In three large greenhouses southwest of Victoria, members of the T'Sou-ke First Nation are nurturing 15,000 wasabi seedlings, the small community's latest business venture.
The 15 months it'll take before harvest is a long time for a greenhouse crop, but the T'Sou-ke – with about 250 members and 67 hectares of land around the Sooke Basin and the Strait of Juan de Fuca – are in it for the long haul. The Pacific Coast Wasabi business is part of the community's 100-year vision for energy security, food security, cultural renaissance and economic self-sufficiency, all centring on traditional aboriginal values.
While other First Nations in British Columbia debate the pros and cons of partnering with resource companies on pipelines and LNG production, the T'Sou-ke have aimed at setting a standard in sustainability, independence and alternative energy.
To date, this has included solar power, electric vehicles and sustainable food.
Chief Gordon Planes beams as he watches the wasabi project develop.
As he steps into a greenhouse, a misting system activates, creating a nutrient and fertilizer-infused fog to nurture the infant plants.
He inhales deeply: "Pretty neat, hey?"
Funds from the wasabi farm, which are expected to bring in big profit while being environmentally friendly, will go into expanding an existing organic community garden and a 70-hectare oyster farm pilot project in the Sooke Basin.
On the alternative energy side, the T'Sou-ke have partnered with Timberwest Forest Corp. and EDP Renewables Canada Ltd. to develop, build and operate $750-million in large-scale wind power projects on Vancouver Island. It has also recently started a project that will harness wave power from the ocean to create energy.
So far, the First Nation has managed to cut its energy bills by approximately 75 per cent.
Now, with conditional federal approval on Enbridge's Northern Gateway Pipeline project, the T'Sou-ke leadership believes their approach is more important than ever, and is starting to guide other communities along the same path.
Special projects manager Andrew Moore, originally from London, England, was hired in 2006 to help establish the community vision and has worked with the T'Sou-ke on conservation projects since.
Standing outside the band hall, Mr. Moore said that all the First Nation's administration buildings run completely on solar-generated power, as well as a nearby charging station for solar-run electric cars.
The shiny solar panels, complete with a Coast Salish design, are part of the nation's three solar-generation systems – the largest photovoltaic project in B.C. when it was built in 2009, at 75 kilowatts. The $1.5-million project has landed the T'Sou-ke on an exclusive list as one of four designated "solar cities" in Canada under the Canadian Solar Cities Project.
And as the only First Nation on the list, the T'Sou-ke are considered the most solar-intensive aboriginal community in the world, Mr. Moore said.
"In the summer, we have surplus energy," he explained.
"We're only using about one-eighth of what we're creating, so we sell the surplus to BC Hydro and buy it back in the winter when we need it."
"We're using BC Hydro as a battery, but we're doing that so our bills are zero."
Mr. Planes said that solar, wind and wave power have the potential to break remote communities' dependence on expensive diesel, which can cost millions of dollars a year.
At the end of July, he met with officials from the Haida Nation to talk solar power as part of an outreach program through the T'Sou-ke.
"First Nations are looking at alternative energy as a way of lessening the costs in their own villages, especially if they're secluded," he said.
"As technology improves it's going to be better for those off-the-grid communities that rely on diesel generation."
The band has also partnered with local governments on a renewable energy program and is working with higher levels of government to mentor remote communities on alternative energy.
Mr. Planes believes his nation's approach is a necessary one as Canadians become increasingly reliant on fossil fuels.
"The sun is here every day," he said. "It's guaranteed to be here. And right now, no one's taxing the sun."