How energy poverty devastates Pikangikum First Nation

By Eric Bombicino - Published on April 2, 2016
A refueling truck sits near Pikangikum's main generators.
Pikangikum has relied on an unstable diesel generator system for decades, affecting basic infrastructure such as water, sewage and housing.

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Eric Bombicino, a producer for The Agenda, travelled to Pikangikum, Ont., as part of the Access to Energy Journalism Fellowship administered by Discourse Media with financial support from the Waterloo Global Science Initiative (WGSI). 

PIKANGIKUM FIRST NATION, Ont.— On a Sunday morning in February, Kurt MacRae banged on the door of a co-worker from Eenchokay Birchstick, the fly-in Ojibwa community’s only school. As Eenchokay’s principal, MacRae was getting a head start on its breakfast program, which the school runs daily. 

Kory Rowell, the school's 27-year-old vice-principal, eventually emerged from his residence, bleary-eyed and wearing a pair of jogging pants and an old t-shirt. He didn’t complain about the early hour or the fact that it was -20°C. The two hopped into Rowell’s truck to haul packages of oatmeal, cereal, granola bars and Pringles potato chips into the school’s kitchen. Food insecurity is one of a number of concerns managed by school staff in the community 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay. 

While they were bringing in the last box of food, the lights flickered and went out. MacRae exhaled loudly and shook his head: the erratic lights weren’t just an immediate annoyance, but a threat of larger problems down the road. Just the week before, the reserve’s main diesel generator broke down, requiring the community to operate on a system of rolling blackouts for several days. Should the outage affect the school’s power, its kitchen’s refrigerators wouldn’t be able to store the food, posing a problem for the next day’s breakfast — and, depending on the severity of the outage, the school might not be able to open at all.

For MacRae, this isn’t an unusual concern. Almost constantly, he worries about whether staff will be able to open the doors of the school for Pikangikum’s 750 students. This day ended up being no different: the next day the school had to stay closed due to the outage, and breakfast was not served. 

An Ojibwa community of 3,000 people, Pikangikum First Nation has had roots in northwestern Ontario’s Whitefeather Forest for generations. It experiences a host of issues, many of which stem from a history of colonialism and historical underfunding of vital community services. These root causes continue to have impacts on Pikangikum today, affecting education, healthcare, food security and employment. 

For example, Pikangikum’s fire response is woefully inadequate. A 2010 federal study found that people living on First Nations reserves were 10 times more likely to die in a fire than people in the rest of Canada. Devastatingly, that statistic was illustrated on Tuesday when a house fire killed six adults and three children.

 “Our people are living in substandard living conditions and this is the result,” Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said after the fire. “We need to bring our communities into the 21st century. Substandard is not a standard that we can live with any longer.”

A map of the off-the-grid communities in Ontario.

Another issue that weaves its way into almost every aspect of life in Pikangikum is a lack of power. As in 24 other remote First Nations reserves in Ontario, the veins of the provincial electrical grid don’t quite reach the community, which instead relies on a rapidly aging generator system that runs on diesel that has been flown, trucked or shipped into the area at great economic and environmental cost.

To make matters worse, the reserve’s main generator — now eight years past its expected 10-year lifespan — broke down earlier in February. Rene Keeper, a diehard Green Bay Packers fan who takes care of the generators for the community’s Eshkotay Wahab Power Authority, said he hoped a new one could be flown in within a couple of weeks. Until then, the community would have to resort to timed blackouts, switching every two hours between homes on the east and west side. 

The maxed-out energy system has prevented Pikangikum from making many of the infrastructure improvements it sorely needs. Eighty per cent of the reserve’s homes do not have wastewater systems or running water. Its housing supply has tightened into a crisis, as the population grows by 100 people each year with few prospects for new builds. As many as 16 people might share a small home, requiring some families to sleep in shifts.

“Their ability to evolve and develop is curtailed by the fact they don’t have this necessary resource,” said Dr. Bert Lauwers, former deputy chief coroner of Ontario and author of the 2011 Chief Coroner of Ontario’s review of 16 youth suicides that occurred between 2006 and 2008 in Pikangikum. “Having a good source of electricity is integral to having improved quality in their lives.” In fact, one of the report's key recommendations was to connect the reserve to the provincial grid as soon as possible.

