First Nations say they paid a heavy price when the Tories scrapped renewable-energy projects

Indigenous communities across the province invested in hundreds of green-energy initiatives — and they say they’ve lost millions in potential revenues since the PCs took power
By Charnel Anderson - Published on November 20, 2018
Chief Phyllis Williams
Chief Phyllis Williams, of Curve Lake First Nation, says her community was expecting more than $6.4 million in projected revenue from a pair of hydroelectric projects.

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The provincial government scrapped hundreds of renewable-energy projects across the province when it cancelled the Green Energy Act in July. First Nations had become involved in hundreds of these initiatives, which promoted both economic prosperity and environmental stewardship — and now they’re paying the price.

In 2015, Curve Lake First Nation, near Peterborough, agreed to invest a 10 per cent equity stake, valued at a total of $4.8 million, in a pair of hydroelectric projects that together would have generated enough power for 2,000 households. The community expected to reap millions of dollars of revenue from the deal with Peterborough Utilities, a non-profit power generator. As Chief Phyllis Williams recalls, it looked like “a beautiful opportunity.”

When the new Progressive Conservative government came to power this summer, though, it cancelled the Selwyn and Buckhorn dams. Curve Lake hadn’t put any money down yet, because the dams were at an early planning stage. The First Nation was expecting more than $6.4 million in projected revenue, says Williams, who adds that cancellation of the projects was “a very harsh blow” to her community.

Curve Lake wasn’t the only First Nation in the province to sustain such a blow. Jordan Penic, a senior manager at Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, noted in an email to TVO.org that First Nations had been participating in 216 of the 752 green-energy projects that the government scrapped — including eight of the 10 cancelled large-scale solar, wind, and hydroelectric projects that Dianne Saxe, Ontario’s environmental commissioner (a position that the provincial government has decided to axe), wrote about in her September climate-change report.

“What they invested in time, talent, attention, council time, as well as the financial loss — it’s irreplaceable for them,” Saxe told TVO.org last month.

Missanabie Cree First Nation, near Sault Ste. Marie, had viewed solar energy as a “fairly secure” investment, says Chief Jason Gauthier. Before the cancellation of the Liberals’ Green Energy Act, the First Nation had planned (and had already signed a deal) to invest in a project called Sky One, in the township of Ryerson, near Parry Sound. “We were pretty confident that with what’s going on with the environment and climate change, alternative sources of energy would be something that would be supported across the province,” says Gauthier.

Economic gain isn’t the only reason that First Nations communities have embraced such projects: they also align with Indigenous cultural values, such as environmental stewardship, says Dayna Nadine Scott, who teaches environmental studies at York University and law at Osgoode Hall.

Renewable-energy projects, she says, allow Indigenous communities “to fulfill obligations to future generations, both in terms of environmental stewardships, the protection of land and water, but also the material needs of future generations through revenue that is generated by the project.”

But First Nations communities tend not to have the staff and resources needed to undertake green-energy projects on their own — they need outside partners.

The Green Energy Act, introduced in 2009, included specific measures intended to boost Indigenous investment and involvement in renewable-energy projects. It’s unclear whether the Progressive Conservative government plans to introduce new programs in support of such investment. (TVO.org contacted the office of Greg Rickford, minister of energy, northern development and mines, and of Indigenous affairs, for comment. At the request of his staff, we submitted written questions about the government’s plans. We received no response to those questions.)

Though Gauthier and Williams were disappointed by the cancellation of the green-energy projects, both leaders say they are eager to invest in similar projects in the future.

“If it were to come back around, absolutely we’d be ready,” says Williams.

“We’re always willing to invest in projects that are good for the environment and financially viable,” Gauthier adds.

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