The Hamilton Spectator
Indigenous communities leading Canada’s clean energy boom
On a wintry day last November, Daphne Kay looked up at an expanse of gleaming solar panels located on Cowessess First Nation reserve land just east of Reginaand cried.
It was the mix of past and present that moved her, watching her fellow community members hold a traditional round dance to mark the grand opening of Cowessess’ newly completed 10 MW solar farm.
“I thought about my grandfather, who has passed away, and how during his time he wanted us to live in a healthy way that honoured our traditions, but also brought prosperity for future generations,” said Kay, who grew up on Cowessess and, in her role as community energy specialist with Cowessess Ventures Ltd., played an instrumental role in the development of the new solar farm.
“So I thought about him, I thought about my mom, I thought about all the people who were affected by residential schools. I thought about all the people who came before me, and all the people who will come after me.”
Cowessess’ $21-million Awasis solar project connects to Saskatchewan’s electricity grid and is capable of powering 2,500 homes annually, on average. Over its 35-year estimated life, the solar farm is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 350,000 tonnes — in total, equivalent to the emissions of over 70,000 gas-powered cars driven for one year.
The Awasis solar farm is also an example of many Indigenous-led clean energy projects blossoming right now from coast to coast.
Others include the First Nationsowned Meadow Lake Tribal Council Bioenergy Centre, also in Saskatchewan, which will generate carbon-neutral green power using lumber waste from nearby sawmills. In Nova Scotia, the Membertou, Paqtnkek and Potlotek First Nations are equity partners in what is expected to be North America’s first green hydrogen and green ammonia project. And in Ontario, the recently-approved Oneida energy storage project, the largest battery storage project in Canada, is being developed in partnership with the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corp.
A 2020 report by national not-forprofit organization Indigenous Clean Energy Social Enterprise identified 197 medium-to-large renewable energy generating projects with Indigenous involvement, either in operation or in the final stages of planning and construction.
While the group’s 2023 data has not yet been released publicly, executive director Chris Henderson said many additional projects have come online in the last two-and-ahalf years — everything from solar and wind to hydro to geothermal.
In fact, he said Indigenous communities are so heavily involved in clean energy that they now own, co-own, or have a defined financial benefit agreement in place for almost 20 per cent of Canada’s electricity generating infrastructure.
“They’re the largest asset owners, outside of utilities,” Henderson said. “Indigenous communities across the country right now are, quite literally, the largest change agents for clean energy.”
As part of its pledge to reach netzero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the Government of Canada has set the goal of achieving a netzero electricity grid as early 2035.
Experts have said such a goal will require tens of billions of dollars in public and private investment, and it seems clear that Indigenous communities — simply by nature of being landowners and treaty rights owners — are poised to reap a significant amount of that economic benefit.
“We can’t have a net-zero transition without continued and growing Indigenous participation,” Henderson said. “If you’re going to modernize the electricity grid, you’re going to be using land, which means you’re going to have to work with the Indigenous communities whose land it is.”