By Cliff Dano
My name is Cliff Dano and I’m a summer student with Wa Ni Ska Tan about to start my second year with the Engineering Access Program at University of Manitoba. When I began my position as an Energy Alternatives Research Assistant with Wa Ni Ska Tan this past July, I immediately thought of the great strides Fisher River Cree Nation has made in renewable energy. Although I’m a band member of Fisher River, I grew up off-reserve in the tiny community of Mallard, MB on the Waterhen River. Having been raised by my dad who is a former rancher and fishermen, I learned at an early age how important it is to protect the land. I also saw first-hand the high cost of Hydro bills for my parents, as well as the impact that Manitoba Hydro has had on the waterways in our community.
Although the Fisher River Solar Farm is much larger than the system I am currently researching for Wa Ni Ska Tan, I felt that it was important to look to the work that’s already been done within the Indigenous community for inspiration and guidance with our own energy projects moving forward. When I first reached out to Fisher River leadership, they were eager to help facilitate a tour of the Solar Project. The COVID-19 pandemic posed a unique challenge when it came to arranging the visit, but all Public Health measures were to taken into consideration and followed by both Wa Ni Ska Tan and Fisher River leadership, and safety was prioritized throughout.
On a sunny day in late July, twelve Wa Ni Ska Tan staff members took the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Winnipeg to Fisher River Cree Nation. This included student interns, researchers, and a collaborating professor. It was nice for me to finally meet some of my coworkers in person after only having met them through video chat and e-mail. When we arrived in Fisher River, we met with several community members, including Maxine Murdock, the HR/Administrative Assistant and Lorne Cochrane, the Director of Economic Development. He delivered a presentation outlining the history of Fisher River’s relationship with MB Hydro, the development of the Solar Farm and Fisher River’s sustainability plans for the future.
The Solar Farm, which is community-owned and built, began operations in Summer 2018. At 1 MW, it is the largest solar farm on the prairies and has the capacity to meet the energy needs of 300-400 homes in the community. At the moment, however, they don’t actually power any of the buildings on the reserve with solar; instead, they sell power back to the grid via their purchase agreement with Hydro and reinvest the money back into the community. Fisher River signed a 20-year Power Purchase Agreement Contract with Manitoba Hydro, who sells the excess power from the Solar farm to export markets. This project was built off the community’s previous success with the installation of Geo-thermal systems in 150 community homes. The farm itself is made up of almost 300 solar panels with the capacity to produce 3.0 GW hours annually, and they are installed on 6 acres of land near the Fisher River Community Hall. To this date, Fisher River has not had any technological maintenance or operational problems.
That being said, Fisher River needs reliable power now more than ever because the wait time for power outage issues can sometimes take over a week for Manitoba Hydro to resolve. This is especially problematic for the operation of the community care home, as well as the Women and Children’s Centre, which are two buildings that the community would like to see installed with an alternative source of power for this very reason. There is a strong sense of community pride in Fisher River, and it was gratifying to hear that the Chief and Council meet regularly with Elders in the community about all aspects of development, and that they are highly involved. As Lorne Cochrane emphasized to our group, Fisher River is open for business and open for partnerships, and they are looking to expand. According to Lorne, Fisher River’s cultural belief is not green technology, it’s protecting the land and waters.
Once the presentation ended, our group walked to the viewing deck to the fence enclosed solar farm. We admired the beauty of the land and the amazing feat that Fisher River has accomplished. As an off-reserve community member, I thought of my ties to the community, and how I can be more engaged and present in the community through my work. The solar farm tour objective builds from these motives and I thank Fisher River for going above and beyond for the accommodations. Additionally, the tour presentation was phenomenal as we learned about community insight from the perspective of Fisher River. I believe that there are great upcoming initiatives to ensure self reliance in Fisher River and we at Wan Ni Ska Tan strive to be a part of those initiatives.