As the population grows, the generators age and blackouts roll through the community, there is hope in the form of discussions with a First Nations-owned power company looking to build a massive transmission project in northwestern Ontario, and promised provincial funding to reduce reserves’ reliance on diesel fuel. While some in Pikangikum are optimistic, others remain wary due to unkept promises from the past.

“If you had 3,000 people living near Toronto and they didn’t have electricity, what would happen?” asked former chief Gordon Peters. “They’d get electricity with a year, months even.”

 

The first time MacRae visited the home of a student at Eenchokay Birchstick School, he says he almost cried. Nine children, two teenage parents and two grandparents were sharing the tiny quarters. The children were huddled around an electric stove, its oven door left open to heat the home. 

“They’re not getting the right amount of sleep and it’s really not creating success as they transition from the home into the school,” he said.

Pikangikum currently has about 450 homes and requires at least 200 more to address its housing crisis, which will continue to deepen as the population grows. (According to Peters, the reserve has a retention rate of about 98 per cent — only two per cent of its people leave.) 

Funding for these new homes doesn’t currently exist. Even if Pikangikum were able to build them, the current diesel generator system wouldn’t be able to power them, says Keeper.

In a council meeting in February, deputy chief Jonah Strang pointed out: “Young couples are still living with their parents and they are starting families. They need their own place.”

A truck pulls up to a water standpipe in Pikangikum First Nation

The community’s central hub also happens to be its only store, a Northern store outpost that houses a KFC and Pizza Hut. Other than the Chinese restaurant down the road, it is Pikangikum’s main source of food. On most days, you’ll see families packed into pickup trucks rumbling up and down the road that hugs the shoreline and leads to the store. Groups of people in the parking lot will share the day’s news and a laugh, and teenagers and couples holding hands will line up to get a bucket of fried chicken. Often, however, power surges (a spike in the electrical current) and brownouts (a dip in the current) force staff to close the shop, leaving residents without a viable grocery store for hours on end. 

These intermittent closures contribute to the food insecurity that plagues Pikangikum, like many remote communities in northern Canada, from high markups on prices to a low availability of healthier produce options. According to Peters, fresh products come in twice a week and don’t last long. As is the case with housing, “there is not enough electricity in the community to accommodate the growth of the present store” or to build additional commercial spaces for potential small-business competitors, he said.

The water situation also affects food security in the area. Boil-water advisories are common, and most of Pikangikum’s homes do not have running water or indoor toilets. Six water stations are located throughout the town, requiring families to haul sleds with buckets to fetch water for drinking, cooking and bathing. In the winter, this becomes a daily chore in temperatures as low as -40°C. 

“When there is a power outage, which could last anywhere from five minutes to five hours, they have no stove to boil the water to make it safe,” said Sylvain Langlois, a Metis worker from Pikangikum’s health authority. This exacerbates the problem into a health concern, particularly for families that rely on powdered formula to feed infants.

In 2006, the Northwestern Health Unit published a study on Pikangikum’s sewage and drinking water systems, finding that illnesses such as gastrointestinal, skin and urinary tract infections were more prevalent there than in other First Nation and non-aboriginal communities due to lack of safe water. 

In 2014 the Pikangikum Working Group installed 10 running-water systems in the most underserved homes using $250,000 in private donations. The group was set to install another 10, but those plans were scrapped: the maxed-out power system couldn’t handle the load of additional water heaters and pumps.

Engineer Bob White, who led the group, said the initial plan was to have the federal government match their funds, but Ottawa backed out. “They said they didn’t have the money,” said White, a member of Atlantic Canada’s Kitpu First Nation who has worked in numerous developing countries. The government did, however, invest $40,000 to train Pikangikum workers for the project. 

Seventeen years ago, Pikangikum came close to being connected to the power grid that has eluded the community for so long. “They were on the precipice of moving into the modern era,” Lauwers said. In 1999, the federal department then known as Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada approved a power line from Red Lake to Pikangikum, 90 kilometres away. Within a year, 35 per cent of the planned hydro poles had been erected when federal funding for the project was halted abruptly. What happened, according to the band’s former lawyer, Doug Keshen, is a “classic he-said, she-said scenario.”

