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Moving away from fossil fuels: B.C. First Nations fight for clean energy technology

The First Nations Energy Summit, hosted by Clean Energy BC, explores what it will take to get the province to build clean energy, faster.

A panel speaks to UNDRIP and clean energy, from left to right: David Austin, Stirling LLP; Harvey McLeod, chief, Upper Nicola Band; Mihskakwan James Harper, business development manager, NRStor Inc.; Judith Sayers, president, Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council. Photo: Heather Fulcher

Good news: 99 percent of B.C.’s electricity comes from renewable sources. Bad news: electricity only makes up a portion of the province’s total energy use, and 70 percent of the province’s energy still relies on fossil fuels. Certain Indigenous communities, in particular, are powered by archaic diesel fuels, and are looking to lead the way to energy independence. At Clean Energy BC's First Nations Energy Summit 2023, leaders explored how First Nations can accelerate the decarbonization of the province’s energy sector.

The clean energy revolution(s)

To understand how and why Indigenous communities push for clean energy technology, Mihskakwan James Harper, member of the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, unpacked the evolution of Canada’s energy industry through a number of different stages. Energy Industry 1.0 created the fundamental infrastructure for the country, described Harper. “A lot of those [developments] built what is now Canada’s economic prosperity,” he said. Notably, much of this came at the cost of forcible displacement of Indigenous communities, which were systematically excluded from the wealth generated from these projects. “Policies [were] put in place to basically relocate Indigenous people and essentially get them out of the way.”

An engineer by training, Harper currently works as a business development manager at NRSTOR where he develops large-scale energy storage and clean microgrid projects across the country. The early days of his career were defined by what he calls Energy Industry 2.0, where stakeholders began to improve environmental and social relationships. “The industry wants to do better, the governments are starting to realize that yes, [Energy Industry 1.0 wasn’t] the best way to do things. And thus comes the duty to consult, employing Indigenous peoples of the communities, and so forth.”

But here comes the stage of which we are on the cusp: Energy Industry 3.0. “Now we have a commitment, first of all, to decarbonize and eliminate all of our emissions by 2050,” Harper said. But he also emphasized a key point, echoed by the proceedings of the summit. “We cannot just install wind turbines left, right, and center, and say that we're doing better [...] Clean energy projects need to be Indigenous-led. And when we do it in a good way, we now begin a new process, where we are decolonizing our old approaches on what the energy industry and development really looks like.” This can also be described as economic reconciliation: providing Indigenous communities with the ability to participate and prosper in the economy.

How cleantech can meaningfully build with B.C. First Nations

Whether it’s the electric utility monopoly BC Hydro looking to build a new hydroelectric dam, or a hydrogen fuel startup wanting to set up a green production plant, projects in partnership with Indigenous communities in B.C are upheld by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA).

An industry presentation by Fortescue Future Industries. Photo: Heather Fulcher

DRIPA was first passed by the provincial government in 2019 to implement the same rights and recommendations first published by the United Nations Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. This means that First Nations now have a regulatory framework to bring to the negotiating table when entering into a partnership with cleantech companies. “We can use some of the good things that sit under DRIPA [...] such as self-determination and free prior and informed consent, not just consultation anymore,” said Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council.

Historically, not all cleantech has benefitted First Nations, even if the projects have taken place on their territories. Kwatuuma Cole Sayers, executive director of Clean Energy BC, noted such hesitancy around nuclear energy waste, for example. “Yeah, it's clean burning,” he said, “but it creates waste and it’s [historically been] dumped in our territories.”

The prejudices against B.C. First Nations in pursuing clean energy technology projects have been apparent throughout history. Kwatuuma Cole Sayers, who is also the son of Judith Sayers, shared an anecdote of his mother’s pursuits for green energy in their community. “It was an industry person who [told her] that First Nations will never build a [clean energy] project, because it’s too complicated.” Today, he said, projects owned by First Nations generate about 13 percent of B.C.’s electricity.

Sayers, along with many panelists at the summit, encouraged First Nations to equip themselves with DRIPA when entering into agreements and negotiations. “We can sit back passively and expect the B.C. government and the federal government to do something,” she said. “But we need to look beyond that [...] We need to be part of the economic revolution in this province, because things have to change. And that change should come from us.”

A new provincial government could lead the way

In the past few months, the provincial government announced a total of nearly $14 million towards cleantech, with no specific mandate for Indigenous clean energy. $2.3 million will be invested into a series of industrial tech hubs and $11.5 million towards a marketplace for buyers and sellers. However, in December 2022, the federal government committed $10 million dollars to the British Columbia Indigenous Clean Energy Initiative.

Nonetheless, the recent appointment of David Eby as premier alongside his changes to the cabinet make for no better time to push for investment, said Evan Pivnick, program manager at Clean Energy Canada. “This is a unique opportunity for a government that has announced this as a priority [...] If there was a moment to lean into getting these principles on the table, it's right now with a new energy minister with a new mandate to ask exactly these questions.”

The end of the month will see a provincial budget tabled with clear insights on how the government plans to spend its money. Until then, Indigenous communities continue to push towards energy sovereignty thanks to clean energy technologies.

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