On a sunny day last month, a group of about 30 people toured the Nanticoke Solar facility, a 44-megawatt project built on the former site of what was Ontario’s biggest coal-fired plant before it was decommissioned in 2013.
Beyond the symbolism of solar panels on the shores of Lake Erie, on a site once dominated by two looming coal stacks, the tour marked another shift: the growing role of Indigenous peoples in Canada’s renewable energy landscape.
Nanticoke Solar, in production since 2019, is a commercial partnership between Ontario Power Generation and Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corp., which has a 15-per-cent interest, and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, which owns 5 per cent. The solar plant is one of several Indigenous partnerships at OPG, which signed its first such agreement, for a hydropower plant with the Lac Seul First Nation, in 2009.
The tour group was co-ordinated through 20/20 Catalysts, a three-month program that links industry mentors with First Nations, Inuit and Métis participants, aiming to provide them with knowledge they can put toward renewable energy projects in their home communities or parlay into jobs or other opportunities in the energy sector.
The Nanticoke stop, which featured flocks of sheep used for weed control, came on the Ontario leg of this year’s Catalysts program. It also included site visits in Kelowna, B.C., and Iqaluit, Nunavut, and is run by Indigenous Clean Energy, an Ottawa-based non-profit. About 100 people have gone through the program, which is currently lining up its sixth group of participants.
Matt Jamieson is president and chief executive of Six Nations of Grand River Development Corp., and he spoke to the Catalyst participants before they toured the Nanticoke facility. For him, such mentoring is as much a part of his job as crunching the numbers for new investments.
“If there’s an opportunity for us to showcase what we’ve done, and to provide an opportunity for others to learn from – we’re all in,” said Mr. Jamieson, who is a member of the Tuscarora Nation.
That enthusiasm is line with industry trends. The number of mid- to large-sized Indigenous renewable energy projects grew by nearly 30 per cent from 2017 to 2020, according to a 2020 report by Indigenous Clean Energy. With the push toward net-zero targets, that momentum is expected to increase.
Other factors are also nudging the needle toward Indigenous equity stakes and participation, including Recommendation 92 of Canada’s 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The recommendation calls on corporate Canada to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a “reconciliation framework.”
The Six Nations development corporation is part of that evolving picture. Officially launched in 2015, it is a stand-alone corporation, designed to separate business from politics, with a mandate to generate revenue the community can use for needs including health care, education and infrastructure.
Those needs are significant. The infrastructure gap between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous ones – what it would cost to bring services in line with those available in most municipalities – has been estimated as being as high as $30-billion. In Six Nations, estimates of the cost to connect all households to a central water system range as high as $200-million. (A new water treatment plant opened in 2014, but it is connected only to some buildings and homes in a central area; most households rely on water trucked to their homes.)
Six Nations of the Grand River are the most populous First Nation in Canada, with about 30,000 members, of whom 12,000 live on a reserve that spans about 180 square kilometres.
That’s only about 5 per cent of the lands granted to the Six Nations of the Grand River in the Haldimand Proclamation, an 18th-century decree that set aside a tract of land to the Six Nations in recognition of their support of British forces during the American Revolution. The area is subject to multiple land claims and a court claim filed by the Six Nations elected council against the governments of Canada and Ontario.
With those issues unresolved and potential settlements likely years away, the Six Nations development corporation has focused on generating income in the short term. It has stakes in a transmission line, wind and solar projects, and a 50-per-cent stake in the proposed Oneida Energy Storage Project, a 250-megawatt battery storage facility intended to store renewable energy so it can be used when power demand spikes.
The group’s partner in the Oneida project is Toronto-based NRStor Inc., which has built several small energy storage projects and now wants to roll out the technology on a larger scale. NRStor works with Indigenous partners from the outset of any project, said chief development officer Jason Rioux.
“It makes sense for us, it makes sense for our Indigenous partner and I think it makes sense in setting an example across Canada for more projects to come,” he said.
According to Six Nation development corporation reports, the group has generated more than $110-million in direct economic impact for the Six Nations community since 2015.
Indigenous communities are also eyeing opportunities in the hydrogen sector. The Canadian and German governments in August signed a deal to co-operate on exporting hydrogen fuel to Europe, with a target of 2025 to begin shipments from Eastern Canada.
The Six Nations development corporation is talking to a prospective partner about green hydrogen, but the financial feasibility of such a project has yet to be confirmed, Mr. Jamieson said, adding that any new ventures would need community support.
“What we do as a development corporation is pursue a future that fits within our values, to create something. So that our future generations can look back and and say, ‘Wow, we didn’t have to wait for a court ruling. We don’t have to wait for a transfer payment. We stepped up, asserted our interests, got organized and conducted business, and did a good job of it.’ That’s really the goal.”