Partnership between oilsands, Indigenous workers leads to solar panels for daycare

A non-profit organization led by oilsands workers is partnering with Indigenous communities to train alongside each other in renewable-energy initiatives.

Iron and Earth paired with 5 members from Louis Bull Tribe in Maskwacis, Alta.

Two youngsters dance near a solar panel to be installed at Louis Bull Tribe's community daycare centre Friday. (Brandi Morin/CBC)

A non-profit organization led by oilsands workers is partnering with Indigenous communities to train alongside each other in renewable-energy initiatives.

Iron and Earth includes workers from a variety of industrial trades, including boilermakers, electricians, pipefitters, ironworkers and labourers.

The organization paired with five members of the Louis Bull Tribe in Maskwacis, Alta., for a week of training that eventually saw the installation of solar panels on the community daycare center Friday.

With the downturn of the oil and gas driven Alberta economy over the last several years, many former oilfield workers are diversifying their skill sets to transition into the emerging renewable energy sector, including former rigger Jen Turner.

"We are making history today," Turner said during a news conference at Louis Bull.

"Getting to know these people [at Louis Bull] has been inspiring. Being here has shown me how critical it is for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to work and learn together side-by-side, taking care of the land as partners in honour of Indigenous Treaties."

The project provides an opportunity for Treaty understanding, said Louis Bull councillor Desmond Bull, who spearheaded the partnership.

"In regards to what Treaties meant — they were for First Nations and Canadian citizens to work together and take care of each other, taking care of the land," said Bull. "Now, we're creating sustainability for the next seven generations."

Cultural component

Incorporating First Nations culture into the training was also a learning experience for the non-Indigenous workers, added Bull.

"The cultural component was very important. I didn't realize that having that cultural integration made the project so much better. They learned cultural understanding and protocol.

"Ten out of the 15 trainees were non-First Nations and have never partook in a pipe or sweat ceremony, some had never had moose meat," he said.

Louis Bull is a leader in expanding solar projects on the reserve, with all but two of their public buildings now equipped with solar panels, operating at 80 per cent capacity, said Bull.

Following the daycare installation, the local school is next to be outfitted with solar panels and solar water-heating technology.

The projects are funded by grants and subsidies available through government and non-profit organizations, said Bull.

"If we can prove this pilot and how it can work, I definitely see it being incorporated on other First Nations," he added.

The partnership represents a path forward for Canadians, said Turner, and they call on the government to develop a national upscaling initiative to enable Canada's workforce to build renewable-energy economies.

"We are all standing here together at a critical crossroads. It's clear that together we are part of a workforce that is one of Canada's greatest assets. We can become the green energy leaders of tomorrow but any plan to diversify our energy resources must take us into account today," she said.

"A national upscaling initiative is the only way to strategically capitalize on the available and highly transferable skill set that these workers already have. This is a win-win for Canadian workers, our family, our economy and the environment."