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Indigenous communities leading Canada’s clean energy boom

Communities play a role in almost 20 per cent of Canada’s electricity generating infrastructure

On a wintry day last November, Daphne Kay looked up at an expanse of gleaming solar panels located on Cowessess First Nation reserve land just east of Regina and cried.

It was the mix of past and present that moved her, watching her fellow community members hold a traditional round dance to mark the grand opening of Cowessess’ newly completed 10 MW solar farm.

“I thought about my grandfather, who has passed away, and how during his time he wanted us to live in a healthy way that honoured our traditions, but also brought prosperity for future generations,” said Kay, who grew up on Cowessess and, in her role as community energy specialist with Cowessess Ventures Ltd., played an instrumental role in the development of the new solar farm.

“So I thought about him, I thought about my mom, I thought about all the people who were affected by residential schools. I thought about all the people who came before me, and all the people who will come after me.”

Cowessess’ $21-million Awasis solar project connects to Saskatchewan’s electricity grid and is capable of powering 2,500 homes annually, on average. Over its 35-year estimatedlife, the solar farm is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 350,000 tonnes — in total, equivalent to the emissions of over 70,000 gas-powered cars driven for one year.

The Awasis solar farm is also an example of many Indigenous-led clean energy projects blossoming right now from coast to coast.

Others include the First Nations-owned Meadow Lake Tribal Council Bioenergy Centre, also in Saskatchewan, which will generate carbon-neutral green power using lumber waste from nearby sawmills. In Nova Scotia, the Membertou, Paqtnkek and Potlotek First Nations are equity partners in what is expected to be North America’s first green hydrogen and green ammonia project. And in Ontario, the recently-approved Oneida energy storage project, the largest battery storage project in Canada, is being developed in partnership with the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corp.

A 2020 report by national not-for-profit organization Indigenous Clean Energy Social Enterprise identified 197 medium-to-large renewable energy generating projects with Indigenous involvement, either in operation or in the final stages of planning and construction.

While the group’s 2023 data has not yet been released publicly, executive director Chris Henderson said many additional projects have come online in the last two-and-a-half years — everything from solar and wind to hydro to geothermal.

In fact, he said Indigenous communities are so heavily involved in clean energy that they now own, co-own, or have a defined financial benefit agreement in place for almost 20 per cent of Canada’s electricity generating infrastructure.

“They’re the largest asset owners, outside of utilities,” Henderson said. “Indigenous communities across the country right now are, quite literally, the largest change agents for clean energy.”

As part of its pledge to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the Government of Canada has set the goal of achieving a net-zero electricity grid as early 2035.

Experts have said such a goal will require tens of billions of dollars in public and private investment, and it seems clear that Indigenous communities — simply by nature of being landowners and treaty rights owners — are poised to reap a significant amount of that economic benefit.

“We can’t have a net-zero transition without continued and growing Indigenous participation,” Henderson said. “If you’re going to modernize the electricity grid, you’re going to be using land, which means you’re going to have to work with the Indigenous communities whose land it is.”

Private companies have been partnering with Indigenous communities on energy infrastructure projects for decades. But early agreements typically involved guaranteeing construction jobs or other financial benefits for the community and fell short of offering Indigenous people a full equity stake.

That’s changing, however. Canada’s commitment to net-zero comes at a time when the federal government has also committed to reconciliation with Indigenous people, a commitment that includes the recognition of Indigenous people’s right to economic self-determination.

Indigenous communities are also asserting that right, increasingly seeking to get involved in clean energy projects as full owners. Cowessess, for example, owns 95 per cent of the Awasis solar project with the opportunity to become full owners after five years. Kay said it was able to become involved because of a First Nations Opportunity Agreement between the First Nations Power Authority (FNPA) and SaskPower, the provincial utility. The agreement gave FNPA the responsibility of securing First Nations‐led solar generation projects to add capacity to the grid.

“Jobs are nice, but equity ownership is nicer,” said Kay. “Because it allows us to really steer the ship, and bring forth our own sovereignty in the energy sector.”

Henderson said Canada’s energy and electricity sectors have historically been dominated by large oil and gas companies, large utilities, and governments.

But new technology allows for more diversification of ownership,” he said. “Moving to a clean energy future requires us to decolonize the energy system.”

There is significant federal funding support available for Indigenous-led clean energy projects. The Awasis solar project on Cowessess received $18.5 million from the federal government. But Henderson said many other clean energy projects in Canada are the result of joint ventures between Indigenous communities and private companies, and are fully funded with private capital.

For Cowessess, being a leader in clean energy is a way to ensure the long-term economic sustainability of the community, Kay said. But it’s also about the long-term sustainability of Mother Earth, which is another reason Indigenous communities are attracted to the opportunity.

“Renewable energy fits really well with our traditional values,” she said. “There’s a saying that we have that is ‘seven generations.’ You’re always supposed to think seven generations ahead, and that’s integral to our world view. Even though we won’t ever be able to sit in the shade of the tree, it’s imperative that we plant the seed in our lifetime.”

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press

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