Skidegate on the way to becoming a "city of the future"

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An eagle flies above the island of Haida Gwaii, captured by VoVo Productions.

Story by Emilee Gilpin with media from VoVo Productions.

HlGaagilda (Skidegate) is on the way to becoming a city of the future. In a genuine effort to decrease diesel consumption, heat pumps have been installed in almost all of 350 homes and solar panels installed on all major buildings.

Skidegate is one of two Haida communities on the island of Haida Gwaii. The Haida make up half of the island's population of 5,000 people, while around 2,000 Haida live in different parts of the world. Like many other of the 203 diverse First Nations communities in B.C., the Haida have lived on their territories since time immemorial. Their territory encompasses parts of Southern Alaska and the archipelago of Haida Gwaii.

Their culture is as ancient as it is present. Through the successful collaboration of many moving parts, the Haida are revitalizing their culture and language and providing economic opportunities for generations to come.

For the community in Skidegate, one of these moving parts is the Skidegate Band Council (SBC).

Elected by the community every two years, the SBC is responsible for monitoring finances, managing social and political issues in the community and negotiating with all levels of the Canadian government.

Barbara Stevens is the Chief Administrative Officer of the SBC, Billy Yovanovich the Chief Councilor of the band and Trent Moraes is a councilor who works on the housing, lands and energy portfolios. Other councilors are David Crosby, Michelle McDonald, Michelle Pineault, Robert Williams, Duane Aslop, Lyndale George, and Tracy Hageman.

In a meeting with National Observer, Stevens, Yovanovich and Moraes spoke about past, present and future of the renewable energy initiatives that are grounded in and governed by the Haida culture.

Chapter 1

Heat pumps in every home

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Heat pumps are now found in almost every home in Skidegate. Photo from video by Patrick Shannon.

This is how a relatively small community is making big moves in the world of clean energy.

Most community members in Skidegate used to chop their own wood to load up their furnaces to heat their homes. It became increasingly difficult for elders to keep up with the intensive labour. There has been a huge push in Haida Gwaii to move away from diesel and towards clean energy.

Sixty-five percent of the island's total electricity comes from diesel. Records show that Haida Gwaii uses over 11 million litres of diesel to power up all its communities- Old Masset, Masset, Tow Hill, Port Clements, Tlell, Skidegate, Queen Charlotte and Sandspit. There are two electric grids on Haida Gwaii, the North and South grids.

Yovanovich, Stevens and Moraes said there was no option but to move away from diesel and towards renewable energy. Heat pumps were an exciting shift, they all agreed during the meeting with National Observer in Steven's bright and beautifully decorated office.

At a meeting a few years back, councilor David Crosby asked the council, "What about heat pumps?" They decided to give it a shot. The SBC hired Don Hancock from Don's Heat Pumps to install heat pumps in every home. That turned out to be around 350 homes, all of the homes, in fact, but two.

The band ordered so many heat pumps that the installer, Fujitsu Canada, sent a representative to the island to find out what was going on. The Fujitsu team was inspired by what they learned and gave the band reduced pricing for everyone who was interested in buying a pump. They also fit the George Brown Recreation Centre and community hall with heat pumps for free, Yovanovich explained.

"The money saved is both a big and small part of it," Stevens said. "Our main concern is for Mother Earth."

Heat pumps will be saving people about $100/month, which works out to over $400,000/year. This affects both Skidegate and the surrounding communities. Heat pumps improve air quality and circulation throughout the home or building, reduce mold and are cost efficient.

Stevens pointed to the heat pump above her head in the office, as it opened and closed in silence, working away to regulate the temperature of the room.

Working with B.C. Hydro, the band has started to install energy efficient upgrades in every home. Through the Energy Assistance Conservation Program, B.C. Hydro has changed light-bulbs to LED lighting, put pipe wrapping on hot water pipes, and draft-proofed windows and doors in many homes. Moraes said they bring B.C. Hydro members to the community to run workshops and give presentations that provide training and education for the community, building capacity and help the community to take even more meaningful steps towards energy self-dependence.

"We have a healthy relationship with B.C. Hydro," Moraes said, and the others agreed. "We have been collaborating with B.C. Hydro for over ten years and through them, piloted programs on-reserve, to become more sustainable."

The band council is currently working on building a small office for B.C. Hydro on the reserve. Media relations representative of B.C. Hydro, Susie Rieder said in an email that the heatpump project they helped fund is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 570 tonnes a year. That's the equivalent of saving 750,000 kWh annually- enough to power 68 homes.

"We provided the band with over $250,000 in rebates to fund this project through our Home Rennovation Rebate Offer, where homeowners can receive rebates for a variety of energy-efficient upgrades," Rieder explained. "The Band also participates in our Net Metering program – designed for customers who want to generate electricity for their own use and to offset their load."

Chapter 2

A shift to SOLAR

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An aerial view of the Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate. Photo by VoVo Productions.

