TC Energy has an ambitious plan for Georgian Bay: to draw water up through a clay escarpment, store it in a reservoir, then send it down back into the bay past underwater turbines to create power for southern Ontario when it’s needed. It’s a complicated $4.5-billion pumped storage energy project and to make it happen, the Calgary-based oil and gas behemoth wants the greenlight from multiple groups.

Those include residents of nearby Meaford, Ont., where the local council has given cautious approval, and staunch opponents are fighting every step of the way. It also includes Saugeen Ojibway Nation, some of whom are going with TC Energy to see an existing pumped storage facility in Michigan on Dec. 19 — the fourth time this fall it’s hosted the community on educational field trips. 

Saugeen Ojibway Nation is the name used by two independent communities, Saugeen First Nation and Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, when they work together on issues affecting the larger territory. For the last several months, dozens of members of the two nations have travelled around Meaford and all the way to Massachusetts to understand pumped storage, all on TC Energy’s dime. 

Chief Greg Nadjiwon of the Chippewas of Nawash says he wants three things from TC Energy and any organization proposing projects on his community’s territory: consideration, participation and compensation. These engagement efforts are an attempt at redefining participation in a country where First Nations have regularly been excluded from energy-related decisions. 

The eastern coastline of Neyaashiinigmiing, or Cape Croker, Ont., on Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation territory.
As Saugeen Ojibway Nation deliberates whether to give TC Energy its consent for a pumped storage facility, it has asked the company to “inform and educate” community members. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Canada and its provinces have a long history of violating treaties with First Nations. Before the mid-20th century, there was little legal recourse for Indigenous communities if Canadian governments, energy developers or corporations planned power infrastructure on their territories without consultation, according to a 2016 study prepared for the Alberta-based Indian Resource Council. Land was flooded for hydro dams, and nuclear facilities and transmission lines were built without notice, destroying hunting and fishing areas, camps, trails and travel routes, burial and sacred sites and homes, as well as many First Nations economies. 

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In the 1970s, Indigenous communities began winning court decisions recognizing their land rights. Consultation is somewhat better than it used to be. But many projects do still proceed without the consent of all affected Indigenous groups.

That includes a major TC Energy project, the Coastal GasLink pipeline in B.C. While some First Nations along the route have signed agreements with the company, the project went ahead despite the opposition of Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, who say they never surrendered the rights and responsibilities to govern a 22,000-square-kilometre territory it crosses — rights affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in the landmark Delgamuukw decision. TC Energy says it has an agreement to build the Coastal GasLink pipeline with the elected council of Wet’suwet’en First Nation and 19 other First Nation governments. 

The company has promised to do things differently on Georgian Bay. “We’ve put it in writing: we will not do this project if we don’t have the support of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. We will walk away,” John Mikkelsen, TC Energy’s director of power and energy solutions, previously told The Narwhal. If the nation approves, TC Energy pushes on. If it disapproves, TC Energy leaves.

It’s a big decision, and “we want people to be as informed as possible,” Nadjiwon says. While the nation deliberates whether or not to give TC Energy its consent, including conducting its own independent environmental assessment, it has asked for tours and information sessions to learn “everything we can,” Nadjiwon says. 

As these engagement efforts by TC Energy go ahead, the company and local community are still waiting to learn whether Ontario Energy Minister Todd Smith will approve the Meaford pumped storage project, as well as another in Marmora and Lake. His verdict was expected on Nov. 30, but has yet to be released. In a Dec. 11 speech to the energy and business industry in Toronto, Smith said he was “currently reviewing” assessments from the provincial electricity operator about the technology. 

Forested areas where the proposed TC Energy Pumped Storage Project will be located in Meaford, Ont.
In November, TC Energy organized a boat tour for 65 members of Saugeen Ojibway Nation, to help them imagine what the clay escarpment overlooking Meaford, Ont., would look like if a very large reservoir was built on it. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Energy with a view: tours help Saugeen Ojibway Nation see ‘first hand’ the impacts of pumped storage on the environment

Information sessions for Saugeen Ojibway Nation started with local events featuring experts on conservation and energy, from within the nation but also Ontario’s energy industry. Since September, there have been six dinners at the seniors centre in Nawash, marketed as informal events for TC Energy to introduce the company and the project. There have been regular updates to share information about the proposed project and take questions at the local community centre. 

Then came the trips to the site where TC Energy wants to build, as well as comparable projects south of the border. “We do these tours to see first hand what energy projects look like and their impact on the environment,” Nadjiwon says. “We do these tours to inform and educate ourselves of the concerns. Are they real? How real? Can they be addressed? What does the land really look like after these projects are built?” 

Chief Gregory Nadjiwon of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation is photographed standing on the eastern coastline of Neyaashiinigmiing, Ont., on Nawash Unceded First Nation territory, Thursday Oct. 19, 2023.
“We do these tours to see first hand what energy projects look like and their impact on the environment,” Chief Greg Nadjiwon of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation says. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

In organizing these sessions for Saugeen Ojibway Nation, the company seems to be trying to create a new kind of engagement with a First Nation, betting that providing information early will win support for a somewhat controversial energy project with environmental impacts that are still unknown. 

