A tiny B.C. First Nation is emerging as a leader in renewable and green energy.

The T'Sou-ke Nation, located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, has just over 250 community members.

Yet in the last decade, the T'Sou-ke have been operating a solar micro-grid, wasabi and oyster farms and an eco-tourism enterprise, and have launched a large-scale wind project.

Chief Gordon Planes said the community's success has come from focusing on long-term sustainability, rather than personal profit.

"We made the decision, which is really easy, that that it's a light footprint approach, and we did that for our children," Planes said.

"It's all about future generations."

The T'Sou-ke Nation refined its vision through a program called Comprehensive Community Planning, administered by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada in British Columbia, which helps Indigenous communities reach their development goals.

'Whole community behind it'

"It's pretty important to bring everyone along and that, whatever we envision, that we have the whole community behind it," said Andrew Moore, the community's solar project director.

The planning process helped the First Nation set an overall goal of economic development that fosters a healthy Indigenous population with a focus on four pillars: energy, autonomy, food self-sufficiency and cultural renaissance.

The community's solar "micro-grid" fits well with the T'Sou-ke goals.

In the summer months, when energy production is high, the First Nation sells power back to B.C. Hydro, earning several thousand dollars every year.

The community generates electricity from solar power through a micro-grid that's so successful the T'Sou-ke Nation offers demonstrations and tours.

T'Sou-ke Nation

Chief Gord Planes views solar power panels on the T’Sou-ke Nation in B.C. (Shannon Halliday)

The work towards being a net zero community (one that doesn't use more power than it produces) has made the T'Sou-ke Nation an eco-tourism destination, with more than 2,000 people a year visiting the community for solar tours and workshops. Visitors include government officials, Indigenous leaders and doctoral students.

Recently four chiefs from Manitoba visited to learn more about the micro-grid technology, including the leader of the Northlands Denesuline First Nation in Lac Brochet, a northern community that relies on diesel for power.

Planes said the threat global warming places on ice roads means those northern communities could one day have their supply of diesel cut off.

"You're going to look at a huge cost in the future if they gotta start flying fuel in," he said.

Agriculture, aquaculture

It isn't just green energy that sets the T'Sou-ke Nation apart — a booming specialized agriculture business is also leading to greater prosperity.

The T'Sou-ke grow wasabi in three large greenhouses, producing 15,000 plants per harvest. The community paid off its startup costs with their first harvest, which brought in $100,000 revenue, said Moore.

T'Sou-ke Nation

Wasabi farming is becoming a cash crop for the T'Sou-ke Nation. (T'Sou-ke Nation)

The wasabi is sold mostly to the U.S. and Europe and is being served at a local restaurant and hotel.

They anticipate the next harvest will be sold to biomedical and nutraceutical markets as a health supplement. 

An 82-hectare oyster farm also operates in the Sooke Basin, producing 3 million oysters per harvest but with capacity to grow up to 24 million oysters per harvest, leading to a partnership with the Chinese Canadian Aboriginal Development Enterprise to research the feasibility of farming oysters.

The community also has several electric cars that are recharged using the solar power network.

T'Sou-ke's collective vision

Next on the community's to-do list is to bring back the Olympia oyster, a small shellfish now regarded as a species at risk. 

"There is not many left in our harbour and basin. We need to bring them back, full circle," Planes said.

The community will tackle anything that ensures the environment will be better for future generations and children yet to be born, Planes said.

T'Sou-ke Nation

In summer, solar power means electricity meters run backwards on the T'Sou-ke Nation, with excess energy sold to the province. (Andrew Moore)