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For the Indigenous communities along northern Ontario’s James Bay — the ones that have lived on and taken care of the lands as long as anyone can remember — the new millenium marked the start of a diesel-less future.
While the southern part of the province took Ontario’s power grid for granted, the vast majority of these communities had never been plugged in. Their only source of power was a handful of very loud diesel-powered generators. Because of that, daily life in the Attawapiskat, Kashechewan and Fort Albany First Nations involved deliberating a series of tradeoffs. Could you listen to the radio while toasting a piece of bread? How many Christmas lights could you connect before nothing else was usable? Was there enough power to open a new school?
The communities wanted a safe, reliable, clean alternative. So did their chiefs, which is why they passed a resolution in 1996 to connect the area to Ontario’s grid, not just for basic necessities but to facilitate growth and development, and improve their communities’ quality of life.
The idea was unthinkable at the time — scorned and dismissed by those who held the keys to Ontario’s (electrical) power. Even some in the community didn’t fully understand it. When the idea was first proposed at a gathering of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations, one attendee said the only way he could picture the connection was as “a little extension cord running through the bush from Moosonee.”
But the leadership of Attawapiskat, Kashechewan and Fort Albany First Nations had been dreaming and planning. In 1997, along with members of Taykwa Tagamou and Moose Cree First Nations, they created the first, and thus far only, fully Indigenous-owned energy company in Canada: Five Nations Energy Inc.
Over the next five years, the organization built Omushkego Ishkotayo, the Cree name for the Western James Bay transmission line: “Omushkego” refers to the Swampy Cree people, and “Ishkotayo” to hydroelectric power. The 270-kilometre-long transmission line is in one of the most isolated regions of Ontario, one that can only be accessed by plane, except for a few months in winter when ice roads are strong enough to drive on. The project went online in 2001, bringing reliable power to over 7,000 people who were previously underserved by the province’s energy providers. It also, somewhat controversially, enabled Ontario’s first diamond mine in Attawapiskat territory.
The future the First Nations created 25 years ago is blissfully quiet, now that the diesel generators are shut off. “When the power went on, you could hear the birds,” Patrick Chilton, the CEO of Five Nations Energy, said with a smile. “Our communities were glowing.”
Chilton took over in 2013 after the former CEO, his brother Ed, passed away. “This was all his idea,” Chilton told The Narwhal in a conversation over Zoom from his office in Timmins, Ont. The company’s story has never been told before in full, he said, because he felt “vulnerable” to the forces that fought against Omushkego Ishkotayo or didn’t understand it.
The success of Five Nations Energy is a tale of unwavering determination and imagination, Chilton said, and it started with his older brother. “Ed was the first person who believed a transmission line was possible,” he said.
In a Timmins Daily Press death notice published July 2, 2013, Ed Chilton is described as having “a quiet but profound impact on the establishment of agreements and enterprises benefitting First Nations peoples and their lands.” Chilton doesn’t describe him that way, exactly.
“If you knew my brother, he was very stubborn,” he said. A certified engineering technologist, Ed was a visionary whose whole life was defined by the transmission line. He was the first to approach the chiefs with the idea, the first to reach out to energy companies and government officials and the one who persuaded thousands of people in remote, underserved communities that it was possible to bring power to their region.
After that 1996 meeting of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, there came a four-year-long effort to convince the rest of Ontario, and the country, the project was possible and financially viable. The chiefs of the five First Nations took their idea to the halls of power: Queen’s Park, Parliament Hill and the provincial power distributor Hydro One (then Ontario Hydro).
“All of them said no,” Chilton said. “They saw it as near to impossible — the idea that you could build a transmission line in the ‘swamp,’ as they called it.” The Five Nations Energy team kept a document at the time tracking how many times they heard no; it topped out at 37.
One of the worst times was in 1998, at a meeting on the 19th floor of the Ontario Hydro building in the heart of downtown Toronto. There, despite all their preparation and planning, a senior member of the Ontario Hydro team told Chilton, Martin and other chiefs “you’ll build that line over my dead body,” Chilton recalled.
At the time, Chilton said, Ontario Hydro was refusing to cooperate: unwilling to let go of its monopoly over transmission lines, but also saying it was unable to connect new houses in the First Nations to diesel generators it said were at maximum capacity. (Ontario Hydro no longer exists; Hydro One declined to comment.)
“There’s always naysayers no matter what you’re doing,” Martin said. “What we were doing had never been done before. So of course people were telling us how we had never managed something of this size or a budget of this size.”
