An indigenous community in northern Alberta is taking power into its own hands.

Lubicon Lake First Nation is setting up 80 solar panels to heat and light a community health center in Little Buffalo.

Activist and student Melina Laboucan says it's one small part of what she hopes will be a larger movement in the community to stop the overuse of oil and gas.

"I wanted to implement solar in the community for a long time … as someone who has worked to try to end the expansion of the tar sands and stop harming our traditional territories," said Laboucan.

"We can't just say no, we have to say yes to solutions. And renewable energies like solar are one way to go."

Melina Laboucan-Massimo

Melina Laboucan-Massimo says using the sun to power the community’s health centre will save thousands of dollars in electricity costs. (Supplied by Melina Laboucan-Massimo)

Laboucan said putting a community-owned solar installation in the middle of oil country sends a message to the Canadian and Alberta governments to move towards renewable energy. 

"I think because people have seen the detrimental impacts from oil spills, and from resource extraction happening in our traditional territory, this is a new way forward," she says.

In 2011, a pipeline owned by Plains Midstream Canada leaked 28,000 barrels of crude oil near Little Buffalo.

Laboucan says the community has spoken publicly about health concerns such as respiratory illnesses and elevated rates and cancers.

Using the sun to power the community's health center will save thousands of dollars in electricity costs. She says it is guaranteed to last at least 25 years but could work for 50 years.

"The little kids here will watch the sun power part of the community as they grow well into their adult years. The panels will be here well past the life of many of the oil companies."

Laboucan says it wasn't easy to get the project off the ground. She raised money for more than a year and eventually collected more than $45,000. The project received money from energy and environmental organizations, and from actress and activist Jane Fonda.

Putting up the panels has been physically taxing for Laboucan and community members pitching in to help

It is part of Laboucan's master's thesis on indigenous governance at the University of Victoria.

Lubicon Lake First Nation youth

Lubicon Lake First Nation youth and adults are raising up 80 solar panels to heat and light this community health center in Little Buffalo, northern Alberta. (Supplied by Melina Laboucan-Massimo)

The panels are raised more than 4 metres in the air — the 20.8 kilowatt system produces 24,750 kilowatts hours of usable energy every year. Since Alberta is one of the sunniest provinces in Canada, including the reflection off the snow in the winter, it could lead to a booming industry in the province.

The Montana First Nation south of Edmonton has a similar but larger scale project. They built a 100-kilowatt solar power system and installed it on the roof of the band administration building. Saddle Lake Cree Nation has received funding for a solar project for a water treatment plant.

Laboucan says in Germany, 400,000 people work in the solar power industry.

Laboucan hopes when people see the solar panels, they will be inspired to install them in their homes and offices.

"We need something that will make our ancestors and elders proud. This is reflective of our own indigenous philosophies; having a reciprocal relationship with the earth — not taking more than you need and thinking and working for the future generations."