An outhouse and a tiny home on Pikangikum First Nation

In November 2000, the federal department notified Pikangikum Band Council that it would be taking over management of the council and its finances due to a series of incidents that included floods at the water treatment plant, a fuel oil spill at the school, and allegations of financial mismanagement. The chief and council refused to concede management, and sued the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Robert Nault, who now serves as Liberal MP for Kenora, the riding in which Pikangikum lies. This set off a decade-long court battle against Nault, during which time many infrastructure projects — including the power grid connection, water and sewer projects — were shelved. Pikangikum eventually lost the suit in 2010. 

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge John dePencier Wright wrote that “to this day, the power grid has not been completed. Power that could have been supplied at a cost of several hundreds of thousands of dollars continues to be supplied to this band at a cost of millions of dollars.”

Energy from diesel is exorbitantly expensive compared to energy from the grid. According to Keshen, Pikangikum spent $7 million on diesel in the past year alone. Court documents from the case state that Pikangikum paid over $3.5 million for power from diesel in one year, which would have cost about a tenth of that if supplied from the provincial grid.

Had the grid been connected back in the early 2000s, these annual savings could have been funnelled back into the community or used to pay for the project itself. 

The new Pikangikum school

Aboriginal Peoples are the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population, with almost half under the age of 25. According to Strang, between 60 and 70 per cent of Pikangikum’s people are under 25. While the impact of a power grid on the future of a youth population might seem a tenuous connection in other parts of the province, here it is deeply felt. 

For example, the lack of electricity affects education. “In the past, every five-year cycle, we would lose the equivalent of a full school year due to closures,” said MacRae. Power outages are a major reason for the closures. Surges and brownouts are also a classroom liability — MacRae estimates they have destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of school technology such as laptops and audio-visual equipment.

A recent $65-million reconstruction of Eenchokay Birchstick school — a massive source of optimism and pride in the community — provided the building with its own generator and will help ease overcrowding issues, but creates the need for more teachers. MacRae is concerned about retaining the teachers he has, let alone recruiting more.

“Some teachers won’t return because of the inconsistent power,” he said. Most of Pikangikum’s residents heat their homes with wood-fired furnaces, but teachers’ residences rely on electricity. Power outages can last from several minutes to several days, forcing teachers to either move out or hunker down on their couches, as MacRae himself has experienced, huddled in layers of clothing until the electricity comes back on.

On a drive to tour the new Eenchokay Birchstick building, MacRae relayed a particularly grim, but honest, insight. “If students lose connection to the school, their risk [of suicide] exponentially goes up.” 

A teacher’s job description in Pikangikum likely wouldn’t match that of a counterpart in southern Ontario. “We spend a lot of time on mental health issues,” MacRae said. “I think 30 per cent of our time at the end of the school year is actually focused on prevention and getting kids help.” MacRae recently asked the Northern store to take pencil sharpeners and Gillette razors off the shelves and put them behind the counter; students were using them to cut themselves. 

Pikangikum has become known not for its breathtaking views, world-class fishing or its tournament-winning hockey teams, but for suicide. In 2000, Pikangikum made national headlines when the Canadian Press reported it had the highest suicide rate in the world. In 2012, shortly after the release of the coroner’s report, Maclean’s magazine proclaimed the community the “suicide capital of the world.” 

However, suicide is a comparatively recent phenomenon in Pikangikum’s history. According to the 2002 documentary Back to Pikangikum, it wasn’t until the rise of gas sniffing in 1990s that suicide became prevalent. There were three in 1992, another three in 1993, eight in 1994, and 27 between 1995 and 2000.

The majority of the suicides reviewed in the Ontario coroner’s 2011 report involved young people under the age of 16, and most occurred in clusters. When Eenchokay Birchstick school burned down in 2007, for example, there were six suicides in two clusters, the first two occurring two days after the fire. The report suggests that some youths may have viewed the school as a focal point for activity that provided them with friendship and “some reason for hope in their lives.”