In an email, Sara Beasley, a TC Energy spokesperson for the project, confirmed this intense education effort was “a result” of Saugeen Ojibway Nation’s possible partnership in the project and its demand for “meaningful opportunities to gain a better understanding of existing facilities that have been operating for years.” The tours allow participants to learn directly from operators, including “how they manage safety, operations, maintenance and interactions with the environment and host communities,” Beasley said. 

The first tour was October 11, when TC Energy sponsored a three-day bus trip to Massachusetts for 28 Saugeen members, including 10 Elders and eight youth, to “provide an up close view” of the almost 50-year-old Bear Swamp pumped hydro facility. It bears a similar design to the Meaford project, drawing water from a river, with turbines and other power structures underground. 

On November 18, TC Energy organized a four-hour boat tour of Georgian Bay for 65 members of the nation, to show attendees the whole escarpment that overlooks Meaford, and help them imagine what it would look like with a very large reservoir above a coastline that hosts cottages, sailors and fisherman. “Some people weren’t aware of what the shoreline looked like there,” Nadjiwon says of the site, which is about an hour-long drive from both communities. TC Energy offered transportation and promised future boat tours for those who couldn’t make this one. 

Almost two weeks later, the company took four members of the nation on a two-hour tour of the National Defence lands where the reservoir is planned. The site is closed to the public for safety: it contains an unknown amount of unexploded ammunition that has been used in military drills since the Second World War and is home to federally protected species at risk

A National Defence spokesperson told The Narwhal the Nov. 30 visit was led by TC Energy but Defence officials were present to answer questions in their role as custodian of the land. The federal department has given TC Energy conditional approval to explore its site for construction, while it conducts its own environmental study. Mikkelsen previously told The Narwhal he believes safe removal of the explosives is doable and will have “a positive environmental impact.” 

A Department of Defence sign signalling the boundary of its base in Meaford, Ont.
TC Energy has taken members of Saugeen Ojibway Nation on a tour of the National Defence lands where the reservoir is planned. The site contains an unknown amount of unexploded ammunition from military drills and is home to federally protected species at risk. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

For each tour, all travel expenses were covered by TC Energy. The only requirement was a valid status card. The company’s promotional materials promised dining and shopping along the drives to Massachusetts and Michigan, and lunch on board the boat. Having the energy company — valued at more than $52 billion — pick up the tab only makes sense, Nadjiwon says, given his community’s lack of resources and right to be informed. 

“It’s not all about money, but money must play a part,” he says. “There’s a difference.” If there is to be an agreement between TC Energy and Saugeen Ojibway Nation, Nadjiwon demands transparency. That can only be achieved if his community can ask questions. 

TC Energy seems to know this. Beasley is clear that if the project is built, it will be “in partnership” with Saugeen Ojibway Nation. “That means this facility will be as much a Saugeen and Nawash initiative as it is a TC Energy one,” she writes, adding that the company “will continue to provide” opportunities for members of the nation “to learn and engage — this includes tours of the project site area and tours of facilities that have been successfully operating for years.” 

Nadjiwon, who has given up his seat at each tour to a community member, said the response to each trip has been “quite positive.”

“I’m not silly. I don’t think that [energy] projects happen without impacts,” Nadjiwon says. “You have to do whatever it takes … to lessen its impact in design and consideration for impact on land and water. And that’s what I think we’re doing. And it’s the membership that is asking the questions.” 

Cottages and forest along Georgian Bay, south of the location of the proposed TC Energy Pumped Storage Project in Meaford, Ont.,
TC Energy says it will “walk away” from its pumped storage proposal on Georgian Bay if it doesn’t win the support of Saugeen Ojibway Nation. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Lessons learned on Lake Michigan: how not to kill fish

The next trip on Dec. 19 to Ludington, Mich., is an important one: it’s the location of the world’s oldest and largest pumped storage facility, which is also the only one built on a Great Lake. There, an enormous man-made lake atop a sandy bluff overlooking Lake Michigan holds enough water to power 1.6 million homes. 

It’s what Meaford could become, TC Energy says, although there’s one key difference — Ludington was built five decades ago, long before environmental regulations required studies before construction. Critics say the first decade of operation in Ludington had significant environmental consequences. By one estimate, 150 million fish were killed every year, drawn through the turbines as they passed through the tunnel.

Concerned environmental groups launched a suit against joint owners Consumers Energy and DTE Energy in 1996 that resulted in a US$172-million settlement — the largest in Michigan’s history. The funds were used to establish the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, made up of energy, conservation and Indigenous experts who try to eliminate future environmental consequences. 

The settlement also mandated use of a 2.5-mile, or four-kilometre, net to protect fish. Jim Roush, director of environmental compliance at Consumers Energy, told The Narwhal the net is 91 per cent effective in saving fish greater than five inches. Roush says since the net was installed, the Ludington facility has had no measurable environmental impact on Lake Michigan. 

