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James Harper at St. Joseph Wind Farm near Letellier, MB in Treaty 1 Territory.Handout

As world leaders gather in Glasgow for COP26, they are facing calls to think big.

Mihskakwan James Harper and other delegates from Indigenous Clean Energy will be urging them to also think small: specifically, about how micro-grid projects owned and operated by Indigenous communities can help power a lower-carbon world.

In sessions this week at the climate change conference in Glasgow, Mr. Harper and three other ICE delegates will be showcasing such projects and making the case that Indigenous communities should have a key role in shaping the future energy landscape.

“We will not meet our climate targets unless Indigenous peoples are empowered – and I think the world needs to hear this and the world really needs to understand this,” Mr. Harper said in an interview from Toronto before he left for Glasgow.

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To him, that empowerment would result in Indigenous peoples having a bigger say in energy development, as well as environmental conservation and protection. ICE is scheduled to host three sessions at the conference, focusing on themes including renewable energy microgrids and how Indigenous clean energy projects can align with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or UNDRIP.

Canada passed legislation to implement UNDRIP this past June.

The scheduled presentations by ICE come amid high expectations and perhaps equally high misgivings about the conference. It’s widely considered a critical event if countries, including Canada, are to reverse a pattern in which greenhouse gas emissions have climbed even as governments have vowed to curb them.

For ICE, the climate conference is an opportunity to take its advocacy to a wider audience.

A non-profit group launched in 2016, ICE focuses on Indigenous participation in the energy sector, emphasizing the social, economic and environmental benefits that can result when First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities are full or part-owners of energy projects.

In a June, 2020, report, ICE said there were nearly 200 medium-to-large renewable energy projects with Indigenous involvement in Canada and that the number of such projects had increased by about 30 per cent over the preceding three years.

Energy sources for those projects include hydro, wind and solar, the report said, and most projects have included specific measures to optimize the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Ownership models varied from single-digit stakes, to sizable minority shares, to full Indigenous ownership.

Indigenous groups are also increasingly moving into the electricity transmission sector, the report said, citing Wataynikaneyap Power, an Indigenous-led partnership between 24 Ontario First Nations and utilities company Fortis Inc. to connect 17 remote communities to the provincial power grid.

At COP26, ICE wants to put such models in the spotlight.

The main goal is to “bring forth” Indigenous clean energy voices at the heart of a clean energy transition, said Freddie Huppé Campbell, global hub program co-ordinator for ICE.

“We also would like to hold governments accountable to their words. And really push forward and hope to impact systems of change and policy,” added Ms. Campbell, who is Métis and based in Ottawa.

As well as his advocacy work with ICE, Mr. Harper, who is Cree from the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation in Alberta, is currently business development manager at NRStor Inc.

The Toronto-based company builds and operates energy storage projects, including the Oneida Energy Storage facility. The proposed project is a joint venture between NRStor and Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corp., an economic development arm for the Six Nations of the Grand River, based in Southwestern Ontario.

The Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) in May said it would invest up to $170-million in the Oneida project, which would be designed to help Ontario manage peak electricity demand by storing energy during off-peak periods.

Plans call for the project to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 4.1 million tonnes a year, or about the equivalent of taking 40,000 cars off the road, according to the CIB.

In late August, Todd Smith, Ontario’s Energy Minister, asked the Independent Electricity System Operator, or IESO, to draft a 10-year contract for the facility, setting the stage for a potential final contract to follow.

The project, if it goes ahead, is expected to result in jobs and economic benefits for the Six Nations.

Smaller projects can also have significant economic benefits, Mr. Harper says, because jobs and revenues stay in the community rather than going to outside contractors or utilities.

On the policy front, Mr. Harper would like to see more support for micro-grids, saying the small scale of such projects can translate into big impacts.

While the total carbon emission reductions of a single project “are just a tiny, tiny per cent of reductions worldwide, when we start building it all together and scaling it all up, then we have actually a sizable shift.”

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