After heat pumps came solar panels.

Empowered, literally, by the success of the heat pump project, the community looked at other clean energy initiatives. Skidegate rests on the southeastern side of the island and receives more sun that most other areas. Solar seemed like the natural next step.

"Solar energy is just starting to gain speed. People were afraid of it, because most things were high risk, high cost," Moraes said. "But solar prices have dropped significantly in the last ten years. More people want to work with solar, since panels are cheaper and batteries more efficient."

All of the Chief Administrative Officers on Haida Gwaii meet every one to two months. In a meeting, led by Kim Mushynsky, they collectively decided to "solar-up" one building in every community. Skidegate councilors chose to solarize the George Brown rec centre, a 50Kw project.

Moraes said solar offsets the demand of electricity from diesel generation. On October 13, 2016, more than 23,000 litres of diesel from a sunken barge devastated more than 60 per cent of the Heiltsuk Nation's clam beds. The catastrophic spill, and other spills and scares like it, emphasize the risk that oil tankers pose to the coast and the need for more appropriate marine response. Yovanovich said they don't want to see a similar disaster to the Nathan E. Stewart on their coast. As ambassadors of the land, moving away from diesel is a top priority, Moraes added.

After the rec building, the band council was inspired to solarize more buildings. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada had a big funding blitz, Stevens said, for “Canada150,” so the council took advantage of the moment and applied for funding to do the roofs on the Haida Heritage Centre. They also secured funding from Gwaii Trust, a locally-controlled perpetual trust fund, and smaller solar companies.

For the project, they contacted David Isaac, President of W Dusk Energy Group. With the support of Bullfrog Power, W Dusk sent a crew to Haida Gwaii, to install a uniquely designed solar project- the biggest of its kind in the province.

Isaac is Mi'kmaq, originally from Listuguj, Quebec, but raised in Vancouver. In a café downtown Vancouver, he said he started out working in healthcare, had studied to become a doctor, but always had an on and off relationship with energy. He decided to commit to clean energy, when he saw how Indigenous communities were leading the way for a more renewable future in Canada. After the Heritage Centre solar project, Isaac started saying, "If you can do solar in Haida Gwaii, you can do it anywhere."

"Initially we looked at wind, ocean and thermal heat pumps, a whole host of technologies, but we ended up coming full circle to solar," he explained. "When you add it all up, solar was the best option on a price per watt basis, and considering operation and maitenance."

With solar, Isaac explained, there aren't so many moving parts- other than electrons and photons. There is marginal, if not zero cost for maitenance and in a diesel jurisidction like Haida Gwaii, it was the best choice of renewable technology. Isaac said the installation is expected to produce 90mW/hour. It all adds up over time, he said, but it wasn't just about the money saved from diesel or the power generated, for him, the positive ripple affect the project had on the community was a success in itself.

"The heritage centre is such an iconic building, so we wanted something to honour the architecture and design," he explained. "We also built the 3-4kW installation so people could interact with it and have a sense of what size of installation could be installed on their own properties."

Isaac said, symbolically, the project was a way to tell the world that the Haida are on the way to 0% diesel. But what about the rest of the country?

"I've seen a massive shift in perspective when it comes to renewable energy in Canada," Isaac said. On a larger scale, the world seems to be undergoing an energy revolution, he said, as more groups move away from mega projects and towards a digitial economy and decentralized energy sources.

"It's amazing to see it happening first in our communities," he said. "But we need huge policy shifts. We're not there yet, but we're heading in the right direction. In the meantime, First Nations communities won't wait, but will act. The Haida are a perfect example of that."

Isaac (second from left) and team working on one set of panels in front of the Heritage Centre. Photo by VoVo Productions, provided by Farhan Umedaly.

Drone shot of the solar panels on the Haida Heritage Centre. Photo by VoVo Productions, provided by Farhan Umedaly.

Swiilawiid Sustainability Society is another key player in the shift to clean energy on Haida Gwaii. They're a group of Islanders who came together in 2016 and created a not-for-profit group committed to energy sovereignty on Haida Gwaii. The group, comprised of a volunteer board, staff, and contractors, connect Island residents and local leaders, to promote clean energy in an effort to "ditch diesel" altogether.

Last summer, Swiilawiid collaborated with the Skidegate and Old Massett youth centres to install 5.3kW solar installations on both buildings. Seeing the enormous success of the solar installations, Swiilawiid partnered with three more local organizations to solarize youth camps that connect youth to the land and culture (see the short announcement here: Rediscovery Camps Program). They also created a Clean Energy Stories map that tracks and showcases local renewable energy projects and they have just completed an island-wide initiative to encourage household energy savings.

Swiilawiid is currently promoting the push for 0% diesel and working to facilitate a citizen-led vision for energy independence.

The recreation centre, heritage centre and youth centre were the first three solar projects for Skidegate, but Yovanovich said they are just getting started with solar.