“[Our people] basically told them to blow it up your ass. We can do it,” Chilton said.
So the chiefs of the five nations did something they’d never done before: they went to all of the big banks and many, many charitable foundations trying to get the money, a big ask for a project of this scale, in this location. Without outside support, their pitch was that they’d build it themselves.
This was the hardest part of the process, said Lawrence Martin, the former Grand Chief of Mushkegowuk Tribal Council and a member of the Five Nations Energy board. “We didn’t know how to finance something like this, to get loans,” he told The Narwhal. “That was the toughest task for all of us to achieve.”
Eventually, they got nearly $50 million in funding from a series of financial organizations including the Bank of Montreal, Pacific and Western Capital, the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (an Ontario government agency) and the engineering and construction company SNC Lavalin, which did an assessment of the area and deemed the project viable.
And in 1999, Ed Chilton, other members of the Chilton family and the chiefs were able to secure an agreement with Ontario Hydro that would allow them to buy electricity from the province and sell it to their communities.
But there were more struggles ahead. A year later, the Mike Harris government reorganized Ontario Hydro into five different utility and electricity companies, complicating Five Nations Energy’s effort to get its paperwork finalized and authorized. No one had ever sat down to figure out how much electricity remote First Nations communities needed or should get. That had to be done in Ontario’s newly organized energy system which, in the end, worked in the company’s favour: because roles and responsibilities throughout the industry were being redefined, the five First Nations were able to convince bureaucrats and policymakers to include their communities in the deliberations.
There was an obvious, cost-saving argument, Chilton said: diesel generation is expensive, from the high cost of flying or trucking fuel to remote communities to everyday operation. The transmission line might have a significant up-front cost, but over time, providing electricity to remote northern communities would be much cheaper for the government.
Multiple agreements had to be made. While First Nations are primarily under federal jurisdiction, electricity is a provincial issue. It took an army of creative lawyers to create documents that had never been penned before to build provincial energy infrastructure on federal or First Nations land.
Finally, construction started in 2000 with the help of PowerTel, an Ontario transmission construction contractor. Chilton’s favourite photo from the time is of his brother hugging and kissing the first transmission pole that was put in the ground. Approximately 1,970 poles were brought in on the train that winter, when the frozen swamp allowed construction and movement. Indigenous Elders helped map the path of the line so as not to disturb the land and the animals that traversed it.
Martin remembers wondering if the poles would even stand up in the terrain or if they would simply keel over. A lot of people gathered close by, anxiously watching the whole line grow pole by pole. Community consultations had been tense: after female Elders voiced their support unequivocally and loudly, everyone else was convinced to support the endeavour.
“We kept waiting for that day when the power would be switched on,” Martin said. Diesel energy generators were kept on standby just in case the project didn’t work — but it did. In May 2001, Fort Albany First Nation glowed with electric power. “We knew we had made the right decision for the community 25 minutes after the lights came on. Most of us had never had 24 hours of uninterrupted electricity before then.”
By 2003, Atawapistakat, Kashechewan and Fort Albany First Nations all had electric power and a transmission company that operated in both English and Cree.
“We didn’t build a silver bullet,” Chilton said. “But I think we built opportunities. Starting with the opportunity for our communities to grow.”
Five Nations Energy eventually registered as a non-profit organization, allowing it to invest any surplus profits back into communities and organizations that help them. These included hospitals in Sudbury and Kingston that had treated so many — including Chilton when he needed bypass surgery — and could now offer easier and more innovative telehealth services, including establishing the first telemammography unit in North America.
In staying determinedly on course, the chiefs and founders of Five Nations Energy created a cooperative and profitable energy solution that has become a benchmark for Indigenous communities across the country. Many consider it a huge success, but even after the line was built, challenges remained.
With the power infrastructure in place, life changed almost overnight, Chilton said. Other challenges became much easier to tackle. Five Nations Energy ran fibre optic cables through the transmission lines, bringing internet to all the communities by Christmas 2008. That allowed a new school to finally open and for college courses to be accessed remotely.
“Gradually everyone realized they didn’t have to unplug the toaster to boil the kettle,” Chilton said. “Because we all had safe, reliable electricity.”
But with great power also comes great responsibility — literally. In 2006, Five Nations Energy decided to allow the world’s biggest diamond company, De Beers, to connect to its transmission line in order to power the Victor diamond mine in Attawapiskat territory. The mine, which produced diamonds from 2008 to 2019, was always controversial, and continues to divide community members today.
