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Stories from First Nations Forward reports


An Indigenous economy in B.C.: the new narrative

by Emilee Gilpin | October 17th 2017
Greetings. I’m Emilee, the newest member of the National Observer team.

I'm honoured to join National Observer's lineup of passionate investigative truth-tellers. I'll be devoting a year to in-depth reporting about First Nations in British Columbia that, contrary to the usual media narrative, are showing the way forward on sustainable development and economic self-sufficiency.

We are in an unprecedented moment in history, facing ongoing global human rights violations, environmental chaos and a gross mismanagement of land and water. Yet, at this time when an informed citizenry is more essential than ever, people are turning away from the news, rejecting the ways the media can create fear, anxiety and panic.

But there are beautiful, real and inspiring solutions available to the crises we face today. If we are sincere in our desire to find meaningful solutions, we must consult the environmental leaders, knowledge-keepers and conservationists of yesterday, today and tomorrow — the people who have been on the land since the beginning of human history on this continent.

As a journalist of mixed Saulteaux-Cree Métis Indigenous ancestry, who grew up outside of my traditional teachings and home territories, my identity requires a focused commitment to community protocol, cultural resurgence and staying accountable to Indigenous Nationhood. When I started working in journalism, I thought back to my grandmother's work as a radio host in Churchill. As a young woman, she had carved out space for Indigenous women to speak and be heard.

I understood that the seeds she had planted for her grandchildren had sprouted. The process of decolonizing my spirit and finding my way back to my sacred responsibilities had begun.

Emilee's grandmother, Irene Chartrand, works as a radio host in Churchill, Man. in 1953. Photo courtesy of Emilee

I was accepted into Concordia University's graduate diploma in journalism and moved to Montreal, where I heard as many stories of Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) resistance as I did of Quebecois self-determination. While in the program, I was awarded the Susan Carson bursary, which honours the memory of a Montreal Gazette reporter who championed the downtrodden.

I learned from expert staff at Concordia, but noticed a gap between Western journalistic values and what I was taught by my community, elders and teachers.

I saw how mainstream media would flood into over-exploited, vulnerable or traumatized communities, extracting stories, causing more harm. I saw caricatures flashed across headlines — the dead, drunk or dancing Native, the mystical, exotic or all-spiritual Native — tropes that continued to infect the Canadian conscience in ways sure to prevent meaningful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

I saw a massive gap between the media's representation and reality and I knew my work involved filling that gap, in a good way.

The first corrective step on my journey was facilitating workshops at Concordia, creating a space for journalism students and communications staff to arrive at more reliable storytelling. I was awarded one of Journalists for Human Rights’ Emerging Indigenous Reporter Scholarships. Thus I had the privilege of learning and publishing for four months at The Tyee earlier this year.

Part of my role with National Observer will be to investigate government responses to the court-mandated Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action. We need critical in-depth analyses of the difference between meaningful efforts toward reconciliation and mere rhetoric. We need to be willing to ask the hard questions and to demand answers. Why do people still live with unsafe-water advisories and drastic levels of poverty? How can resource-extraction projects go forward without the consent of the communities most affected? Why don't Canadians know about the complexity, richness and advances of Indigenous cultures from coast to coast?

Hiy hiy, thank you for entrusting me, a visitor to these territories, in this role. Stay tuned.

Environmental pressures among the strongest drivers of economic self-sufficiency for First Nations

by Judith Sayers & Jae Mather | December 4, 2017

Environmental issues are usually amongst the first issues for consideration when First Nations consider development and they must decide what impacts to their rights and title are acceptable. What can appear to be somewhat paradoxical for some people is that environmental pressures can instead serve to be amongst the strongest of driver for economic self-sufficiency for First Nations in B.C.!

The Financial Post got this exactly backwards in its Nov. 16 article "'Sickening': First Nations left empty-handed as environmentalist pressure kills B.C. energy projects." In fact, clean technology is one of the fastest growing sectors in the world and it already makes up over 5 per cent of global GDP. In B.C., Independent Power Producers (IPPs) are focused on this new world. They are a vital element of the electricity production in B.C. and they work hand in hand with First Nations and BC Hydro to keep the lights on and the carbon emissions very low.

