After last year’s fuel and housing crisis in the Northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat and this year’s barely averted disaster in neighbouring Kashechewan, the only thing people seem able to agree on is that such dire circumstances shouldn’t exist in a country as rich and prosperous as Canada.
The two first nation communities, located near James Bay, have taken turns awakening the country to the cold fact that many of Canada’s remote communities face major challenges when it comes to simply staying warm.
Just last week in Kashechewan, the sacred diesel fuel that makes it possible to withstand the Far North’s devastatingly cold winters came agonizingly close to running out, forcing local authorities to consider closing two schools, the health clinic and other public institutions, and to take the major step of declaring a state of emergency.
Fortunately, the federal authorities stepped in at the last minute to ensure that funds were available for emergency fuel deliveries by air, the only way to reach the community until the ice road season begins. And now begins the regrettably brief aftermath in which we wring our hands and ask how a community could come so perilously close to running out of fuel in the energy superpower that is Canada.
What we continuously fail to realize is that the problem is not the scarcity of the fossil fuels on which these communities depend, but the very fact that they’re dependent on them in the first place, particularly when many of them are surrounded by a viable, sustainable and patently renewable source of high-quality fuel: wood.
Yes, wood. The same fuel that sustained first nation communities for centuries and that now heats the homes, businesses and institutions of millions of fossil-fuel-poor Europeans could be the foundation of a strategy to help remote Canadian communities finally become energy independent and move further down the road toward overall self-sufficiency.
After all, any Canadian community not currently served by natural gas, and there are many, could see significant savings by switching from more expensive fossil fuels such as oil or propane to heating systems run by wood chips or pellets, and some have already made the switch.
A wood chip or pellet system in a community such as Kashechewan would cut the cost of space heating by at least 50 per cent and as much as 85 per cent, a cost that’s in large part incurred by the Canadian taxpayer. More important, perhaps, is that, with wood, there’s potential to keep a lot of the money spent on fuel in the community, creating jobs in fuel supply and maintenance.
The Northwest Territories is already full steam ahead with a strategy to meet their heating needs with wood instead of fossil fuels, having converted many government and institutional buildings in Yellowknife and in more remote communities such as Behchoko. Most of Europe has long since realized the benefits of using an abundant local resource to meet a basic need.
A particularly instructive example is the Alaskan community of Delta Junction, where the Delta/Greely School District switched from heating oil to locally sourced wood chips. That move will save the school district $288,000 a year (based on 2012 heating oil prices), a fortune in a community of fewer than 1,000 people.
Challenges will certainly arise when Canada’s northern communities eventually transition from expensive and dirty fossil fuels to sustainably sourced biomass; they always do when a new way of doing things replaces an established way, as woefully ineffective as it may be. But the payoff will be huge for the communities that make the switch. It isn’t just a matter of saving money but of once again allowing remote communities to meet their own basic needs in a dignified way.
Bioenergy is one thing we should be able to agree on when it comes to the plight of Canada’s remote communities. With a firm commitment from our national and provincial leaders and a willingness to work closely with people who live in the North on ways to give them back control of their communities, we could put the ugliness of what happened last week in Kashechewan behind us instead of sitting around helplessly waiting for the next crisis.
Noam Sugarman works for the Canadian Bioenergy Association as a project manager and executive assistant. He is based in North Bay, Ont.