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Terri Lynn Morrison is director, Indigenous Clean Energy network

Indigenous peoples are ready to lead Canada’s transition to a zero-carbon, more resilient, and more sustainable economy in full partnership with governments, corporations and allies.

Across the country, Indigenous communities are significantly involved in some 197 clean-energy projects that generate more than one megawatt of power, which, when the sources are operating at full capacity, is enough to power 1,200 homes. Increasingly that involvement means direct ownership and project management.

But we’ve only begun to tap the transformational potential of First Nations, Métis and Inuit leaders and entrepreneurs. Indigenous clean-energy projects not only lift up communities but provide lessons to the rest of the country – and indeed the world – on what a sustainable economy looks like.

First Nations are pursuing opportunities in renewable power that can reduce their current reliance on dirty, expensive and often-unreliable diesel, which is the main or only source of fuel in many communities. As well, they are developing capacity in energy efficiency, sustainable transport and bioenergy. These projects provide healthy homes and communities, create wealth and jobs, and empower Indigenous people to govern their own affairs.

A Canadian clean-energy transformation can help create a new relationship among Indigenous peoples, allies, governments, utilities and corporations – one that is based on a profound and powerful embrace of decolonized energy future. Such a transformation would leave Indigenous people as full partners in their energy economies, rather than relying on decisions made by non-Indigenous governments and corporations.

While we celebrate our achievements, our focus is on the future – or, as Wayne Gretzky put it, where the puck is going. We need to continue building capacity while gaining greater access to the capital needed to scale up our clean-energy efforts.

We are paying special attention to our youth. Young Indigenous people from across the country are keen to participate, and we are ramping up our efforts to support them through training.

Last month, the Indigenous Clean Energy (ICE) network held its annual Gathering – a virtual event this year that attracted some 700 registrants representing communities, and their allies, governments and non-Indigenous business partners.

A key moment at the Gathering was the unveiling of the Generation Power program, which is partly supported through a partnership with the Mastercard Foundation and will provide training and employment opportunities for 80 Indigenous youth.

The program will be built around five themes: clean-energy training, culture and leadership, employment, employer supports and mentorship. Generation Power is building off the success of the 20/20 Catalyst program that Indigenous Clean Energy has run for the past five years.

Alumni from ICE’s 20/20 Catalyst program are demonstrating what can be done when Indigenous leaders are brought together for intensive training and mentoring.

Among them is Grant Sullivan, who is a member of the Gwich’in First Nation in the Northwest Territories and president of Nihtat Energy Ltd., which has led several clean-energy projects. In an announcement made during the most recent Gathering by Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Reagan, Mr. Grant was awarded an $800,000 prize under the department’s Indigenous Off Diesel Initiative to finance clean-energy developments in the Beaufort Delta over the next two years.

These include implementation and training for a solar project at the Inuvik Satellite Station Facility (ISSF) site near Inuvik in 2021 and planning for a grid-connected solar farm in Inuvik to be completed by 2022.

Another 20/20 Catalyst alumnus, AJ Esquega, is leading an effort to install solar panels at Gull Bay First Nation in northwestern Ontario, which will displace 30 per cent of the diesel used in the community.

The key to the ICE program, he told the Gathering, is that the those in the Catalyst program learn from what is happening in other communities and how it is relevant to their own. They exchange information and views and are now sharing that knowledge with those who participate in the program.

Generating clean power is only one part of the puzzle. Communities also need to focus on using energy more efficiently, especially in homes that are often overcrowded and of sub-standard quality. Too often, poor housing conditions result in mould problems that cause asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Leona Humchitt, of the Heiltsuk First Nation in Bella Bella, B.C., is leading an energy-planning effort in her community that has already installed heat pumps to replace diesel in 129 houses with plans to extend that.

Ms. Humchitt is pursuing plans for deep retrofits that would upgrade buildings to reduce heating costs, increase comfort and eliminate mould issues. But such retrofits require upfront investment. which can be recouped over time, and the Heiltsuk community needs better access to capital in order to complete their vision.

ICE is proposing that the federal government endow $500-million fund that would catalyze a much larger pool of capital to finance community-centred, people-powered, economically uplifting clean-energy projects.

Such investment – along with the capacity-building initiatives – will ensure that Indigenous people can lead their communities into a more sustainable, equitable future, and will power reconciliation with a Canadian society that for too long has been content to accept Indigenous poverty as a fact of life.

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