There’s also the issue of prospects. The reserve’s unemployment rate is 90 per cent, and likely higher for youth. Connection to the grid would be a boon for economic development and would provide young adults with job opportunities. According to a 2013 report by Lumos Energy for the Wataynikaneyap Power project, a grid connection would spur both public and private economic development, such as public agency operations and social services and commercial opportunities, including small business growth. The grid line would also lead to construction and operation jobs, skills development and experience.

The Pikangikum Working Group’s water installations in 2014 had precisely that effect on a number of youth involved. For one young man in particular, learning how to install plumbing for running water “changed the way he carried himself,” said Colleen Estes, a Christian minister who has worked in the community for almost two decades. “His self-esteem went up.”  

 

Almost 20 years later, rumblings of hope for a grid connection have begun anew. “I am glad Stephen Harper is gone,” said former chief Gordon Peters. With the new federal Liberal government, Peters said he sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

In the past few months, both the provincial and federal governments have committed to spending billions on infrastructure and tackling climate change. The 2016 federal budget includes $11.9 billion in infrastructure spending over the next two years, and $8.4 billion over the next five years to help bring about “transformational change” for indigenous people. The province has committed to a cap-and-trade system to address climate change, and in March it announced a $13-million investment in two initiatives to help indigenous communities combat climate change, including $8 million to help switch from diesel to renewable energy sources. Getting a number of remote northern communities in Ontario off diesel would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but would lower the risk of spills.

Last July, the governments of Manitoba, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Yukon and Ontario created a Pan-Canadian Task Force to reduce the use of diesel fuel to generate electricity in remote communities. 

In 2014, the Independent Electricity System Operator, the agency responsible for planning Ontario’s transmission lines, released a report that made the economic case for connecting 21 of the province’s 25 remote First Nations communities, which would result in $1 billion in savings over 40 years.

Most important, Pikangikum has recently entered into discussions with Wataynikaneyap Power, a First Nations energy group that is working on a $1.35-billion, 1,500-kilometre transmission project to connect 16 communities to the grid in northwestern Ontario. The First Nations communities involved will be majority owners of the transmission facilities, and over time will retain full ownership of the systems. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates the project will create 769 jobs and almost $900 million in social value. 

Phase one of the Watay Power project, which will add capacity to an existing transmission line to Pickle Lake, is scheduled to be completed by 2018. Phase two, which will run through Pikangikum, is slated for completion in 2024. Eight years is a long time to wait for a grid connection that is 90 kilometres away in Red Lake, which explains why Pikangikum has been reluctant to sign on to the project. Both deputy chief Jonah Strang and Rene Keeper suggest, however, that this timeline may shrink, as discussions continue between the band council and Watay Power. For now, Pikangikum continues to wait.

A map of the Watay Power project

During one of our interviews, Peters took a bit longer to answer a question about a key recommendation made in the coroner’s report on 16 youth suicides: that the reserve be connected to the grid as soon as possible

The usually animated former chief of Pikangikum sat in his chair, his sock feet firmly planted on the floor, and stared expressionless out the window of his office. Outside, snowmobiles zipped across the snow-covered Pikangikum Lake. Kids with skates and sticks slung over their shoulders crunched through the snow to a cleared patch of ice. His eyes watered; he began to slightly shake, but steeled himself. 

Another former chief, Peter Quill, stepped in to answer, waving off the idea that a grid hookup was a cure-all solution to this particularly painful issue. Two of his grandchildren were mentioned in the report. He described all the problems in their house, problems that a grid connection would not solve. Considering the broader context, he said, “Maybe it’s because we’ve been assimilated to another culture… we use this [English] language and it kills us as a person, it kills the spiritual part.”

While a stable source of energy can offer Pikangikum opportunity, a platform for a community to grow and flourish, energy alone will not heal the community. It is not a magic bullet. 

“It goes back to the very issue of colonization of First Nations people by Euro-Canadians, and their isolation in remote reserves,” said Lauwers. In Pikangikum, people “feel a kinship and ownership and attachment to their land.”

“Why would I want to move?” said Peters. “This is where I was born. This is where I will probably pass on. This is where my mother and father were born, and this is where they are buried. This is my home.”

Photos by Eric Bombicino. Map by Michael Lehan.

 

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