First Nations have maintained sophisticated laws to govern their territories since time immemorial and now these values power the modern day energy sector in B.C..

By the end of 2016, 30 First Nations had operational solar, run-of-river, geothermal, wind, and biomass projects powering their communities and the province. These community-based projects are creating 1863 MW of power. Up to 32 Nations have clean energy projects in their development stages and 15 under construction.

First Nations' environmental leadership has not gone unnoticed by those looking for a greener and more sustainable future.

At the 15th annual clean energy conference last week, Jae Mather, executive director of Clean Energy B.C. (CEBC) noted an unprecedented political willingness to work with Indigenous Nations. Mather spent over ten years in Europe and when he returned, he was pleasantly shocked to be in the room with "right-wing conservative government members talking openly about partnerships with First Nations."

“Climate change is nothing else, but the absolute failure of our management systems,” Mather said, opening a full-day course on Advancing Indigenous Opportunities in Clean Energy. It is nonsensical, to erode the natural systems that feed us, he said, echoing Indigenous scientific thought.

In a survey by CEBC and the University of Victoria, 98 per cent of the 150 First Nations respondents, about half the First Nations in the province, advocated for more partnerships in the clean energy sector. Clean energy, which is about supporting the local economy, protecting the environment and harvesting resources in a sustainable way, “aligns with First Nations values,” Mather said.

Hoop-dancing from dream to reality

Kekinusuqs (Judith) Sayers is the President of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and the former Chief of the Hupacasath First Nation on Vancouver Island.

The large representation of First Nations Chiefs, leaders and resource managers present at the Generate clean energy conference should send a clear message to the provincial government that: “First Nations are here, they're interested, they're ready,” Sayers said.

Sayers speaking at the Advancing Indigenous Opportunities in Clean Energy workshop on Nov. 29, 2017. Photo by Jon Benjamin of Jon Benjamin Photography.

Clean energy projects are not only beneficial to the environment, but they have the potential to build capacity in communities, fostering confidence and sustainable skill development.

“These projects become a source of pride in diversifying the economy,” Sayers explained in an interview with the National Observer. “Feeding your community power is transformational.”

She spoke from experience.

The Hupacasath First Nation, located on the west coast of Vancouver Island, started researching hydro projects back in 2002, with a wealth of territorial knowledge, but little understanding of the renewable energy business. Sayers said she ended up on a long journey, learning the ins and outs of transforming a vision for clean power into reality.

With Sayers as chief, the Hupucasath (Hupi-chus-sut) First Nation built a 6.5 MW run-of-the-river hydro project at China Creek, electrifying the equivalent of 6,000 homes in Port Alberni. Through the Upnit Power Corporation, they retained a 72.5 per cent interest in the project, with 12.5 per cent to their partner Synex Energy Resources Ltd, 10 per cent to Ucluelet First Nation and 5 per cent to the city of Port Alberni for their collaboration.

China Creek run-of-river project. Photo courtesy of Judith Sayers

The journey wasn't easy.

One of the biggest hurdles for any First Nation hoping to build a clean energy project is chronic underfunding of the sector, Sayers explained.

Nations pursuing energy projects need to find money for soft costs just to get things started. These consist of paying for development plans, water licenses, land permits, lawyers, engineers and more. Such advance costs can add up to several million, Sayers said, depending on the size of the project.

“Everybody’s always following project money, writing proposals, chasing money,” she said. And the soft costs are just the beginning — after coming to the table with plans and permits, nations need to chase down equity and capital.

Finding adequate capital usually means finding a matching equity program. For Sayers' China Creek project it was an Indian Affairs program that no longer exists. Even with the program, Sayers and her CEO had to reach the Minister directly and advocate for their project.

“You need to find financing at a good rate, with good terms,” Sayers explained. The China Creek project negotiated a deal with Vancity Credit Union who were using Toronto lawyers that had never developed a project in these territories. "We needed and were lucky to have a good lawyer and were able to change a lot of terms.”

Sayers said that things have come a long way since 2003, but financing is still a major problem for many First Nations interested in clean energy projects. The project can be viable but government-funded programs require financial records that are especially difficult to attain for some remote communities, and nations often have to compete with one another to convince the Minister that their project will provide jobs, she said.

Sayers dreams of a financing company, similar to the Municipal Finance Authority of B.C., she said, where First Nations could get loans with low interest rates. The First Nations Finance Authority is one source of funding for projects, but Sayers she said there are many hoops to jump through, before a Nation can access funding.

Chronic government underfunding?

During Wednesday's Advancing Indigenous Opportunities in Clean Energy workshop, government representatives from Western Economic Diversification Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Fiscal Negotiations Branch and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada spoke about funding programs available to First Nations and the eligibility requirements.

After each panelist spoke about their program and shared advice on what sets successful applicants apart, First Nations leaders stood and shared challenges their communities have experienced in accessing government funding.

One of the major concerns for many Nations is that there are many obstacles, especially for rural communities, preventing project readiness, although that's an essential element for funding eligibility.

Government programs also focus exclusively on economic indicators. Phillip Lee of INAC admitted that the spreadsheets required of First Nations are driven by HQ policy and that in his personal opinion, "they don’t factor in the qualitative as opposed to the quantitative indicators."

“It’s not perfect, we’re trying,” he added, encouraging community feedback in surveys, so that advisory committees could put more pressure on those at the top holding political power.

Lindsay Wood, Senior Project Advisor of Fiscal Negotiations Branch and Cheri-Ann Mackinlay of Natural Resources Canada argued that socioeconomic benefits are extremely important indicators and that projects would stand out if they highlighted factors like potential community impact.

However, the general sense in the room was that the necessary changes to eligibility had to come from the top and that advisory committees were limited in their ability to change policy.

"Go back to the old school ways," Clean Energy BC's Mather suggested, "and write letters to your local politicians."

Representative of the Kanaka Indian Bar Band addresses panel of government representatives, addressing barriers to government funding. Nov. 29, 2017. Photo by Jon Benjamin of Jon Benjamin Photography

Each with their own key to success

Despite challenges, remote First Nations are eliminating diesel powered generators while others are powering the provincial grid.

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, near Tofino, built two renewable energy projects through partnership programs and a third on their own, emphasizing the potential for capacity building and Indigenous self-determination.

Kanaka Indian Bar Band spent more than ten years finding an appropriate partner to build a hydroelectric project at Kwoiek Creek, honouring the integrity of collaboration and setting themselves up for independence as climate change impacts intensify.

After 40 years of planning, the isolated Wuikinuxv Nation in Rivers Inlet built a 350kW hydropower project, which will come on line by the end of the year, saving the community over $1M in diesel generation.

For Sayers, “the key to any success is surrounding yourself with a good team,” she said, acknowledging the engineers, lawyers, community workers and advocates who made their project possible. For others, the key to success is a community champion, able and willing to shoulder their way up to a Minister and plead their case. Others highlight the importance of painting a vision of the future and the ability to articulate that vision for generations to come.