Thunder Bay

First Nations-owned company receives 'up to $60M' to connect Pikangikum to Ontario power grid

Canada's Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs was in Thunder Bay, Ont., Thursday to announce funding for a long-awaited power project in the province's remote north.

Construction for transmission line from Red Lake expected to start in October

Funding is scheduled to be announced Thursday to get Pikangikum First Nation connected to the provincial power grid.

Canada's Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs says the federal government has pledged "up to $60 million," for a long-awaited power project in Ontario's far north.

Carolyn Bennett announced in Thunder Bay on Thursday that Wataynikaneyap Power — a transmission company owned by 22 First Nations in partnership with Fortis, a Canadian utility — will receive the money to connect Pikangikum to the province's electricity grid.

The announcement, which sets the stage for work to be done to ensure a reliable flow of electricity to the community, is "thrilling," Chief Dean Owen said.

"The community will just be jubilant about it now, and now we can move forward," he said.

Construction on a 117 kilometre-long power line from Red Lake to Pikangikum is scheduled to begin in October, 2017, according to officials with Watay Power, with an estimated completion date of November, 2018.

The First Nation is located more than 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.
Pikangikum is a remote community located 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay and is only accessible by air. (Canadian Press)

Power failures 'practically every day'

Pikangikum, like many other remote First Nations, currently relies on diesel generators for electricity, which are expensive to run and environmentally unfriendly. They also subject communities to rolling blackouts and electrical load restrictions which effectively cap construction of new homes and curtail economic and community development.

Getting the First Nation off diesel is expected to "[create] lasting improvements to the quality of life in Pikangikum First Nation," Bennett was quoted as saying in a written release accompanying the announcement, adding that it will also improve health and safety.

Getting the community connected to the provincial power system is "critically important," Chief Dean Owen told CBC News in 2016.  On Thursday, he spoke about what conditions have been like over the past decade or so.

"[The community] would dread those long, cold winters ... we could expect a power failure practically every day," he said.

Dealing with periods where power was intermittent was especially hard for people who rely on home medical equipment, like oxygen tanks or dialysis, he said.

"That's been our biggest concern and still is our biggest concern," he said, adding that police have had to be called to help facilitate emergency transport for people out of Pikangikum to places like Red Lake.

"That sort of stuff happening becomes a very overwhelming burden on yourself and becomes heavy," he said.

'Tremendous achievement'

The announcement was also praised by the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), a territorial organization that represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario, including Pikangikum.

"This is a tremendous achievement," Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler was quoted as saying in a written statement. "This is a significant step to help Pikangikum advance their community plan for growth and development."

Owen added that he's hopeful that the project, once completed, will represent a new start for Pikangikum, adding the focus needs to be on "the bigger projects — water and sewer — that we've been wanting to do over the last couple of years."

A report from the Ontario Power Authority said getting 21 First Nations off diesel generation and onto the provincial power grid will save a billion dollars over 40 years.

In 2016, Ontario officially selected Wataynikaneyap Power to be the company tasked with completing the estimated $1.35-billion project to connect diesel-dependent communities to the power grid.

With files from Heather Kitching and Jody Porter