Indigenous communities embracing clean energy, creating thousands of jobs

A first-ever national survey shows Indigenous communities jumping into partnerships on clean energy projects.

National survey shows Indigenous clean energy a money maker

Wayne Sabourin, former chief of Pic Mobert First Nation in northwestern Ontario, shows off his communty's hydroelectric facility. (Margo McDiarmid/CBC)

An increasing number of Indigenous communities are becoming partners in renewable energy projects in Canada and creating thousands of jobs as they do it.

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A new national survey shows nearly one fifth of the country's power is provided by facilities fully or partly owned and run by Indigenous communities.

It represents a dramatic increase in the last decade in renewable energy projects like hydro, wind and solar power. 

The author of the report, Chris Henderson, says the real surprise for him is the amount of employment that clean power is creating — 15,300 direct jobs for Indigenous workers who have earned $842 million in employment income in the last eight years.

"That is a huge number, because if you have a job you are contributing to the economy, it's a real job, it's honest work," he said in an interview with CBC News. "The number of jobs created is the story of how our country is changing and how Indigenous people are part of a clean energy future."

There are now 152 medium to large renewable energy projects with Indigenous involvement. That's up from approximately 20 projects in 2008.

Each medium to large project generates electricity for at least 400 to 500 homes.

There are also another 1,200 smaller projects built with Indigenous participation that generate electricity for local communities.

The survey was conducted by Henderson's company, Lumos Energy, which provides advice to Indigenous communities on how to get involved in renewable energy. It looked at projects and talked to the communities where they are located to create this first-ever national snapshot of the growing industry.

"We thought there is an untold story here," said Henderson. "There are a lot of stories in terms of how Indigenous communities are doing right now. The challenges are there, and we wanted to show that Indigenous communities are being partners in the new economy of Canada, in this case the clean energy economy." 

The vast majority of the projects are hydroelectric (63 per cent) followed by wind power (24 per cent), with the remaining projects (13 per cent) a mix of solar and biomass.

The 18.9-megawatt Gitchi Animki Hydroelectric Project in White River, Ont., run by the Pic Mobert First Nation, officially opened in July 2016.

The Gitchi Animki hydroelectric plant, located in White River, Ont., is an example of the growing trend.

The $200-million plant is 50 per cent owned by the Ojibwa community of Pic Mobert and was built in partnership with Regional Power Incorporated.

Former Pic Mobert chief Wayne Sabourin was involved in starting the project and getting it built.

He took CBC for a tour of the project last February. He called it a game changer for the community of 350 people.

"There was employment during construction," said Sabourin. "It exposed band members to construction who have never been on construction, who actually got to work on the site, and it will generate revenue for us to use in the community."

The 18.9-megawatt project, which includes two generating stations on the White River, has been feeding electricity into the Ontario power grid since 2016.

"It taught me that we should be in more business," said Sabourin. "It taught me we can do more things, we don't have to just sit there and wait for handouts, and go after things we don't normally go after."

Members of the Lubicon Lake Band in Alberta help to install a solar panel. (Melina Laboucan-Massimo/Greenpeace)

But clean energy projects still aren't easily available to many small communities that lack training and the know-how to get started. The report also highlights big gaps in the country, with 86 per cent of all the Indigenous hydro, wind and solar projects being built in B.C., Ontario and Quebec.

Nonetheless, Henderson considers clean energy an important step in the national efforts toward reconciliation.

"By using natural renewable resources on traditional territory, that Indigenous communities are commercial partners in a project, it's beginning to walk the talk of reconciliation."


Margo McDiarmid is a freelance photographer and journalist based in Warsaw, Poland. She worked for CBC for more than 30 years.