Introduction

A Story Being Written

It’s fitting that a clean-energy project is being developed on “The French,” a heritage river steeped in Canadian history. It became key to European expansion into the West after Ojibway guides helped Etienne Brulè, a scout for explorer Samuel de Champlain, link the Ottawa River to the Great Lakes via the French. We celebrate our history, but in truth, broken trusts, shattered promises and unrealized opportunities litter Canada’s relationship with its First Peoples. By any account, the social and economic reality of many First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the US border to the Arctic is dire. Poverty-ridden, these people live in stark contrast to Canadian ideals of fair play, justice and equal opportunity for all.  Aboriginal Power fuses Indigenous prosperity with a more resilient energy supply. It presents a future wherein our First Peoples play a central role in the development of clean-energy resources.

It’s fitting that a clean-energy project is being developed on “The French,” a heritage river steeped in Canadian history. It became key to European expansion into the West after Ojibway guides helped Etienne Brulè, a scout for explorer Samuel de Champlain, link the Ottawa River to the Great Lakes via the French. We celebrate our history, but in truth, broken trusts, shattered promises and unrealized opportunities litter Canada’s relationship with its First Peoples. By any account, the social and economic reality of many First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the US border to the Arctic is dire. Poverty-ridden, these people live in stark contrast to Canadian ideals of fair play, justice and equal opportunity for all.

Aboriginal Power fuses Indigenous prosperity with a more resilient energy supply. It presents a future wherein our First Peoples play a central role in the development of clean-energy resources

Our country is also chronicling its energy path, and we are at a crossroads. Canada can follow the expedient course, characterized by short-term economic gain associated with continued reliance on power generated from coal, natural gas and nuclear energy. Or the country can chart a path toward a more sustainable future by embracing its abundant supply of renewable energy.

Aboriginal Power fuses Indigenous prosperity with a more resilient energy supply. It presents a future wherein our First Peoples play a central role in the development of clean-energy resources. The book’s premise, however, is not the plot for a Hollywood feel-good movie wherein a knight in green armour leads our First Nations to economic sustainability. It is based on current energy-market dynamics, coupled with First Peoples’ rights to renewable resources, and an urgent need to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases causing climate change.

Canada’s indigenous population has taken to the sustainable energy path with drive and commitment of an eagle; the question is whether the rest of the country will pick up and build on its lead.

Aboriginal Power describes a reality that is snowballing across Canada. In January 2010, Indigenous communities owned a portion of 15 operating hydro, wind and biomass projects. By the end of 2012, an additional 24 Indigenous clean-energy projects had been awarded power purchase agreements that allow construction to begin, and 19 moved past the feasibility stage. Some 17 projects are poised to move forward by 2015. Canada’s indigenous population has taken to the sustainable energy path with drive and commitment of an eagle; the question is whether the rest of the country will pick up and build on its lead.

With dozens of Indigenous clean-energy projects similar to the Dokis’s Okikendawt Hydroelectric Project currently under development, no region of Canada is untouched. Every province and territory has either approved or is actively considering renewable energy ventures wholly or partially-owned by First Nations, Métis or Inuit communities. This trend reflects the will of Calvin Helin, a Tsimshian from Northern BC. In his book, Dances with Dependency: Out of Poverty Through Self-Reliance, Helin observes, “Without a revenue source independent of the federal government, Indigenous communities will continue to be trapped in the cycle of poverty.” Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, puts it more succinctly: “We must focus on sustainable prosperity, instead of managing poverty.”

After the naming ceremony, Chief Restoule presents me with a written history of the Dokis First Nation to recognize my role as the band’s clean-energy advisor. The book speaks to the importance of learning from the past, and the need to consider how decisions today will affect future generations. For it will take a generation – 20 years or more – to realize the full economic potential of Indigenous clean-energy in Canada. But if this opportunity is developed according to the principles of sustainability, it will fuse Indigenous prosperity with a sustainable energy future.

“Power,” as used in the title of this book, is relevant in many ways. It refers to the power we need to light our homes and heat our schools. It recognizes the power of governments, businesses and utilities to advance sustainable energy. Meanwhile, it demonstrates the power held by First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities to develop the power embedded in our rivers and forests, and in the wind that ruffles an eagle’s feathers. It acknowledges the power these communities are gaining as their confidence is spurred on with the success of each new aboriginal clean-energy project. Furthermore, Indigenous Power addresses the power that comes when a nation’s progress is truly based on the ideals of fair play, justice and equal opportunity for all.

The book speaks to the importance of learning from the past, and the need to consider how decisions today will affect future generations.

The business case for Aboriginal Power is that clean energy developed in partnership with First Nations, Métis or Inuit communities is the “sweet spot” where these power interests converge. Mark McQueen of Wellington Financial recently noted, “There’s not a resource entity in the country that’s going to be able to do a new project without having a good relationship with the First Nations in the area, period.”  Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, echoes the sentiment: “Much of the future development will take place on First Nations’ lands and territories. [This] calls for partnerships, equity positions and joint ventures. The old way of doing business is out the window.”

Aboriginal Power explains why Indigenous power is a Canadian energy imperative and how it can be developed to benefit all.

Indigenous communities live close to the land, and renewable energy projects require this precious resource – be it run-of-river hydro plants in the Western Cordillera converting water power into electricity, biomass generators converting Boreal forest fibre into heat, or turbines converting Prairie wind into electrons that flow down transmission lines into Canada’s towns and cities. All these initiatives require resources that are part of the traditional territory of indigenous peoples.

Using actual examples of Indigenous experiences with clean energy, and based on the advice and insights of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, Aboriginal Power explains why Indigenous power is a Canadian energy imperative and how it can be developed to benefit all. But the full potential for Indigenous clean-energy enterprises will only be realized if:

  • The capacity, capability and confidence of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities are enhanced.
  • National and provincial/territorial policies and programs foster Indigenous involvement and innovation in project development.
  • Economic development planning is an integral part of clean-energy projects.
  • Private energy firms and investors continue on the path of true partnership with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, and
  • Crown utilities, energy regulators and governments embrace clean energy as Canada’s path to a sustainable future.

When I met Chief Restoule and the Dokis Band Council for the first time a few years ago, I told them that I was the “real” Indian since I was actually born in India. “Though you might not know it by my last name,” I explained, “I am the kind of Indian that Christopher Columbus was really looking for when he arrived in the New World. Calling you ‘Indians’ was actually a mistake.” It took council members a moment to digest my comments, then – fortunately – they laughed heartily. It seemed a classic Canuck situation: Indian meets Indian – immigrant and indigenous people partnering to build a more sustainable community.

Is Aboriginal Power only about Canada? Mostly, yes. But if our country can build a sustainable and renewable energy future in partnership with our First Peoples then we will have something to share with the world. And that is something all Canadians could smile about.