Powering the North: $1.6 billion project connects remote communities to grid

The $1.6 billion Wataynikaneyap Power Project is an ambitious plan to connect 17 remote communities to Ontario's power grid with a 1,800 km power line, and create skilled jobs in the North.

Ambitious Wataynikaneyap plan involves 17 towns, aims to create skilled jobs in North

Berensily 'Bear' Owen, of Poplar Hill First Nation, trains as part of a 15-week course designed to prepare him to work on the Wataynikaneyap Power Project. It will extend Ontario's power grid to provide reliable electricity to many of northwestern Ontario's remote First Nations. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Reporter Nick Purdon and producer Leonardo Palleja travelled to Kingfisher Lake, a remote community in northwestern Ontario, to find out what the Wataynikaneyap Power Project will change for the people there.

"It would mean to me that I am worth something."

That's why Anthony Begg wants a job on the Wataynikaneyap Power Project.

Begg, 24, is one of a dozen trainees taking a two-week "work readiness" course in Kingfisher Lake, Ont.

Located about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay with no road access, Kingfisher Lake — population 350 — is as remote a community as there is in this country.

The training course doesn't guarantee Begg work on the $1.6-billion project, but it brings hope to a region with an unemployment rate seven times the national average.

Anthony Begg, right, is enrolled in a two-week training course in Kingfisher Lake, Ont. The 24-year-old hopes to get work on the Wataynikaneyap Power Project. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

"It's like a second chance to rebuild my life," says Begg, who dropped out of school part-way through Grade 11.

"I didn't finish, because in my teenage years I was heavily in my addiction, like drinking and drugs and all that stupid stuff."

Begg ended up in jail for assault, but says prison changed him for the better.

"I looked around my surroundings and I thought to myself, 'I don't want to be like these people. I want to work.'"

Living with diesel power

Electricity in Kingfisher Lake comes from a trio of diesel generators.

This is reality for almost all of the First Nations communities that dot an area of northwestern Ontario about the size of France.

Keith Mekanak stands in front of Kingfisher Lake's diesel generating station. According to Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), using diesel to create electricity in remote communities is by far the most expensive electricity source in the province. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

An economic study by Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) published in 2014 put the cost of supplying diesel to 21 remote communities in northwestern Ontario at around $90 million a year. Most of that is paid for by the federal government and Ontario's electricity consumers.

The same study makes the case that connecting those communities to the grid would save up to $1 billion in fuel costs alone over the next 40 years. The IESO states that using diesel to create electricity in remote communities is, on average, the highest-cost electricity resource in Ontario.

The Wataynikaneyap project involves putting poles in the ground for 1,800 km of transmission lines that will connect 17 remote First Nations communities to Ontario's power grid. It will cut the cost of providing electricity to northern communities, and means 260 jobs in the region for people who will build the lines and maintain them.

In Kingfisher Lake, 29-year old Nathan Singleton is eager to see the project link his community to the Ontario grid. He's not just anticipating a job — he hopes the project will help fix the housing crisis.

Singleton, who has three kids under the age of six, shares a single-storey house with his sister's family and his mother.

"It's kind of hectic and hard too," he says. "You have to separate your stuff. You just can't really do anything when you just live in a small room."

Solving the overcrowding is difficult, because even if new houses are built  in many northern communities there's often not enough power to hook them up.

Nathan Singleton hopes the Wataynikaneyap Power Project will allow him to get a house of his own. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

For Singleton, the housing shortage is at the root of one of the biggest problems in many communities throughout the North.

"The youth don't really have anything to do," he says.

"They've got to have better things to do with their lives. Like, growing up when I was younger in the early 2000s, there were a lot of suicides here — including my brother. He shot himself."

Singleton hopes the transmission project will allow a youth centre to be built in Kingfisher Lake.

"In the community there's nowhere for the youth to hang around. Not even a library," he says.

Energy poverty

The consequences of living in a community that relies on diesel generators for power permeates almost every aspect of life. 

For example, when our CBC News crew was in the airport in Sioux Lookout, Ont., waiting to fly into Kingfisher Lake, we learned that planes couldn't land in the community of Pikangikum because its generators were down and there were no lights at the airport.

Kingfisher Lake First Nation is located 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. The community of around 350 people is powered by three diesel generators. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

In fact, blackouts are so frequent in Pikangikum that it can take up to an extra year for students to graduate from high school because of the amount of time classrooms are shut down.

With a population of about 2,300 people, Pikangikum is one of the largest First Nations communities in the region and it will be the first to be hooked up to the grid as part of the Wataynikaneyap Power Project.

The connection date is sometime around Christmas 2018.

Community pride

In Thunder Bay, Ont., there's an extensive training course that's part of the transmission line project.

This is where people from the First Nations all across northwestern Ontario are being taught to actually build the line that will run the power to their communities.

And Curtis Rae is all in.

Curtis Rae, 38, of Deer Lake First Nation hopes to land a job on the Wataynikaneyap power project. 'I would definitely be proud,' he says. 'It's something I can tell my kids that dad helped build.' (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Rae, 38, moved his family 500 kilometres south from Deer Lake First Nation to Thunder Bay to learn everything he can about building a transmission line.

Every day for the past four months Rae has been focused on one thing — he wants to be one of the people employed putting poles in the ground when the transmission line reaches his community.

"I would definitely be proud," he says. "It's something I can tell my kids dad helped build. It would put a smile on their face."

Children play with dogs outside the hotel in Kingfisher Lake. The First Nations communities that dot an area of northwestern Ontario almost the size of France have an unemployment rate of roughly seven times the national average. (NIck Purdon/CBC)

There's another reason Rae says he's proud.

The plan is for 22 First Nations communities in northwestern Ontario to raise equity through their company, Wataynikaneyap Power, and own 51 per cent of the completed power line.

The remaining 49 per cent will be owned by the utility company Fortis Inc., but​ Wataynikaneyap Power will have the option to take over 100 per cent ownership in the future.

Margaret Kenequanash, who grew up in North Caribou Lake First Nation, is the CEO of Wataynikaneyap Power. She says the project is a blueprint for the future. 

"Our youth today want employment and want improved living conditions," Kenequanash says. "Not only that, but they want hope."

Trainees from remote First Nations communities across northwestern Ontario take part in a 15-week course designed to teach them how to build a transmission line. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

North Caribou Lake First Nation is one of the communities in northwestern Ontario that runs on diesel generators.

Kenequanash says she's been trying to solve the power problem in the region for 10 years, and one of the things she always focused on was training.

"As a people we were never on welfare in the past," she says.

"We were hard workers and we lived off the land. We had good work ethic, and those are the teachings that we need to revitalize to help our young ones recognize this is where we need to go."

'Line that brings light'

Back in Kingfisher Lake, the chief of the community, 52-year-old Eddie Mamakwa, wants to make sure people understand the meaning of the word "Wataynikaneyap" in the Oji-Cree language.

"The line that brings light," he says.

Eddie Mamakwa, 52, the chief of Kingfisher Lake First Nation, worries that once the power line arrives, mining and forestry companies will want to develop the area. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Mamakwa, who has been chief for three years, says the transmission line will likely bring other things as well — and he's wary of some of them.

The chief worries that once the power line arrives, mining and forestry companies will want to develop the land around the community.

"I know they are watching what we do with the project," he says. "They see dollar signs."

Mamakwa believes once the power line is built, it will just be a matter of time before there's a road into Kingfisher Lake.

"It's good and bad," he says. "But we can't go back."

'Something to live for'

Back at the training course in Kingfisher Lake, trainer Tim Doyle is focused on the basics.

"When we say 9 o'clock in the morning," he barks, "9 o'clock means sitting at your desk ready to go. Not over making coffee."

Trainer Tim Doyle, 72, worked for almost 50 years as a production supervisor and safety coordinator in mines throughout Ontario. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Doyle treats the classroom like a workplace where he's the tough boss.

"I am trying to prepare you people for the industrial workforce that you are gonna be in very shortly," he continues.

Doyle explains that he worries about the prejudice the trainees will face if they get jobs on the power line. He says he knows, because he had to get over his own.

"I thought they were all lazy and all this kind of stuff," he says.

Doyle, 72, worked for almost 50 years as a production supervisor and safety coordinator in mines throughout Ontario before retiring.

"I didn't know anything about the hardships of people living on a reserve or First Nations people," he says. "I didn't have any clue. I just ... painted them with one brush."

Doyle says he wants to help the people of Kingfisher Lake get a fair shot at finding work on the transmission project.

"I care an awful lot. I have personally chosen to do this."

One of the trainees Doyle is trying to help is 24-year-old Leanne Mamakwa.

Leanne Mamakwa, 24, wants a job on the Wataynikaneyap Power Project. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Mamakwa finished high school and did a year of college before dropping out. She has a lot at stake as a trainee.

"I'm grateful, because you never really see opportunities around reservations — especially for us young people," Mamakwa says.

"I noticed every time I would have a job I'm sober, and once it ends I am back into that cycle. Having a job I know I have something to live for."

Watch Nick Purdon and Leonardo Palleja's feature on the Wataynikaneyap project from The National:

Northern power: the push to light remote Canadian communities | In-Depth

5 years ago
Duration 10:38
The majority of Canadians are able to take guaranteed and affordable electricity for granted. But this country is also home to hundreds of rural and remote communities who are still off the grid, depending on unreliable energy sources to light and heat their homes. There is, however, a power shift underway in northern Ontario where locals want to be part of fixing the power problem.

Nick Purdon and Leonardo Palleja