In 2015, seven young people died in Beaver Lake Cree Nation — a tiny community in northeast Alberta with an on-reserve population of only 345 people.
“We started to lose young people,” recalled Crystal Lameman, treaty coordinator and member of the First Nation, in an interview with DeSmog Canada. “People my age, in my generation.”
A rise of drug use, alcohol consumption and violence in 2015 coincided with a downturn in the price of oil and job losses, creating a “time of crisis in the community,” she said.
Lameman is completing her Master’s degree on the relationship between mental health and traditional land use at the University of Alberta. She saw a direct correlation between what was happening in her community and the industrialization and “overdevelopment of extreme energy” in her territory.
“So it was like ‘ok, so what can I do?’ ”
An answer quickly became clear: solar power. Within less than a year, the community had installed 94 panels on the roof of its school.
Alberta’s New Indigenous Solar Program Quadrupled Installation Size
Beaver Lake had been discussing the concept of solar power for years. A feasibility study was started back in the late 1970s to evaluate the potential, but didn’t go anywhere.
The idea of small-scale solar was revived through conversations with Keepers of the Athabasca, a non-profit group dedicated to protecting the Athabasca River watershed. From there, Lameman gained enthusiastic support from the First Nation’s leadership and elders council, after which Beaver Lake drafted a request for proposal (RFP) for a 6 kW installation.
But as they were preparing to release the RFP in 2017, the Alberta government announced its Indigenous Solar Program. That allowed the First Nation to quadruple its initial plan, leveraging it into a 24.65 kilowatt installation via a 60-40 cost split with the province.
“Beaver Lake was very proactive,” Adam Yereniuk, director of operations at Kuby Renewable Energy — which won the bid and installed the panels — told DeSmog Canada.
“This was the first installation under the Alberta Indigenous Solar Program. They’re taking advantage of the grant money out there. I think it should encourage a lot of other First Nations to do the same because it really makes perfect sense.”
Indigenous communities across the country are getting on board with their own clean energy projects. A 2017 study by University of Calgary scholar Gregory Lowan-Trudeau identified 300 projects in 194 Indigenous communities in Canada; more than half are located in British Columbia, which created the First Nations Clean Energy Business Fund in 2013.
The Beaver Lake solar array was completed in July 2017, with the switch officially “flipped” in September.
Switch to Solar About More than Clean Energy
The installation was about many things for Beaver Lake Cree Nation.
Lameman said the community’s drive to generate solar power was about more than clean energy: it was about harnessing the power to address intergenerational traumas in the community, manifesting in everything from high rates of drug and alcohol use, to incarceration, to violence, to child apprehension.
For that reason Beaver Lake kids participated in the solar project from its earliest stages: one of the first steps in the actual process involved a poster drawing contest, where school children drew what they thought of when they imagine the protection of Mother Earth.
The solar project was eventually installed on the roof of the Amisk Community School.
Now, as you walk into the foyer of the school, there’s a 20-inch flat screen monitor that displays how much electricity is being produced by the panels at any given time (Yereniuk pegged the number at about a fifth of the school’s total energy usage, although that number varies with conditions and demand).
The project was also a clear declaration of Indigenous sovereignty in the heartland of oil and gas production.
Lameman said that while Beaver Lake Cree Nation — which has launched precedent-setting court challenges against oilsands producers — isn’t opposed to fossil fuel development, it has to be done in a way that respects treaty rights and environmental sustainability.
“Industry is not entirely responsible,” she said. “However, the way in which economics in this country has been defined has been at the expense of the lands and resources of Indigenous peoples.”
The community-led clean energy project was launched alongside a food sovereignty project, which used the school’s soccer field in the summer to establish a fruit orchard and community garden. Thanks to careful calculations and collaboration with the pre-existing food preservation program, there’s now enough fruit to feed the entire community for a year.
In time, the irrigation system that waters those grounds will be powered with the solar energy from the school.
Community Members Trained in Solar Installation
Then there was the emphasis on training and employment.
Lameman said that one of the major issues that Indigenous communities face is incessantly having to hire people from outside the community, costing extra money and not helping to build capacities amongst members. That’s why the project proposal specifically requested that the company host a training session, so that community members could monitor and troubleshoot any issues they have with the array.
Kuby Renewable Energy offered to conduct the training for no extra cost, including a two-day in-class portion and two-day on-site training. Nineteen community members were trained in the process.
“This is the first time we have had this number of young men in our community come forward for training that they weren’t paid to be at and didn’t receive any incentive: no honorarium or anything,” Lameman said.
“This was all on volunteer basis. They took two days of their personal time to come sit in a classroom.”
Three More Projects Already in the Works
The solar project on the school was well received by the community, Lameman said, “and that is what helped us to move forward on planning for more solar projects.”
Beaver Lake Cree Nation is already working on three more projects with Kuby. Another 80kW worth of solar arrays will be installed on the roofs of the health centre, the Wah-Pow drug and alcohol treatment centre and community store.
Kuby Renewable Energy also helped install a 20.8 kilowatt solar array in Lubicon Cree First Nation in Little Buffalo, Alberta.
There’s also a clear need for additional funding mechanisms: a 2011 study by the federal government identified 292 remote communities in Canada, 170 of which were Indigenous. At least 60 per cent of the total number are diesel-fuelled — a reliance that creates enormous greenhouse gas emissions, noise, costs and chance of blackouts for communities.
In the federal government’s 2017 budget, $53.5 million was pledged over a decade to encourage the deployment of renewable projects in remote communities that rely on diesel.
“My community is really on this path of redefining or rather defining what role the economy plays in our wellness, what role land-based teachings and practices play in our wellness, and what role energy plays in our wellness,” Lameman said.
“When talking about energy we know that extreme energy hasn’t helped us in our path to being well. So we as a community have to define what Indigenous economic sovereignty means to us.”