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Margaret Kenequanash had been pursuing an 1,800-kilometre transmission line to connect 17 First Nations communities to the Ontario power grid for more than a decade.

David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

By the time Wataynikaneyap Power announced, in October, 2019, that it had locked in financing to start building an 1,800-kilometre transmission line to connect 17 First Nations communities to the Ontario power grid, Margaret Kenequanash had earned a chance to catch her breath.

A member of the North Caribou Lake First Nation, Ms. Kenequanash had been pursuing the transmission project for more than a decade, first as a community leader and, since 2017, as Wataynikaneyap’s chief executive officer.

But as construction picked up in early 2020, the pandemic struck, forcing Ms. Kenequanash to launch an intense new round of activity.

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“I never, ever imagined that I would be sitting at my kitchen table for the last year, or most of it, working on an up-to-$1.9-billion project to energize the community,” Ms. Kenequanash said last week.

“That never ever crossed my mind. But we’re doing it.”

The project, first proposed in 2008, will provide electricity to communities that currently rely on diesel-powered generators. Wataynikaneyap – “the line that brings light” in Anishinaabemowin – is majority-owned by 24 First Nations, and it’s being built under guiding principles they developed. Those include a requirement that the project not interfere with seasonal activities such as hunting and trapping, and that no herbicides be used along the line.

St. John’s-based utilities company Fortis Inc. and other private investors hold 49 per cent of Wataynikaneyap Power LP, the licensed transmission company for the project. The 24 First Nations own 51 per cent, with the option to increase that stake to 100 per cent over the next couple of decades.

As of this month, about 60 per cent of the right-of-way for the project has been cleared and about 13 per cent of the towers have been strung with transmission wires. About 600 people are working in 12 camps along the route. In September, the Ontario Energy Board approved rates for the line, which is expected to be complete in 2023.

Wataynikaneyap is expected to prevent more than 6.6 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over 40 years by replacing roughly 25 million litres a year of diesel fuel. For communities, the project represents employment and training opportunities, as well as reliable electricity that will open the door to new homes, schools and businesses. And it means a steady stream of revenue from providing electricity services to communities, in partnership with Fortis and others, and with rates regulated by the Ontario Energy Board.

For Fortis, Wataynikaneyap was a departure from its usual practice.

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“Typically, we don’t get into a project where we’re not the majority owner. In fact, most of the time, we own it from tip to tail,” Fortis chief executive officer David Hutchens said during a joint video-call interview with Ms. Kenequanash and Fortis executive vice-president Gary Smith.

But Fortis saw a sound business case and sterling ESG (environmental, social and governance) attributes, ranging from improved air quality in local communities to a governance model that reflected Indigenous priorities.

That governance model helped the partners respond quickly to the pandemic, and to wildfires that put construction on hold for about four weeks this past summer, Mr. Smith said.

The First Nation owners “balanced the health of the communities against what the contractor could do to protect everybody, and the need to get out and build the project,” Mr. Smith said.

“Because if we had to stop the project only three months into construction, it could have been a very large problem,” he added.

Both the federal and Ontario governments have backed the project. The federal government in 2018 announced $1.6-billion in funding for Wataynikaneyap, saying in a budget document that its contribution would be offset by no longer having to pay for diesel fuel for communities that get connected to the line.

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The federal funding went into an independent trust, where it will either be used for help pay for construction or held in reserve to reduce potential future costs for Ontario ratepayers. The amount that stays in the trust will depend on overall construction costs, according to Wataynikaneyap.

The Ontario government in 2019 announced a construction loan for the project of up to $1.3-billion, and a group of five Canadian banks provided $680-million, bringing available construction funding to just over $2-billion.

Ms. Kenequanash was key in project negotiations, Mr. Smith said.

“On more than one occasion, Margaret would always go back to the principles – that if we don’t have a viable project for the First Nations coming out of this, that can improve the lives of people on the land, then there is no project,” Mr. Smith said.

When Ms. Kenequanash talks about the project, she emphasizes future generations, including her grandchildren. Speaking roughly a week after the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, she said the day was an important time to acknowledge trauma, grief and loss, but that it also opened the door to talking about how to change the future.

“What are we going to do to make a change? What action needs to be made – as an individual, as a company, as an entity or corporation, to change history?” she said.

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“So in thinking about this project, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, is to make that change. To create those opportunities and change in the community, in terms of bringing reliable infrastructure so that we can develop that vision ... In doing so, we will protect all our children in the future.”

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