Co-creating conditions for Indigenous business to thrive is the path to economic reconciliation: Iskwew Air's Fraser
An increasing number of Indigenous communities see involvement in energy projects as a solution that will push forward true reconciliation.
In every Canadian province, Indigenous communities have become pivotal partners in getting natural resource projects and related infrastructure projects done. Indigenous investments in large oil and gas infrastructure have dominated headlines, such as in the recent Northern Courier Pipeline System deal which saw eight Indigenous communities from northeastern Alberta partner with Suncor Energy to share $16 million in annual revenue, or the First Nations-led groups vying for ownership of the Trans Mountain Pipeline and its expansion currently under construction. But there is also a rapidly growing Indigenous presence in the renewable space - such as hydro, solar, wind and storage projects.
“Aside from Crown and private utilities, Indigenous communities and enterprises are now the largest single owner of clean energy assets,” said Terri Lynn Morrison of Indigenous Clean Energy (ICE).
Recent data from ICE shows Indigenous communities are behind at least 2,100 renewable projects that are currently operational or in the final stages of development – a number that has grown by almost 30 per cent in the last five years.
“The reason why we see more communities participating in these types of developments is because they are in line typically with our values as Indigenous people, caretakers of the land,” said Morrison. “Clean energy projects are a way for us to advance that so that the environmental, the social and the economic benefits that come from it.”
In addition, as companies face increasing pressure to consider and implement environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) strategies, many Indigenous groups say their strength in this area is another skill they can bring to the table.
“It’s almost like the mainstream economy is catching up with some very fundamental, traditional world views that have always been held by communities,” said Alicia Dubois of the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation.
“While the rest of society is just now coming to grips with the idea of double to triple bottom line economy – where it’s not just about profit, but it’s about the environment and the health for future generations and also impact on people – be it employees or communities that are in the vicinity of these projects – this is just the basis of what Indigenous business is built on.”
Dubois added that Indigenous communities have gained “sufficient power through the court system, and also through media, etc., to be able to limit a government or a corporation and corporate Canada’s ability to drive towards their goal around development.”
She points to the financial advantages inherent in good business relationships: “When you build the partnership properly, then you don’t have the delays that we see happening when the partnerships are not built and there is impact to land that has not had any meaningful conversations with the community around it.”
This hasn’t been an easy road. Indigenous advancements in the energy space are often the result of built up frustration. Research by the Pembina Institute and WWF Canada found more than 170 remote Indigenous Communities in Canada still rely heavily on diesel power for electricity.
“They’ve been on diesel fuel for decades. It’s extraordinarily unhealthy,” said Dubois. “It creates major health problems. There is absolutely no way to build a water treatment plant on diesel you can’t build homes on diesel because you need infrastructure.”
She points to a First Nations-led power project currently underway in northwestern Ontario. The Wataynikaneyap Power Transmission Project is a $1.9 billion endeavour with Fortis Inc. to connect 17 First Nations to the province’s power grid, something Dubois calls a “phenomenal life-changer” for those living there.
“This is going to profoundly change the standard of living, but also attract an economy to the region because you can’t drive an economy without electricity. It’s astounding what is going to happen in northwestern Ontario for these communities because they’ve lived in like third world conditions until now.”
That’s how energy infrastructure becomes key to addressing both Truth and Reconciliation – understanding and honouring the past while creating real relationships that pave the way for true equity partnerships and self-determination.
“It’s a way for the government and industry to recognize who the owners of the territory are and by doing so, acknowledging and providing space for Indigenous communities to be at the table and to benefit truly from these projects rather than it benefiting just a small few,” said Morrison.
“Right now, typically, Indigenous communities rely solely on the transfer agreements from government, but by having these projects that create a significant amount of revenue, it allows the communities to be able to govern themselves in the way that they see fit.”
Dubois said it’s “absolutely impossible” for communities to be empowered when they are forced to live in poverty or beholden to the government for core funding. The wealth these projects provide can drive meaningful change within Indigenous communities by way of jobs and future opportunities.
“When communities get engaged in meaningful projects, the business acumen that is developed is incredible,” said Dubois. “It’s not project-specific. These are transferable skills to other economic development initiatives that they may choose to drive on their own or they may choose to drive in partnership with another industry player. It gives communities the opportunity to prove that they are strong business partners. That they add value."