First Nations see economic future in Canada's growing clean energy industry

Indigenous communities across Canada are turning to partnerships with renewable energy companies to generate much-needed income.

Indigenous communities take pride and ownership in sustainable energy projects

Dokis First Nation in north-central Ontario owns a 40 per cent share of the Okikendawt Hydro Project. The majority of community members voted to partner with clean energy developer Hydromega to build the facility as a way to generate revenue. (Nicole Ireland/CBC )

As Denise Restoule looks out at a concrete building in the middle of the picturesque French River in north central Ontario, she can barely believe that a vision that began so many years ago is finally up and running. 

"Thank God it's all over!" she says with a laugh. "Everyday living is going to be so different."

The former chief of Dokis First Nation, about 100 kilometres southeast of Sudbury, Ont., spent a decade helping see the Okikendawt Hydro project from planning to completion in June 2015. As a "run-of-the-river" facility, the water flowing through its two turbines generates renewable power that the First Nation sells back to the province's electricity grid through government clean energy programs.

The 10-megawatt facility produces enough power for about 3,000 homes, says Chris Henderson, president of Lumos Energy, which served as an adviser on the project. That brings in up to $4 million in revenue a year, he says.

Now retired from 10 years of serving as chief of Dokis First Nation, Denise Restoule says the hydro project brings in revenue needed to build and maintain quality infrastructure, as well as fund programs in the community. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Right now, Dokis First Nation uses a large portion of that income to pay back the debt it took on to buy its 40 per cent share of the project, Henderson says. The other 60 per cent of the project is owned by Hydromega, the Quebec-based energy company the community chose as its development partner.   

Each year, as it pays its debt down, the First Nation's profits will grow. Over the course of 40 years — the length of time the province has committed to buying its hydro — the community will make millions of dollars, Henderson says.  

Dokis First Nation puts that money in a trust fund and allocates the interest earned for infrastructure, health, education and cultural initiatives in the community. 

The Dokis First Nation's Okikendawt hydro facility is four storeys high. The bottom level, which houses the two turbines that generate power, is under the surface of the river. This is the view from the second level, facing downstream, after the water has moved through the plant. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

"You feel now that you're not just restricted to try to run a First Nation on just the funding you get from the federal government, which is never sufficient," Restoule says, noting that the additional income means the community can afford to build quality infrastructure and maintain it, avoiding the "substandard work" that plagues so many underfunded First Nations.   

The Okikendawt development has also brought additional pride to the community.  

"Part of it is, with this hydro project, is the sense of ownership," she says. "We've never had anything that magnitude that we can say, 'Wow, we own part of this.'"

'Willing and able'

Indigenous communities are increasingly joining Canada's growing clean energy economy as a way to generate revenue in a manner that is consistent with their cultural and environmental values, experts say.  

​"Our people are willing and able," says Kevin Hart, regional chief of Manitoba and the executive in charge of the alternative energy portfolio for the Assembly of First Nations.

"Through our teachings we've always been taught to be stewards of the land. And with that I honestly believe that First Nations people can be champions when it comes to clean and alternative energy moving forward."

According to data compiled by the Indigenous Renewable Energy research project at the University of Calgary, there are more than 300 Indigenous clean energy projects in more than 190 communities across Canada.  

There's a public misperception about Indigenous people's views on development, says Dokis First Nation's current chief, Gerry Duquette. He says building clean energy infrastructure is consistent with Indigenous cultural and environmental values. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Henderson of Lumos Energy estimates there are about 125 medium- to large-scale projects (from five or 10 megawatts all the way up to 4,000 megawatts) with Indigenous ownership in operation, and another 40 or 50 moving through the approval process.

The bulk of those projects are currently in Ontario and B.C., but more are coming in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec and New Brunswick, Henderson says, as those jurisdictions move toward producing more renewable energy and recognize the role of First Nations, Métis and Inuit in making that shift possible.      

Clean energy companies "started knocking on our door" when the province began giving priority to applications that included an Indigenous partner, says Lisa Meness, funding research co-ordinator for Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation.

The eastern Ontario community now partially owns five small solar projects, and construction is scheduled to begin in 2017 on two medium-size solar projects, with capacities of 10 megawatts and 12 megawatts, respectively.   

These solar panels are part of a small renewable energy project undertaken by Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation in eastern Ontario. In addition to four more small projects, the community has also invested in two larger solar facilities. It is sharing its experiences with other Indigenous communities hoping to enter the clean energy economy. (Lisa Meness/Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation)

Like Dokis, Pikwakanagan sells the power its projects generate back to the provincial grid, providing money for capital investment in the community, Meness says. Her First Nation has used its experiences navigating the complex world of renewable energy development to develop an online portal to provide advice and guidance for other Indigenous communities wanting to do the same, she says.     

Project developers "really see the benefit of that close partnership with First Nations," says Dan Woynillowicz, policy director of Clean Energy Canada, a think-tank at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

It stands in stark contrast with a lot of the controversy we've seen around various fossil fuel projects and pipelines.- Dan Woynillowicz, Clean Energy Canada

"It stands in stark contrast with a lot of the controversy we've seen around various fossil fuel projects and pipelines where there's been a lot of tension and at times opposition from First Nations communities and the proponents of those projects."

The current chief of Dokis First Nation, Gerry Duquette, says its hydro development partner — and the companies it contracted — respected the community's values and commitment to preserving the environment. 

He fondly describes how a non-Indigenous truck driver recognized a species under threat in the path of the construction. 

Dokis First Nation says the clean energy development company it chose to partner with in constructing its hydro project respected the community's environmental values and priorities — including protecting turtle habitats. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

"He said, 'You've got to stop because I think I saw turtles hatching there,'" Duquette recalls. "So, this construction company that's probably getting paid by the load said, 'Whoa'— because this is what the community wanted." 

The construction phase of the project also provided employment and training to many First Nation members, he says. One man from the community now works full-time at the hydro facility as an operator. Another member, Duquette says, used his construction training to get a job in the Toronto area.  

Romeo Belanger of Dokis First Nation worked in construction while the Okikendawt hydro project was being built. Now, after training, he is one of the two full-time operators at the hydro facility. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Some experts worry that a financial model relying on provincial and territorial governments to purchase clean hydro threatens the sustainability of community partnerships with green energy companies.  

"As much as we hear about renewable energy being economically viable and competitive with gas plants and nuclear reactors and coal plants and these things, the reality has been the moment the subsidies end, the investment [by energy companies] stops," said Brady Yauch, executive director of the Consumer Policy Institute and a specialist in how Ontario public utilities affect consumers.

But for many Indigenous leaders, including Duquette, clean energy partnerships just make financial sense.  

"[Historically] we used to ... trade in different goods," he says. "Now we're just trading in power."

"I think it is the way of the future."

One of the secondary economic benefits of the hydro project was the creation of a quarry to store the rock dug out during construction, says Dokis First Nation Chief Gerry Duquette. The community uses the rock to make cement for renovation projects and also sells it to outside buyers. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Hear more about Dokis First Nation's hydro project on CBC Radio's The World This Weekend on Saturday at 6 p.m. (7 p.m. AT, 7:30 p.m. NT). 


Nicole Ireland is a reporter with The Canadian Press.

With files from The Canadian Press