Day of Action for a Just Transition: Indigenous Nations leading the way to renewables

The world is embroiled in another war powered by oil.

Putin’s motives for invading Ukraine are more ruthless than simple nostalgia for a Soviet Empire. With 60% of their GDP dependent on fossil fuels, Russia relies on Western European demand for its oil and gas to bolster its economy. According to Jeff Colgan, director of the Climate Solutions Lab at Brown University, oil money keeps Putin in power, allowing him fund wars of aggression — first against Chechens, and now in Ukraine. 

The war started the same week as an IPCC report was released that framed climate inaction in the starkest possible terms: adapt, or perish. Instead, the world is scrambling — not to fast-track renewable energy projects but rather to expand fossil fuel infrastructure. This is a tragedy in the making for our climate, and if continued,  will ultimately lead to more casualties than even the brutal war now underway in Ukraine. 

It’s easy to despair: but while old empires jostle for position, at the grassroots there is a flowering of purpose for building a sustainable world. 

Join the movement: THIS Saturday, March 12 is a national Day of Action for a Just Transition. Sign on here: https://350.org/just-transition-day-of-action/

With a worldview that looks seven generations forward, Indigenous Peoples are getting on with the project of a clean energy transition. It’s time to get behind that stellar leadership and invest in initiatives that can not only stave off the worst impacts of climate disaster, but — as a collateral benefit — disempower the despotic regimes that fossil fuels can engender. 

Indigenous Peoples’ legal orders offer pathways for how we can decolonize our relationships with the planet. Adapting ancient laws for modern times, Nations are taking leadership in developing and advocating for renewable energy projects. It’s no coincidence that the same Peoples who value wild salmon, healthy forests and clean air are also the ones who are investing in clean power generation.   

We spoke with Indigenous lawyer Judith Sayers, head of Indigenous Clean Energy, about the promise and pitfalls of Indigenous-led renewable energy projects. She illuminates a clear, bright path forward, giving examples of Nations who are seeding the ground for a just transition, and a decolonized energy system. 

You can listen to the podcast here, or read a transcript of our conversation, below. 

Here’s Judith:

When I was 12 I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. On one side, I had my maternal grandmother telling me that I needed to always remember who I was: my values, and my teachings, to never give that up. Meanwhile, my grandfather was a hereditary chief of Hupacasath Nation. He made it clear to me that it was really important for me to get an education, too, to see and to understand the ways of the world.

Can you tell us your history with renewable energy generation? 

Obtaining energy in British Columbia has always been about building big dams. In the late 1990s, when the NDP were in government, they decided that we need to start focusing on small independent power projects. And so they really delved into creating opportunities for independent power producers (IPPs); First Nations people thought that was a pretty good thing. Then the NDP lost the election and the Liberals came in.

In 2002 Gordon Campbell tried to take away all of the NDP’s areas of interest: clean energy was one of them. 

Here in Port Alberni, there was a proposal for a power generation project that would burn natural gas. And they want to put it in the middle of town! We worked really hard to get that project stopped. In the end, there was some satisfaction because the project moved to Duke Point; when they tried to build it there, people rose up and said ‘no’ there as well.

We thought, we can’t just keep saying ‘not in my backyard’. What are some solutions for producing energy that don’t include creating greenhouse gasses?

So we did some research  on clean energy in our territory; we identified 10 systems that could support run of the river projects: small scale community micro-hydro.

We chose the top one, which was China Creek, and started working on a project. It’s a lot of work: environmental standards, permits and so on.  We managed to do all of that, and we got to the point where we applied to B.C. Hydro where we were able to get a project of 6.5megawatts. And even then we’re worried that B.C. Hydro wouldn’t accept our project. We did a little bit of lobbying to press the Ministry to give us this opportunity. Small projects need to be taken into consideration, not big ones. And so we got an Electricity Purchase Agreement. That  was quite a feat! 

How did you get involved with the advocacy side of renewable energy

I started going to Clean Energy B.C. conferences and trying to understand all the complications that the industry was facing. Then more and more First Nations got involved. Run of the river was the main area to begin with;  there were a few wind projects. Of course, now it’s solar. 