An aerial view of the Ludington pumped storage facility in Michigan, showing the reservoir on a hill along Lake Michigan
Ludington, Mich., is home to the world’s oldest and largest pumped storage facility, on a sandy bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. It holds enough water to power 1.6 million homes. Photo: Consumers Energy

TC Energy often points to Ludington to explain its vision for Meaford, and company officials paid the site a visit in August 2019 and have stayed in touch with those who designed it. The company also says its design for Meaford proves TC Energy is learning from past projects’ mistakes.

“Ludington’s experience in protecting fish has been instrumental in the state-of-the-art design that we are proposing that will significantly improve the protection of fish, fish habitat and the water quality of Georgian Bay,” Beasley said. 

That action on fish protection was essential to Saugeen. In a previous interview with The Narwhal, Nadjiwon said when he told the energy giant he was worried that pumping water up to the escarpment reservoir would kill fish, the company amended its design to include screens similar to those in Ludington. Nadjiwon says the company is trying to “fine-tune that further.” 

“[Saugeen Ojibway Nation has] driven us, actually, as a collective team to think of a state of the art solution to address the aquatic environment, which is their primary concern: making sure we protect the fish, making sure we protect the habitat for the fish,” Mikkelsen told The Narwhal. 

As for other environmental impacts in Ludington, Roush says most of the disruption occured during construction and after 50-plus years in operations, there’s nothing major to note. Small leakages from the upper reservoir made nearby soil a little wetter, which farmers actually found helpful, he says. The temperature change of water released into the lake is negligible. And the turbine is only audible to those standing very close to the water, when it just sounds like a loud fan. 

Roush says pumped storage is more sustainable than large lithium batteries, which require critical minerals, store less energy and need to be replaced every couple of decades. “Ludington, as long as we maintain it together, will last another 200 years easily,” he says. “It’ll need turbine upgrades and replacements like any large piece of infrastructure, but it could last a long, long time and provide a lot of power.” In 2019, the project was relicensed for another 50 years after being refurbished and upgraded. 

That said, energy projects are never perfectly comparable. Ludington is not Meaford. Lake Michigan is not Georgian Bay. And Consumers Energy is not TC Energy. 

An aerial view of cottage and homes on Georgian Beach in Meaford, Ontario
Chief Nadjiwon said when he told TC Energy he was worried that pumping water up to the escarpment reservoir would kill fish, the company amended its design to include screens to reduce the chances of that happening. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Is this a new era of participation in Ontario’s energy industry?

Despite TC Energy’s assurances, there’s still a healthy amount of skepticism. Many who live around Georgian Bay have told The Narwhal they are concerned TC Energy’s project will harm the bay, or the wildlife in and around it, or the homes and farms on the escarpment. Many are also wary of the company’s environmental track record, including a recent oil spill in Kansas and damage to waterways during construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. 

On Nov. 17, the Township of the Archipelago, which is across the bay from where TC Energy is planning its project, passed a resolution “vehemently” opposing the proposed facility. The resolution suggests the pumped storage project would cause “irreparable harm to the environment” and would “irreversibly alter and damage the unique ecological, cultural and historical features of the area.” The township has asked all municipalities in the Georgian Bay Basin to make similar resolutions and “[prevent] this project from proceeding.” 

In the face of such concerns, Beasley says it will continue to engage with the community at large. “As the project progresses, TC Energy will continue to provide opportunities for Saugeen Ojibway Nation, other Indigenous nations, groups and communities and local non-Indigenous interested parties to collaborate and participate in tours to become aware of our proposal and seek their feedback,” she writes. Previously, Mikkelsen said that a “rigorous and transparent” study will begin in January 2024 and will last three years, and that no construction will begin until all concerns, including environmental, are fully addressed. 

A trip to Lake Michigan is the Georgian Bay community’s latest lesson in energy technology, as it decides whether to part
Energy Minister Todd Smith was expected to release a decision on two pumped storage proposals at the end of November, but communities and businesses are still waiting. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

The need for community participation in energy deliberations was also noted by Minister Smith in his Dec. 11 speech. The energy minister discussed the expansion of Ontario’s energy grid, including long-term plans that centre nuclear, natural gas and storage, and what it “means for communities right across Ontario to participate.” 

“We didn’t have a lot of First Nations chiefs who would come to the Ministry of Energy with their hand up saying ‘I want to participate in Ontario’s energy market,’ ” Smith told the crowd, which included Nadjiwon. “Now that our plan is out there, we have chiefs from all across Ontario and their councils that are coming in on a regular basis asking ‘how can we participate?’… It’s been fascinating to see how that’s changed.”

Nadjiwon believes the historical relationship between the energy industry and First Nations may be changing, at least in Ontario. But he remains on guard. “I do not take crap. I’m very careful,” he says. “The last thing I want to do is be bought off. It’s not going to happen.” 

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

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