficiency, local financing focus of master’s thesis

Revival of Haida customs, governance considered crucial

Skidegate resident Barbara Wilson knew she needed to do something back in 2013 when she received a notice of a rate increase from BC Hydro.

The prospect of people on low or fixed income having to pay more electricity combined with the reality of climate change and the inability of First Nations communities to finance their own energy-efficient and emissions-reducing homes started a journey which culminated this year in receiving a Master’s of Education degree from Simon Fraser University.

(Haida Gwaii Observer)

Beginning with the Indian Act of 1867 and in subsequent federal laws and regulations, First Nations communities don’t have the ability to raise the financing needed to adapt housing or provide new housing in the face of climate change, Wilson outlined in her thesis.

While reserve residents can own their own homes, they can’t own the land on which they’re located, a factor which severely limits the ability to obtain a mortgage through traditional means.

“It’s the land that has the value, not the house which has less value as it gets older,” said Wilson.

And specific to Haida Gwaii, Wilson said housing standards need to be more robust to withstand storms and high winds.

As well, remote locations such as Haida Gwaii are heavily if not solely reliant on diesel-fired generating stations, a factor which makes their carbon footprint greater when compared to elsewhere.

Through a long working association with a Simon Fraser University teacher education program in which students spend time on Haida Gwaii each year, Wilson was accepted into the university’s masters program.

“In talking to David [Zandvliet, her SFU senior thesis advisor] I thought maybe history might be a good thing but he suggested weather and how bad that could be,” Wilson said of how her thesis topic evolved.

Thanks to a successful fellowship application to the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, Wilson was able to travel to Europe to study individual home energy self-sufficiency, examining the potential, for example, for small scale domestic wind turbines.

“How can we cope and how can we change and how can we become more resilient,” Wilson said of her research and conclusions.

She noted that Haida Gwaii some years back rejected through a referendum a proposal for a large off-shore windfarm of towering turbines.

Wilson conducted extensive local interviews for her thesis, incorporating into her thesis the need for traditional First Nations governance and cooperation in a modern day context to achieve the goals of carbon reduction and adaptation to climate change.

“We’re still wards of the state so legally we’re at a disadvantage,” she said.

Reviving Haida customs of cooperation and community will do much to change the situation, she said.

“We looked after each other, we were not acting as individuals only,” Wilson added.

Within that context, Wilson has suggested lending through a local cooperative organization or a locally-developed financial institution that can make small loans without the requirement of collateral as a way of providing financing for home construction and improvements.

Wilson is now working on turning her thesis into reality through her position as a representative on the Council of Haida Nation. She also sits on its energy committee.

In what may be a first for Simon Fraser University, Wilson defended her thesis in April before a gathering hosted by Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP) followed by a luncheon provided by senior thesis advisor David Zandvliet’s SFU-based Institute for Environmental Learning.

Zandvliet’s relationship goes back years through bringing student teachers to Haida Gwaii for field schools.

“There were 60 people there,” said Zandvliet, noting that many were interview subjects of Wilson or who attended workshops she conducted to gather information on Haida ways as material for her thesis.

“It was really important to have them witness the event,” added Zandvliet in noting that typically just the thesis writer and supervising committee members are present at a defence.

Also unusual was Wilson’s thesis committee as it was made up of academics from both the educational and environmental fields, he said.

Wilson was officially recognized at a Simon Fraser University convocation ceremony held at the Burnaby-based university June 14.


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