“It’s a very important and very powerful tool to have this electricity there in our hands and our control, and if we are able to share it and make money for the communities, I think it’s something we have to look at,” Martin said.
Attawapiskat First Nation signed a benefits agreement with De Beers in 2005, and some members worked at the mine, seeing it as a much-needed economic opportunity. But others opposed it, including with blockades in 2013. There were allegations of discrimination and racism at the mine; complaints of lack of employment opportunities, training programs and compensation for the community at large; and worries about the environmental impacts of mining activity. Relations between the community and De Beers remain heated even now, three years after the mine closed: with De Beers in the process of cleaning and rehabilitating the site, Attawapiskat First Nation is opposing its proposal for an on-site dump for demolition waste. (The First Nation did not respond to The Narwhal by the time of publication.)
Chilton has written a yet-unpublished book about the history of Five Nations Energy, which he shared with The Narwhal: in it, he writes that De Beers’ initial proposal was to power the mine using 50 million litres of diesel every year, which was contrary to the work the communities had done to move away from this dangerous energy source. The agreement with DeBeers also provided money to expand fibre optic and transmission capacity. One story in the book describes protestors blockading De Beers allowing engineers working on the transmission line to pass.
When De Beers closed its mine, Five Nations Energy discussed whether it should buy the transmission line De Beers had set up — perhaps to extend it to the Ring of Fire region, 144 kilometres away, where the Ontario government has long discussed developing a mining industry for minerals like chromite and nickel. But when the board took the idea to the five First Nations, there was no support for it. The transmission line connecting the mine to the Five Nations Energy transmission grid is now being dismantled. (DeBeers did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for comment by the time of publication.)
Martin foresees more tough conversations ahead if the region is implicated in Ring of Fire development possibilities. “We take direction from the community. Our board of directors are appointed by them, by the chief and council,” Martin said. “So whatever the community says, that directly influences our decision making.”
“We’ve tried to stay out of politics but we tell any company who wants to work with us that we are not going to move ahead with anything that the community disagrees with,” Chilton said. When pressed about what Five Nations Energy would do if the Doug Ford government approaches them about helping power the Ring of Power, Chilton remains steadfast: “We’ll sit down to talk to the community. We’ll only do what they want.”
Even as he celebrates the success of Five Nations Energy, Chilton remains mindful that many other Indigenous communities still need their basic energy needs met. In 2019, the Ontario Energy Board approved the creation of Wataynikaneyap Power LP, or Watay Power, which will build a 300-kilometre transmission line connecting 17 First Nations communities in northern Ontario to the grid for the first time.
That project is majority-owned by 22 First Nations, and Chilton hopes to “touch base with them” about support or partnerships. He’s also looking at the possibilities to expand the length of the transmission line to serve other First Nations communities from Timmins to Wawa.
First Nations-led energy projects are popping up across Canada — in September, Hydro One announced that First Nations would be given 50 per cent equity in all new transmission projects. But Five Nations Energy was first. It’s a fact Chilton is deeply aware of when he walks around with his company’s logo on his shirt. “People take ownership of this,” he said. “It doesn’t belong to any one person.”
He said the company is now thinking about energy sovereignty: how it might generate its own electricity so the First Nations communities it serves become fully energy sufficient. He’s looking into natural gas and biogas opportunities with partners in the Greater Toronto Area.
Along with 25 years of Five Nations, Chilton is also celebrating the 50th anniversary of both his marriage and his career. He’s been working since he was 18 — his first job was acting business administrator at the local board of education — and he’s been in management positions ever since. “And I’ve only done grade 12,” he said.
His job now is to preserve the legacy of the company. Chilton said he’s sometimes asked about turning the company into a for-profit venture, but he’s not interested. “It’s taken us a long time but it’s pretty well understood now by the political leadership and by the communities that we’re there to keep the lights on and the fire going. And it’ll always be there. And it’ll always be 100 per cent Indigenous-owned. We don’t want to give any part of it away,” he said.
Sitting at his brother’s deathbed, Chilton watched Ed count his five fingers on one hand in his weakened state. “He was saying, ‘Protect Five Nations’, ” Chilton said. He took the helm “to make sure the company was taken care of.”
To hear Chilton and Martin describe it, the transformation brought on by Five Nations Energy has been cinematic. There once was a time when the geese would follow the coastline of the James Bay, Chilton said. Today, some flocks follow the transmission line instead.
Updated, on Oct. 21, 2022 at 2:19 p.m. ET: This story was updated to correct that a meeting in 1998 happened in an Ontario Hydro office, not a Hydro One office.
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