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The future of energy is renewable, and the economic opportunity contained therein is a natural fit with Indigenous notions of stewardship.

The Six Nations of the Grand River have grasped this concept with both hands.

Or, at least, the economic development corporation (devcorp) of Canada’s largest First Nations population has, investing billions of dollars into solar, wind and other emissions-free energy projects. The proceeds of said projects are now being used to upgrade community facilities and boost other economic drivers, such as tourism.

“Indigenous communities are already leading substantively on clean energy projects, as we can see today with Six Nations as a prime example of that,” Eryn Stewart, director of 20/20 Catalysts, a national Indigenous clean energy capacity-building program, told National Observer while a tour bus waited to take attendees to one of those projects in July.

The Six Nations of the Grant River's devcorp, an arm's-length unit of the elected council, currently holds direct or equity ownership stakes in green energy projects producing more than 500 MW of energy, and has community benefit agreements in place for another 350 MW, with plans to add more capacity.

Its trust fund has spent more than $2.5 million this year and more than $9 million since 2016, and it aims to generate $150 million annually by 2025.

From coal to solar

The devcorp’s Nanticoke Solar Project, a reclamation of what was once North America's largest coal-fired power plant, went operational in March as a 44 MW solar farm. It ties into the existing Hydro One transmission station that once served the much-larger 4,000 MW coal plant, mothballed in the former Kathleen Wynne government's coal phase-out and due for final demolition within weeks.

Ontario Power Generation's Paul Burroighs points out aerial photos of the former coal plant and new solar farm at Nanticoke, on July 22, 2019. Photo by Alastair Sharp

The community’s achievements are a bright light for energy sovereignty efforts in Indigenous communities across Canada, some two dozen of which sent representatives to the three-month 20/20 Catalysts program, which wrapped up in July with teachings and tours of several of the Six Nations' renewable energy projects.

The program also convened in B.C. in May and in Yellowknife, N.W.T., in June.

Stewart said the goal of 20/20 Catalysts is “to learn and teach other communities, and then they can do their projects better and quicker and more effectively and efficiently.”

Attendees of the program heard from representatives of the devcorp's partner, Ontario Power Generation, at the Nanticoke solar operation on July 22, as they explained aspects of its operation and took questions. Then it was back on the bus for a trip along Highway 6 to Grand Renewable Wind, a series of turbines dotted along the western bank of the Grand River as it flows into Lake Erie.

The 149 MW farm, in which the devcorp holds a 10 per cent stake, has operated since late 2014 and is expected to contribute some $15 million to a “community vibrancy fund” administered by Haldimand County.

Jordyn Burnouf poses for a photo during a gathering of the 20/20 Catalysts program on July 24, 2019. Photo by Alastair Sharp

Jordyn Burnouf travelled from Sakitawak (Île-à-la-Crosse), a remote community in northern Saskatchewan where resource extraction is a major employer, to attend the program.

The 28-year-old said it has taught her the leadership skills and confidence to realize “you don’t have to know every single aspect of your project, you need to know your community, you need to know what is right for your community, what your community wants and the direction that you want to be moving forward in."

The rest of it can flow from there, she said. “It’s a collaboration, it’s a collective and you’re a catalyst, meaning you’re bringing all these things together.”

Breaking down the ‘colonial enterprise’ of energy

Chris Henderson, who has been advising Indigenous communities on renewable energy projects for 20 years, founded the 20/20 Catalysts program four years ago.

“Let’s look at two options,” he suggested to the group at a session on financial modelling for a hypothetical solar project.

“Let’s say we have enough money because we had a big claim settlement and we don’t want to leave money in the bank earning a little bit of interest,” he told the group. “What happens if 80 per cent of this project was funded by the bank, what would that do to the rate of return?”

The conversation shifted to funding sources for obtaining equity stakes in projects, how to judge the feasibility of an opportunity, how to assess the suitability of project partners and how lenders will want to control the cash flow of the operation.

After filling the model with excessively optimistic projections, Henderson and the Catalysts earned a rate of return in excess of 300 per cent to cheers and whoops before the session broke for lunch and a demonstration of cultural dances from local children.

“Energy has historically been a colonial enterprise," Henderson told National Observer. "Be it electricity or be it oil and gas, it is large entities in a capitalist model, which is fine, I respect that. But colonialism has been an outcome of that where decisions are made without offering opportunities for local ingenuity and leadership.”

That's what Henderson has sought to fix, and it appears to have hit the right tone with attendees.

“I’ve been looking for a program like this since 2011,” said Jason Rasevych, a member of the Ginoogaming First Nation based in Thunder Bay who has been working in clean energy for about 15 years and started his own company to manage projects about 18 months ago.

"It’s kicking the door down” by creating a platform for First Nations and other Indigenous groups across Canada to share expertise across jurisdictions, he said.

And that is helping them better formulate action plans to manage what Rasevych called "an ancestral and inherent right and responsibility as stewards of the land, making sure it is managed in a way that is respectful and is safeguarded for future generations.”

That is something both elected and hereditary leaders of the confederation of six Iroquois nations (the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora) want to achieve.

But getting there involves wrestling with the traumas of colonialism and navigating internal dispute within the proud collection of tribes that once spread across northeast North America.

An array of photovoltaic panels at the Nanticoke Solar Project pictured on July 22, 2019. Photo by Alastair Sharp

Promised "six miles on either side of the Grand River from mouth to source" after siding with the British in the U.S. Revolutionary War, some in the community feel betrayed by Canada and unsupportive of the administrative body imposed by the country’s Indian Act.

Regarding the roles the federal and provincial governments play in making Indigenous clean energy a reality, Rasevych said the federal Liberal government had shown a commitment of attention and money to help meet its Paris commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but that provincial governments (which have jurisdiction over their own energy grids), including Doug Ford’s in Ontario, have stymied recent progress.

He said the Ford government's cancellation of the Wynne government’s Green Energy Act and related cap-and-trade system meant that two northern communities he was working with had contracts for 150 MW worth of solar and wind capacity cancelled.

Seeking energy sovereignty

Burnouf said that "Saskatchewan is a little behind in the energy transition,” but that "my community, we’re a pretty progressive place" where there is a lot of interest in innovative ways to strengthen the community of roughly 1,800 people.

They are focused on addressing the high cost of energy in a struggling local economy, starting with a plan to improve energy efficiency and possibly developing a solar project on an existing greenhouse.

Burnouf would like to see the cost savings or revenue generated from these and other future projects directed into employment services, suicide awareness and prevention, and addiction treatment services.

It will be a long way from the uncomfortable truth of being historically shut out of economic development “that has benefited so much from our people and so much from our land,” she said.

Representatives of Ontario Power Generation pose in front of the former coal plant at Nanticoke, which is slated for demolition later this year, on July 22, 2019. Photo by Alastair Sharp

“We’re not included in these conversations, and a lot of our traditional knowledge and our teachings are being appropriated and they’re not given the merit that they are worth,” she said.

“I think if we unite and see the ways in which we are bringing our own country and our own people up, then there is strength in that and we can help and work together.”

A win for the environment, a win for the economy and win for reconciliation! Let's hope these positive stories go viral all over Canada...and the world!