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Ontario First Nations want power opportunities

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AAMJIWNAANG – A determination that there will be aboriginal participation in the planned expansion of Ontario’s power system was the clear message from a series of energy forums across the Anishinabek Nation territory.

“We are a player now and we are being asked to participate,” said Joe Gaboury, CEO of Five Nations Energy Inc. which serves Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Kashechewan First Nations, and the De Beers Victor diamond mine.

However, Gaboury warned participants at the fifth energy forum, held Feb. 11 on the Aamjiwnaang reserve near Sarnia, First Nations are at a disadvantage.

“The province is way ahead of us, all the best sites have already been developed, we’re chasing around literally after the crumbs – but at the same time it shouldn’t stop us from getting on that road to self-sufficiency.”

Gaboury was one of several aboriginal power industry experts who addressed the forums – the first was held in Thunder Bay Jan. 26.

He came to Five Nations Energy, which is Ontario’s only aboriginal-owned and operated electricity transmission company, from Attawapiskat Resources Inc., a company created by the Attawapiskat First Nation to handle business opportunities arising from an impact benefit agreement signed with DeBeers Canada prior to construction of the mine.

Whether the development is a transmission line, a dam or a mine, Gaboury said the first ingredient for success is support from the First Nation community. In Attawapiskat, a referendum gave the go-ahead for the Victor mine.

ARI had an inside track when DeBeers was looking to contract work like catering, surveying, or helicopter services and would then try to find a partner with the appropriate expertise.

“We were sure to work with companies that were good at what they do, that were competitive,” Gaboury said – because DeBeers had the option of going elsewhere if the cost was too high or the work wasn’t done right.

Presently in Ontario, opportunities arise in the power industry following a directive last September from Ontario Energy Minister George Smitherman that the Ontario Power Authority redraft its 20-year Integerated Power System Plan to include more renewable energy sources and undertake more consultation with First Nations.

The plan – which must be approved by the Ontario Energy Board – has been developed by the OPA over the past four years. First Nations have complained of being excluded from the process.

“Getting called at the last minute to sit in on an IPSP presentation is not meaningful consultation,” Arnold May of the consulting firm Beedaubun Enterprise said in a written submission to the Ontario Energy Board last July.

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“Questions were put forward to the presenters at these IPSP presentations and there was no response to these questions until eight months after the presentation. This is not meaningful consultation,” said May, a 31-year veteran of the power industry and one of the experts who addressed the Anishinabek forum.

OPA was given until March to come up with a new, improved plan.

For Anishinabek Grand Council Chief John Beaucage, Smitherman’s directive signaled an unprecedented opportunity. He said opportunities for development partnerships with First Nations include prime wind power sites along the Great Lakes, land for biomass generation projects, and good locations for small hydro projects.

First Nations are also the rights-holders in territories that will be needed for new energy infrastructure projects, including a new north-south transmission corridor that must come through the territory of one of the 42 Anishinabek nations.

“We’ve got hydro lines, we’ve got railroads, we’ve got highways, we’ve got pipelines running all through our territories which we don’t get one single nickel out of,” added Beaucage, who recently announced his candidacy to replace Phil Fontaine as the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. “We agreed to share the territory and share the benefits, and yet nothing has ever been shared with us in the way it should have been after we signed the treaties.

“Now there are Supreme Court decisions saying you’ve got to involve the First Nations, so now they’re coming to our door and knocking – and we will not let that knock go unanswered.”

With opportunity comes risk, cautioned Gaboury at the Aamjiwnaang focus session. First Nations lacking capital will need to partner with a developer on big projects. But First Nations also have assets that can be used to develop equity.

He pointed to the example of Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve Nation on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, the largest freshwater island in the world. Wikwemikong has spent more than $1 million developing the potential for a series of wind energy projects.

Some of the money came from Casino Rama, Gaboury said, “but I’m sure that chief and council could have utilized that $1 million elsewhere, so they’re taking the risk by expending those funds for this potential development.”

Roger Peltier, Wikwemikong’s energy planner, also addressed the forum, outlining his community’s plans for a 20-megawatt wind farm.

A partner is needed to develop the project, which could be commissioned by 2010, and 10 companies responded to a request for proposals, Peltier said. The winning company will be scored on the basis of capital, expertise, and being able to buy turbines on preferential terms.

A long-term plan to develop a 200-megawatt project has to wait for OPA to upgrade its transmission line to Manitoulin Island. A lack of capacity in the grid is one of the major problems in any expansion of power supply in Ontario, Peltier said. “We’re going to have to position ourselves for the right to connect.”

Gaboury noted that while the present reality is that non-aboriginal partners are needed for any big project, the time may come when “it will be us going in to help each other.” In the meantime, “we hope to share our experience with anybody who is looking to move forward.”