There are amazing projects out there: in Alert Bay the First Nation they have a 50 megawatt project. 

Quick facts: (source : https://www.pembina.org/media-release/indigenous-clean-energy-projects-key-meeting-bc-climate)

  • In B.C., First Nations own, operate or co-partner 79 grid-tied renewable energy projects. Combined, these projects deliver 14 per cent of B.C.’s electricity. Most are small-scale hydro, solar, wind or bioenergy projects.
  • New electricity required to meet B.C.’s 2030 GHG targets represents potential growth of 235 per cent in installed capacity of current First Nation renewable energy projects, which could attract some $8 billion in private investments.
  • There are at least 13 First Nation grid-tied renewable energy projects, representing 807 MW of capacity (enough electricity to power 200,000 homes) that are shovel-ready and can be developed and sell power to the grid. Yet these projects are not moving forward because of a lack of government policy that would enable their advancement. 

How is government policy hampering the progress of First Nations-led renewable energy? 

The NDP government decided to proceed with Site C. In the past few years there’s been no opportunity whatsoever to create energy other than in our own communities. A lot of people spent millions of dollars developing projects, and all of a sudden there’s no opportunity to sell power to the grid. The governments didn’t talk to First Nations about that. And that’s really sad.

But I think the worst thing that they wanted to do was to do away with self-sufficiency. 

When Gordon Campbell was in government, he passed the Clean Energy Act that said that British Columbia had to be self-sufficient: all power had to come from British Columbia. The NDP government wanted to do away with self-sufficiency so they could buy as much power as they wanted from the US and Alberta at a cheap price.

We were quite surprised and devastated when the B.C. government tabled Bill 17, which was an act to amend the Clean Energy Act. One of the things they could do was to say, “well,  any kind of power is clean power”. They could just declare any form of energy that they bought to be clean energy.  So if they bought power from Alberta and it was coal generated, then they could consider that “clean energy”! 

They don’t want to buy power from First Nations. So, First Nations started building projects for their own communities.

Now there’s all kinds of projects all over the province. There are so many neat projects  — whether it’s a wind turbine, solar, or run of the river. And of course there are still 27 communities in British Columbia that are still reliant on diesel. Most of those are First Nations and they’ve been working hard; Hesquihat  territories are finally getting off of diesel. They’re doing a run of the river project mixed with solar. Between the two they won’t need to use diesel. 

So there are some amazing projects that have gone ahead because First Nations have fought hard for it. 

What direction would you like to see government go in with regards to renewable energy, particularly that developed by and for First Nations? 

I think is a big mistake to take away opportunity from First Nations to produce power. It goes against everything that they as a province have said they’re going to do with their relationship with First Nations: helping us with economic development, and then passing the Declaration of Indigenous Rights Act. 

We have the right to development. We have the right to manage the resources in our territory. And so by amending the Clean Energy Act they’re doing away with all of that, and they aren’t living up to that commitment. 

Site C is going to be very expensive power whether or not they finally finish it. Of course  they’re trying to hide the cost overruns. How can you compare these huge dams with small scale clean energy projects? The B.C. government likes to feed people wrong information about what the real cost of power is, so they can discredit the Independent Power Production industry. It’s been a real battle.

We spend billions of dollars and create thousands of jobs and they just continue to try and downplay the industry; by doing so they have raised a large barrier to First Nations and our desire to be creating clean energy.

Other jurisdictions in Canada are looking at new innovations in clean energy, and people are going and investing money over there and we’ll get behind.  Who wants to come and do innovations or research and bridge funding when there’s no opportunity to use clean energy? So we’re falling further behind.

Why is it so important to you to be an advocate for renewable energy? 

What has been ingrained in me from all my growing up here is respect for Mother Earth: for the waters that run through her, for this sky and everything that grows, and for four legged and winged ones. That  kind of respect has really driven me in my career to be protecting Mother Earth and doing what I can. 

To hear the original interview with Judith Sayers, visit https://raventrust.com/podcast-indigenous-power-with-judith-sayers/.

Photo by Crystal Lameman showing Beaver Lake Cree solar project installation.

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