Vancity Community Investment Bank (VCIB) hosted a webinar on February 3, titled “Building Partnerships for Indigenous Clean Energy”. That dynamic discussion left us craving more, knowing there’s still so much to learn from our panel participants. Here, Terri Lynn Morrison, Associate Executive Director of Indigenous Clean Energy, joins us a guest author to share more about her project development experience and the benefits that flow from genuine partnerships.
With nearly 200 renewable electricity projects at different stages of development in Indigenous communities across the country, clean energy is a major force for local economic autonomy, green job creation, and rapid decarbonization—and an opportunity for private sector partners who are serious about working with Indigenous communities.
But just as important as the number and scale of the projects is how they are created. The question we are asking in this series is what do fair and equitable partnerships for Indigenous communities look like? A real, functioning partnership cannot just be a matter of technical compliance or ticking the box. When projects are developed through partnerships that engage with communities, respect local needs and timelines, and remain answerable to the people whose interests the technology is meant to serve, amazing things can happen.
Setting a higher bar
Indigenous economies are grounded in a social, political, and ecological relationship that goes beyond the bounds of environmental assessments elsewhere. That relationship isn’t optional: community leaders are held to a higher standard of accountability and, if we fall short, we hear about it from our relatives and neighbours. We need partners who understand that and who are willing to adhere to that same standard.
A few years ago, I was the project director for a 150-megawatt wind farm owned by three Mi’gmaq communities, including my home community of Listuguj. When we conducted our environmental assessment, we diligently addressed potential impacts on hunting grounds, migratory routes, and medicinal plants. These concerns wouldn’t come up in the average environmental assessment—even though they probably should, considering their importance to community members.
Almost everyone was excited that we were building a project that would create jobs and increase our own source revenue to bridge the gap of underfunded programs and services that are needed in the community. The project was guided from start to finish by the need to protect the environment and all who rely on the land. Our development partner, Innergex Renewable Energy Inc., understood our concerns and respected the process. And the Mesgi’g Ugju’s’n Wind Farm was a better project as a result.
Patience is a virtue
You may not hear this in most MBA classrooms, but the defining feature of an Indigenous clean energy project is patience.
The wider financial world works at its own rhythm, and that rhythm is usually frenetic. In Indigenous communities, business is done at a pace that reflects local needs and norms. A negotiation might be delayed by a change in leadership, a tragedy in the community, or by goose hunting season. Or, a community may spontaneously plan a week-long engagement when questions come up around a project.
If you’re working on Indigenous land for the first time, you might be surprised, confused, or offended. Don’t be. You’re witnessing real community participation in action and seeing an antidote to the years of delay, controversy, and uncertainty that result when a project is imposed without consent.
But patience is very much a two-way street. Every Indigenous community has had the conversation with would-be partners who freely disclose that they’re only calling because a government official told them to. That’s not the best way to signal interest in working with the people whose land and consent you need.
For many financial partners, it’s a different, more collaborative way of operating. But it results in a project to be proud of, with many more opportunities on the horizon.
So far, most work in the Indigenous clean energy space has focused on renewable electricity. But we also see a massive need and opportunity to increase the energy efficiency of housing that has historically been underfunded, shoddily built, poorly maintained, and often unsafe for our people to live in.
That’s why Indigenous Clean Energy (ICE) is working to build local capacity and create the enabling environment our communities need to build new, energy-efficient housing based on high-performance standards. We’re connecting the dots between clean energy and sustainable investment, delivering healthier, more durable housing that lasts longer and is cheaper to operate. We’ve identified six Guide Communities to demonstrate the approach, and the program will need investment partnerships at every step along the way.
Indigenous entrepreneurs are also stepping up in other aspects of clean, low-carbon energy development—from sustainable biomass and green hydrogen to energy storage. Our team delivers a variety of training and internship programs for Indigenous people, including women and youth, that in turn help Indigenous communities build their clean energy capacity and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
When we invited young people to come up with their own clean energy projects, one of the first bright ideas was a solar-powered ice cream truck for the powwow trail. (And, really, should any of us have been surprised?)
Add it all up, and it’s hard to imagine a more hopeful, exciting, dynamic space than Indigenous clean energy. At a time when the daily news is an automatic ticket to despair, Indigenous project developers and their partners are creating a better future and building it with their own hands, one clean energy project at a time. The need is still massive, and the door is open to those who share our vision and values.
Eager to learn more about the role that values-based partnerships and cross-sector collaboration can play in helping communities overcome challenges, build capacity, and reap the benefits of the clean energy transition? Watch the February 3 webinar conversation in the video below.