CALGARY – On a winter’s day last November, Daphne Kay looked up at an expanse of gleaming solar panels located on the Cowesses First Nation reservation east of Regina and wept.

It was the blend of past and present that moved her as she watched her fellow citizens put on a traditional round dance to celebrate the grand opening of Cowess’ newly completed 10MW solar farm.

“I thought about my grandfather who passed away and how during his time he wanted us to live in a healthy way that honors our traditions but also brings prosperity to future generations,” said Kay, who grew up on Colessess is and played in her role as Community Energy Specialist at Cowess Ventures Ltd. a key role in the development of the new solar park.

“So I thought of him, I thought of my mum, I thought of all the people who have been impacted by residential homes. I thought of all the people who came before me and all the people who will come after me.”

Cowesses’ $21 million Awasis solar project is connected to the Saskatchewan grid and is capable of powering an average of 2,500 homes per year. Over its estimated 35-year lifespan, the solar park is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 350,000 tons – in total, this corresponds to the emissions of over 70,000 petrol-powered cars driven for a year.

The Awasis Solar Farm is also an example of many Indigenous clean energy projects that are flourishing from coast to coast.

Others include the First Nations-owned Meadow Lake Tribal Council Bioenergy Center, also in Saskatchewan, which will generate carbon-neutral green electricity from wood waste from nearby sawmills. In Nova Scotia, First Nations Membertou, Paqtnkek and Potlotek 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 partnered with the six nations of Grand River Development Corp. developed.

A 2020 report by the national non-profit organization Indigenous Clean Energy Social Enterprise identified 197 medium- to large-scale renewable energy generation projects with Indigenous participation that are either operational or in the final stages of design 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 over the last two and a half years – everything from solar and wind to hydro and geothermal.

In fact, indigenous communities are so deeply involved in clean energy that they are now owners, co-owners, or have a defined financial performance agreement for nearly 20 percent of Canada’s power generation infrastructure.

“They’re the largest owners of assets outside of utilities,” Henderson said. “Indigenous communities across the country are literally the biggest clean energy changemakers right now.”

As part of its pledge to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the Canadian government has set a goal of achieving a net-zero electricity grid as early 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 inherently landowners and holders of treaty rights — are poised to reap a significant share of those economic benefits.

“We cannot have net-zero transition without continued and growing indigenous participation,” Henderson said. “If you modernize the power grid, you’re going to consume land, which means you’re going to have to work with the indigenous communities whose land it is.”

Private companies have been working with indigenous communities on energy infrastructure projects for decades. But early agreements typically included guarantees of construction jobs or other financial benefits to the community, and did not provide full equity participation for the indigenous people.

However, that is changing. Canada’s commitment to net zero comes at a time when the federal government has also committed to reconciliation with indigenous peoples, a commitment that includes recognizing indigenous peoples’ right to economic self-determination.

Indigenous communities are also asserting this right and are increasingly trying to become full owners of clean energy projects. For example, Cowess owns 95 percent of the Awasis solar project with the option to become full owner after five years. Kay said it was able to get involved because of a First Nations Opportunity Agreement between the First Nations Power Authority (FNPA) and SaskPower, the province’s utility. The agreement gave FNPA responsibility for securing First Nations-led solar power generation projects to increase the capacity of the grid.

“Jobs are nice, but shareholdings are nicer,” says Kay. “Because it allows us to really take control and assert our own sovereignty in the energy sector.”

Henderson said Canada’s energy and electricity sectors have historically been dominated by big oil and gas companies, big utilities and governments.

But new technologies allow for greater ownership diversification,” he said. “The transition to a clean energy future requires that we decolonize the energy system.”

Significant federal funding is available for Indigenous-led clean energy projects. The Awasis solar project on Cowess received $18.5 million from the federal government. However, Henderson said many other clean energy projects in Canada are the result of joint ventures between Indigenous communities and private companies and are funded entirely with private capital.

For Cowess, it’s a way to ensure the community’s long-term economic sustainability when it comes to clean energy, Kay said. But it’s also about the long-term sustainability of Mother Earth, which is another reason Indigenous communities are drawn to this opportunity.

“Renewable energy fits very well with our traditional values,” she said. “There’s a saying we have that says ‘seven generations.’ One should always think seven generations ahead, and that is an integral part of our worldview. While we can never sit under the shade of the tree, it is imperative that we plant the seed in our lifetime.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 19, 2023.

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *