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The T’Sou-ke First Nation Builds Pride by Going Green

“We used to live sustainably, and only took what we needed from the land. We need to get back to that.” These words by Chief Gordon Planes inspired the T’Sou-ke First Nation in Sooke, British Columbia, to implement an ambitious project to re-build their traditional ways, at the same time making their community one of the greenest in Canada.

A facilitator was hired and extensive planning was conducted involving everyone in the First Nation, including those living off-reserve. Guided by the traditional view of looking ahead seven generations, a vision was prepared in 2008 with four goals: self-sufficiency in energy, self-sufficiency in food, and economic independence, or as Chief Plane said, “No more living off the dole.” The fourth goal was a cultural renaissance for the band, with a return to traditional ways and values.

To kick-start the project, a 400-panel solar photovoltaic system was installed in 2009 that generates 75 kW of electricity, which lights up the administrative offices. The meters run backward and forward so that excess electricity is sold into the British Columbia grid. This solar system is more than double the size of the next largest in B.C., and has attracted considerable media attention.

A second initiative is placing solar panels on the roofs of all 86 buildings on the reserve (population is about 250). These panels heat water; they do not generate electricity. The project is in progress and 40 houses are completed.

With the two systems, this small native community has become one of the most solar intensive in North America.

A third initiative is a comprehensive energy-conservation program, which includes upgrading insulation, installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, using energy-efficient appliances and simply being careful, such as turning down thermostats and turning off lights when not at home. Energy-saving kits and training are being provided for every household.

“Conservation is the most important program we have,” says Andrew Moore, the program manager, “It is ten times more expensive to generate electricity than to save it by conservation. But it takes work to change old habits.” Education plays a key part in the program and the school is an enthusiastic partner. He showed me a profusion of notes school kids had pinned on the classroom wall: “I will unplug my charger.” “I pledge to have shorter showers.” “I will turn of lights.”

“We avoid being green police,” said Moore, “everything has to be fun and that’s not just children. It includes adults.”

To build employment all contracts include clauses requiring band members to receive mentoring, training and work. To date, several jobs have been created, with many more on the way.

The project’s goal of being a demonstration and motivator for other First Nations and other communities is working. Many groups are coming to inspect the operations. Colwood, a nearby city, was so impressed that it asked the T’Sou-ke Nation to work with them to upgrade 1000 homes in a project worth $12 million.

Central to achieving food sustainability is a planned state-of-the-art, four-acre greenhouse to grow market vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes. Advanced heating and cooling technologies will reduce energy costs by up to 75 per cent. Furthermore, the greenhouse will create 30 to 40 jobs. Funding is presently being arranged and the greenhouse will be completed in 2013.

Another greenhouse is planned, which will grow native plants and be a tourism draw. Christine George, the champion of traditional foods, has started a community garden, teaches jam-making and canning workshops and is re-introducing her people to finding food on the beach and in the forest. “When all is complete we will have a Zero-Mile diet,” she said proudly.

Traditional T’Sou-ke customs are quietly re-emerging. When a busload of people arrive to tour the solar facilities, they are also offered a salmon barbeque and then taken through a gift shop that features traditional carvings, paintings, masks and plants. Next year, a closed church will be converted into an arts centre. “We are achieving so much because we are working together,” says Linda Bristol, the elder in charge of crafts.

The T’Sou-ke vision is coming to fruition. Energy costs are tumbling, food will be less expensive and taste better, and unemployment is decreasing. Most significantly, however, pride and confidence are growing.