Clean energy sits at the very core of this expansion as the world shifts from high carbon industries to low and zero carbon. This is about the transition away from sunset industries to sunrise industries. It is about engaging directly with First Nations communities so that they can benefit from local power production, ownership and sustainable economic development. IPPs enable the distribution of energy generation to a wide variety of parties throughout the province which serves to catalyze economic development across the province’s First Nations, local municipalities, rural and urban environments. This is especially vital for First Nations because a dollar spent in a local economy, on local labour, with local products, with local investment can result in many times as much value as the same dollar spent on a product from a large corporation with outside suppliers, outside employment and profits leaking out of the local economy. This is called Local Multiplier 3 (LM3), in economic terms.

“LM3 measures the multiplier effect of income into a local economy over three 'rounds' of spending. The multiplier is then calculated for every unit of currency spent within a ‘local’ area selected by the user. For example, an LM3 score of 3.50 would indicate that every $1 earned by a project  generates an additional $2.50 for your local area.”

We are starting to see radical decreases in cost and increases in performance of clean technology. In 2015 Photovoltaic (PV) solar costs dropped by over 50 per cent from 2010 and they are anticipated to drop another 40 per cent by the end of this year. Wind power is following a similar trajectory with a reduction in cost of 50 per cent in the last 5 years. Electricity storage is also in the midst of a renaissance with costs dropping over 77 per cent since 2010, even before the role out of industrial manufacturing giants (think of the Tesla Gigafactory).  

At its heart, this is about fostering a vibrant and long term decentralized renewable energy sector in B.C. that supports First Nations innovation, clean technology industries, jobs and the local economy.

Although First Nations in British Columbia are already very active participants in the renewable energy sector, very little research has been conducted to assess the scope and implications of their involvement. Seeking to address this knowledge gap, the B.C. First Nations Clean Energy Working Group (FNCEWG) partnered with researchers at the University of Victoria’s School of Environmental Studies to conduct a province-wide survey. Support for the survey was provided by Clean Energy BC and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). 

The research team attempted to contact 203 First Nations across the province from October 2016 to February 2017. In total, we received responses from 102 (50 per cent) First Nations and three Tribal Councils. The survey results presented in this report thus indicate the minimum level of First Nations’ involvement in the renewable industry in B.C. at the beginning of 2017.

How are First Nations currently involved in renewable energy development?

  • First Nations are eager for more involvement. The survey results indicate 98 per cent of respondents are already involved or wish to be involved in the sector.

  • First Nations are substantially involved in the renewable energy sector, with 49 respondents indicating that they have operational projects or projects under development in all but one development region of the province.

  • Thirty respondents indicated having 78 operational projects, with a total generating capacity of 1,836 MW. Run-of-river hydro made up 61 per cent of these projects.

  • Thirty-two respondents indicated 48 projects in planning or construction. Run-of-river hydro made up 36 per cent of projects, solar (PV) made up 25 per cent and geothermal and biomass made up 17 per cent each.

  • Of operational projects, 42 were selling power back to the grid through BC Hydro’s Call for Power program. These projects make up the vast majority (96 per cent) of the generating capacity of operational projects.                  

How would First Nations like to be involved in renewable energy development?

  • Seventy-seven respondents reported having nearly 250 projects under consideration. These include a greater variety of renewable energy technologies than existing projects: 36 per cent run-of-river hydro, 26 per cent solar (PV), 13 per cent biomass, and 12 per cent wind.

  • Respondents with no prior involvement in the industry have 61 per cent of projects under consideration.

Potential impacts of a decelerated renewable energy industry?

  • First Nations are not only benefitting economically from renewable energy development, but in myriad other ways including increased self-sufficiency, environmental stewardship, ownership of income generating assets, community capacity, and pride.

Clean energy presents possibly the single most efficient and effective way of empowering First Nations communities. Renewable energy offers flexibility and adaptability that can quickly bridge any gap that arises in B.C.’s energy needs, it enables B.C. and Canada to achieve our carbon reduction targets; while at the same time offering amongst the most effective reconciliation opportunities available for the B.C. Provincial Government.

Co-author Judith Sayers is President of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and Adjunct Professor with the Peter B Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria

Co-author Jae Mather is Executive Director at Clean Energy BC



First Nations powering up B.C.
by Emilee Gilpin | December 4th 2017
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.