"We want to solarize all the homes in Skidegate," he said. "We're in the feasibility stage right now. Some homes aren't ideally situated for solar panels, but you can build a shed and put the panels on the shed. We're looking at all options. We want solar, even if it's just to light our homes."

The SBC also works to equip all members with energy saving tool-kits, build capacity by training their own people and borrow and customize successful housing codes from other Nations.

Chapter 3

Projects on the horizon

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The sun is slow to rise on the coast of Haida Gwaii. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

​First Nations leaders are working together to model after one another's successful energy and housing projects.

"We're also looking at tiny homes for the community," Moraes said. "We're reviewing the Nuxalk Nation's design and trying to tailor our own building specifications, so we don't follow Canadian codes, but move towards our own more sustainable and efficient codes."

Moraes has worked closely with Richard Hall, learning from Hall's experience as a housing inspector for the government. Hall used his knowledge to push for a housing apprenticeship program in his community. Moraes commended the Nuxalk and said that those on the housing portfolio for the Skidegate band also want to write their own housing codes, creating higher standards and more efficiency.

The SBC is also working with Atlantic Power, an American company, based out of Massachusets. They want to partner on the company's smallest project, a hydroelectric plant at Mitchell Inlet. Hydro is one of the biggest forms of renewable energy in B.C. Atlantic Power has owned the plant for many years, but haven't put any money into it. The SBC wants to upgrade it, replace old turbines, train their people, reduce the number of managers that come from off island and generate more local economy.

The beauty of working with Atlantic Power, Yovanovich said, is that the structure is already there.

"This one is just about turning the key," he said. "They're in a position that they need our political support. It's there and we need their help. So it's an ideal time for a partnership."

They are also in the initial stages of building cabins for visitors, near the Haida heritage Centre. They are working with Land Strategies, a project consulting service, to find the best location and way forward.

Canoe shed beside the Haida Heritage Centre. Feb. 21, 2018. Photo by Emilee Gilpin.

Yovanovich and team speak with representatives of Land Strategies, who visited Haida Gwaii, to go over blue-prints and plant seeds for expanding the eco-tourism industry on island. Feb. 22, 2018. Photo by Emilee Gilpin.

Securing funds and strengthening partnerships with funders isn't exactly a walk in the park, the three representatives said, echoing many First Nations leaders expanding into clean energy. For the SBC, the proof is in the pudding.

Chapter 4

"We show them what we're fighting for and protecting"

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A whale sneaks into a shot by VoVo productions, reminding the viewer they have always been there.

Yovanovich said some people aren't comfortable with the strategy of lobbying, but in his experience and from his perspective, it's necessary, to pull funding from different strains, rather than just writing a business plan and financing it.

The government of Canada wants to partner with First Nations.

Natural Resources Canada media representatives said in an email that the Clean Energy for Rural and Remote Communities Program will provide approximately $220 million in funding over the next six years, starting April 1, 2018 ($36 million per year). For-profit and not-for-profit legal entities, provincial, territorial, regional and municipal governments and agencies, Indigenous communities or governments, tribal councils or entities with similar functions are all eligible to apply for the funding.

"A number of factors will be considered in project selection, such as, the amount by which diesel consumption would be reduced (with associated environmental benefits, including greenhouse gas emissions reductions) as well as opportunities for community and Indigenous support for and participation in the project," Natural Resources Canada wrote in email.

While funds may exist for clean energy projects, it seems nearly impossible to avoid dancing a dance, or engaging in the art of wining and dining, to prove eligibility. Nations often have to compete, to be the one to stand out and prove that the community is shovel-ready and deserving of funds.

"You need to build relationships with funders and partners. The proof is in the pudding," Yovanovich said. "Sometimes we bring people out on the water, take them fishing, show them the territory. We show them what we're fighting for and protecting. We build the relationship first."

​Both Yovanovich and Moraes are fishermen. They said it makes a difference when they take people onto their territories, share a bit of the history with them, show them what food sovereignty looks like and what exactly clean energy projects protect.

Humans aren't the only species that depend on the well-being of the ocean. Photo by VoVo Productions.

​Protecting the environment, for them, is inseparable from protecting the Haida culture. When they can take funders out on the water, show them how the ocean that fed their ancestors still sets the table today, if managed properly, something usually clicks, they explained.

"Haida culture is all about respect," Moraes added. "Respect with the people, the land and their connection." When asked about how they envision the future of their community, Yovanovich said he dreams of being "a city of the future."

Imagine, he said, painting an imaginary picture with his hands, arriving to Skidegate, this small little community. You get here and see it's all solared up and running off of renewable energy. "Think of our potential to be an example for the rest of the world," he said.

First Nations Forward is produced in collaboration with the Real Estate Foundation of BC, I-SEA, Vancouver Foundation, McConnell Foundation, Vancity, Catherine Donnelly Foundation, Willow Grove Foundation, and the Donner Canadian Foundation. National Observer retains full and final editorial control over the reporting.