This article is part of the series of posts by writers from partner publications of the Warwick Economics Summit. This piece was written by Jack Millos, a writer for the Sundial Press, Sciences Po Reims' student-run media outlet. More articles by Jack and other Sundial Press writers can be read at https://www.sundialpress.co/home/.
Canada, a “first world” developed country, is presently home to indigenous communities living in “third-world conditions”. Canada’s indigenous peoples have been systematically oppressed and disadvantaged for centuries through cultural genocide and blatant discrimination. Today, they still face the highest levels of poverty in the country.
Much of this poverty is tied to the issue of energy access, which is crucial to economic development and meeting environmental goals. For 300 indigenous communities in Northern Canada, the country’s region most densely populated by indigenous peoples, limited energy infrastructure has resulted in unreliable, unsustainable, and expensive electricity. The vast size of Northern Canada and its harsh weather conditions make it nearly impossible to connect the region with the North American power transmission grid. As a result, expensive and highly polluting diesel generators are the main energy source for most Northern Canadian indigenous communities. Diesel-powered electricity makes bills nine times higher for Northerners than the average Canadian. In addition, the reliance on expensive diesel-powered energy conflicts with Canada’s many environmental goals as they incur adverse environmental impacts of burning fuel.
Indigenous Canadians at Calgary Stampede Parade in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
In Canada, however, it is not just the Northern communities who experience the exclusion of access to clean and cheap energy. Throughout the country, legal roadblocks provide yet another barrier to indigenous communities' economic and environmental progress. The First Nation communities of Windigo Island and Angle Inlet are situated on Lake of the Woods, a key waterbody in the provision of hydroelectricity to the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba. Despite this, both communities actually have to import their energy from the US, paying higher American prices and international fees. This is because Manitoba’s Deputy Premier and Minister of Finance, Cliff Cullen, issued a directive to Manitoba Hydro, the province's natural gas electric power provider, legally blocking it from entering into any agreement with First Nation and other indigenous communities. Despite having been intended to protect indigenous interests from Manitoba Hydro’s influence, the bill limits indigenous sovereignty over their own communities and over access to energy. In turn, these small and historically disadvantaged communities pay some of the highest electricity prices in Ontario. Canadian government policy thus forces these communities to use overpriced fossil fuels rather than green Canadian energy.
Rather than expanding or refurbishing the existing local energy infrastructure, installing green energy sources would be a straightforward solution. Whether through the extension of Manitoba Hydro’s services throughout Lake of the Woods or employing solar and wind power during the rough northern seasons, green energy is an upgrade, not merely a last resort. Issues faced by remote communities, such as low population densities and limited transportation, make expanding gas networks unfeasible. These hurdles, however, give green energy the chance it needs to cement itself as not only a suitable alternative to fossil fuels but as an upgrade. But it needs legislative support to do so.
Ineffective and counterproductive policy, exemplified by Hydro Manitoba’s directive in the case of the Lake on the Wood’s communities, is the clearest demonstration of what legislation needs to reform, but legislatures must also take more active roles in financing green energy. Despite its long-term profitability, the high upfront costs associated with any infrastructure project require loans, funding, and investment from private and public institutions.
Furthermore, Canadian energy leaders say that equity partnerships, hiring local contractors, and investing in communities to facilitate such projects are steps for reconciliation that provide a positive-sum game for all stakeholders involved. The MLTC Bioenergy Centre is one of the premier examples of what can be done when indigenous communities and energy contractors work together. Marking the first indigenous-owned bioenergy facility, it provides energy for over 5,000 homes and is expected to decrease greenhouse gas emissions “by more than one million tons over 25 years.”
Green infrastructure in indigenous communities is not a financial burden but an investment in both the economy and environment moving forward, one that would put the needs and development of these communities first. The goals of conservation, sustainable development, and uplifting poverty will simply not be met without indigenous participation. Working with indigenous peoples to tackle climate change and improve access to cheap and clean energy goes beyond just a green transition, but universal progress and reconciliation for centuries of mistreatment.
The views and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Warwick Economics Summit.
Government of Canada - Alternative and Renewable Energy in the North: Community-driven Initiatives
Manitoba Order in Council - A Directive to Manitoba Hydro Electric Board Respecting Agreements with Indigenous Groups and Communities