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Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA – Imagine the challenges of putting together a panel of accomplished Indigenous women who work in finance, these are the people putting together major energy and climate deals that cost millions of dollars.

Who has the credentials? Who can speak with authority? And then the real problem for the organizers of the First Nations Major Projects Coalition’s Toward Net Zero by 2050 Conference, was, how do you limit the number of powerful speakers? The planners answered that question with two panels of accomplished Indigenous women working in finance.

“My journey of financial sustainability started with my mom who raised four kids on her own on a budget of $400 per month. That's true financial sustainability, and it's next to nature for us Indigenous women,” said Jolain Foster. “All I can say is thank God for the fish and the moose meat that I grew up on.”

Foster, Gitxsan Nation, is now a partner with the Prairies Indigenous Practice for Deloitte in Calgary. And today she said her work as an advocate supports First Nations on a journey of “economic independence through the development of equity partnerships, operational excellence and change management.”

Those words — equity partnerships — are the very idea behind the Toward Net Zero by 2050 Conference. It’s a conversation with some 1,300 people about energy projects involving Indigenous communities and businesses on Indigenous turf and terms. And that means Indigenous people leading the energy transition.

“It's very much about Indigenous people leading the discussion to say, ‘no, we are not passive.’ We are not waiting for a project to be given to us or to be included after the decisions he made on the investment, the location, the environmental studies and operation,” said Mark Podlasly, one of the conference organizers.

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Climate change and the goals associated with limiting greenhouse gas emissions, such as half of all vehicles being electric by 2030, is driving a sense of urgency.

Yet this is a difficult conversation because the framework of mining has been built by companies that have practiced irresponsibility. Nearly every Indigenous community has scars, or active mines, that have been destructive and one-sided. Abandoned uranium mines, Superfund sites, toxic tailings … and on and on.

So how can this be different?

The First Nations Major Projects Coalition sees ownership, and early, full participation by Indigenous people as decision-makers, as the only way forward.

“We will need 14-times more nickel, equivalent amounts and copper, iron or lithium," says Podlasly. "And that's gonna come from Indigenous lands. Those mines are not gonna be built in downtown Seattle and downtown Los Angeles. They'll be in our territories. So we want our members, our members have asked us, ‘how do we prepare for that? How do we make the right decision? So if we want to, and we do agree to host these facilities that they're done in a way that is environmentally, socially, culturally, and economically fair to the communities?’”

The coalition gives Indigenous communities the technical information to make key decisions.

Podlasly is director of economic policy and initiatives at First Nations. He is a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation.


The First Nations Major Projects Coalition includes 86 First Nations from across Canada that have been approached for a range of projects, ranging from solar and geothermal to mining within Indigenous territories. The idea was to band together to raise capital, access technical expertise from an Indigenous perspective, and help advise their members during the complex regulatory process.

“We will provide the free forum of information, which allows the community to decide, do they want to participate or not? And if they don't, that's fine. We do not take an active position in the investments. We don't take a percentage,” Podlasly said. “We are Indigenous led. Our board is all Indigenous and about 70 percent of our staff are Indigenous, including Indigenous economists, Indigenous environmental science people, Indigenous hydrologists, Indigenous engineers, all to provide that service to communities.”

And that brings us back to the Indigenous women in finance.

Cherie Brant said she started off wanting to be an architect. Then she landed on a study in college called “urban and regional planning.”

“It was so interesting to me because it combined architecture and the built form and our landscape with politics. And I just, I was completely blown away,” she said. The idea was combining the social, the environmental, and the political, seeking harmony between all three.

Her path took her to law school and she would go to conferences and talk about “sustainable development.”

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What does that mean? She answers herself. Sustainable economic development is about a healthy community, a healthy environment.

“So when I think about sustainable finance, it really comes back to like, ‘what are the barriers? What are we trying to do? How do we pave the way for our communities to thrive and grow? And so I just think there's endless opportunities.”

Brant is from Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte and Ojibway from Wikwemkoong Unceded Indian Reserve. She is a partner for the Toronto law firm, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, and a member of the board of directors for TD Bank.

In her twenty years of banking she has put together a long list of financing that includes tribal ownership of wind farms and hydroelectric projects.

Then with so many people attending the Vancouver conference there were stories of success, some that went south, and lots of ideas about what works and what’s next.

“So for me, sustainability has a really wide definition. That includes all of who we are. It all of our environmental work, it's all of our work in the community. It's all of our spiritual practices. It's all of our culture and language,” said Kate Finn, Osage. She is the executive director of First People’s Worldwide at the University of Colorado Law School. “I think what I love about my work at First Peoples Worldwide is building these bridges between the private sector and business people, redefining what sustainability is, and then building the business case for ethics and building the business case for sustainability, using those words, using that language and being able to be a conduit in that way.”

Hillary Thatcher, Métis, says there is a relationship between business and politics. She said the Indigenous leaders she worked with showed the values that were important to their communities. “And they don't always line up with Western values.” That led to questions about shared interests and path forward.

“That's where I landed in the energy space and the clean power space,” she said. “I found that if you can influence public policy to create this space for Indigenous participation and economic development, you can actually yield amazing results for everybody in the society, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.”

There is now a track record of a decade with major partnerships in hydro energy with First Nations in Ontario.

Chief Sharlene Gale is chair of the First Nations Major Project Coalition and also the leader of her own nation in Fort Nelson.

One of her major projects is the Tu Deh-Kah Geothermal Plant.

This project has an interesting story because our nation has been involved in oil and gas for the last 60 years. And we had this pipeline that ran through our community that gave us royalties. And it really brought a lot of prosperity where we were able to invest that money and do a lot of things for our people. And since then that well has been depleted. And so the interesting part of this geo project is, there was a lot of work through oil and gas to get us through stage one.”

The plant is a repurposed gas field and it was constructed with a $40 million grant. The power will provide all of the energy for tribal members’ homes and the additional capacity will be added to the provincial grid.

The oil field provided “opportunity” for 60 years, Gale said. “And now, you know, with repurposing it, to provide a generational opportunity for our band members and seven generations to come, it's a renewable project” with so many spinoffs such as heating greenhouses for food security.

There is also a potential spinoff from the waste, the brine fluid.

“What is in the brine?” she asks. “Is there lithium in there? And we all know that in order to get to where we need to be, we're gonna have to have more lithium for battery production and what better way to do it if we can do it in a cleaner way than mining. I think that's a tremendous opportunity that we must explore as Indigenous nations.”

In a panel discussion Gale said that in order for Indigenous people to get involved with a major project it has to align with our values. "And when we take, we give back."

Then when it comes to clean energy, she said, "We've already decided that we are going to lead."

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor-at-large for Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix. The Indigenous Economics Project is funded with a major grant from the Bay and Paul Foundations. 

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