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7 Indigenous communities buying stake in Wabamun-Fort McMurray power line

Seven Indigenous communities in Alberta are signing a deal to buy a 40-per-cent interest in the longest 500-kilovolt power transmission line in Canada.

'We are looking at a path of self-governance ... we need to have our own self-sourced funding,' says chief

A transmission tower near Hanover, Ont. New power plants and high voltage lines, made of copper and aluminum, will help to drive energy costs. (Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press)

Seven Alberta Indigenous communities are signing a deal to buy a 40-per-cent interest in a 508-kilometre, 500-kilovolt electricity transmission line that stretches from Wabamun, Alta. to Fort McMurray.

Some communities said having an ownership stake in the transmission line will help them on the path toward self-governance, while others said revenue could help fund mental health initiatives in the community.

The Fort McMurray West 500-kV Transmission Project was built by Alberta PowerLine, a partnership between Canadian Utilities, an ATCO Company, and Quanta Services Inc.

The line, designed to meet growing electricity demand in northern Alberta, went into service in March. It is the longest 500-kilovolt AC transmission line in Canada.

The communities that are investing in the power line are the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Bigstone Cree Nation, Gunn Métis Local 55, Mikisew Group of Companies, Paul First Nation, Sawridge First Nation and Sucker Creek First Nation.

TD Greystone Asset Management bought the other 60 per cent of the Fort McMurray West 500-kV Transmission Project in June.

Canadian Utilities held 80 per cent of Alberta PowerLine while Quanta Services had a 20-per-cent stake. They are selling the line for a total of $300 million. The buyers will also take on $1.4 billion in debt associated with the project. 

"We are looking at a path of self-governance … and as a part of that we need to have our own self-sourced funding," said Roland Twinn, chief of the Sawridge First Nation, which is buying a two-per-cent share. 

Twinn said at first the revenues will be "minimal," while the debt is paid down. But he estimates that after 15 years, Sawridge First Nation will be making about $2 million annually from the investment. 

He wants to use the money to fund health and education in the community. 

"This is the route that we are looking at to try not … be perceived as a burden on the taxpayer," said Twinn. 

"It'll help us look at the next seven generations to make sure there is enough funding for education and health services."

'Safe and secure'

The Mikisew Group of Companies, which is the business arm of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, invested $14.8 million into the power line for a 5.8-per-cent share.

Chief executive officer Edward Coutoreille said it's a "safe and secure investment." He added the company wanted to diversify its investments for better financial stability.

Right now, the Mikisew Group of Companies invests heavily in oil and gas. 

"It opens the door," said Courtoreille. "I mean, you look at industry, a lot of people just focus on oil and gas business and when the price of oil and gas drops it really had an impact on them."

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation expects his community to get about $400,000 a year from the project. 

Chief Allan Adam in Fort McMurray. Adam says he wants to use the money to fund mental health and addictions programs in the community. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

"One of the talks when we made this deal … was that maybe we could put in some programs in regard to mental health and addictions," Adam said. "Hopefully we can combat that and use these funds to support it."

The sale is expected to close sometime in the final three months of 2019, Atco said in a news release.

Canadian Utilities will operate the line for the next 35 years under a contract with the Alberta Electric System Operator.

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