By Jessica Bound
Hydroelectricity is currently considered to be the most important source of renewable energy in Canada, but when it’s generated by a mega-dam, it isn’t actually as “clean” or “green” a source of energy as the Canadian hydropower industry would like us to believe. Fortunately, alternatives to hydroelectricity do exist, and they are much more effective than you might think. With the right technology and equipment, renewable resources like wind and sunlight can be harnessed and transformed into usable energy in the form of electricity (to power our homes and communities), thermal energy (for heating and cooling purposes), or even transportation fuels, and the best part is that, unlike with large-scale hydroelectric generation, all of this is possible without the environmental devastation that artificial damming brings about. Thankfully, the transition towards pursuing more sustainable forms of renewable energy is already well underway in Canada, and after a summer’s worth of research on the topic for Wa Ni Ska Tan’s Energy Alternatives subcommittee, I can say with confidence that it is Indigenous communities who are currently leading the way.
Indigenous participation in the renewable energy sector has increased significantly over the past twenty years, and the number of renewable energy (RE) projects with Indigenous involvement is currently very high. In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by the organization Indigenous Clean Energy (ICE), there are approximately 2,107—2,507 Indigenous involved RE projects happening in Canada today (though it should be noted that this organization includes large-scale hydro operations in their definition of ‘Indigenous-involved projects,’ which is controversial given the immense environmental, social, and cultural impacts that large-scale hydro development has had—and continues to have—on Indigenous communities in particular). Nevertheless, this data is significant because it further reveals that an estimated 1,700—2,100 of the total projects are micro (or community-scale) in size, and that many of them are either partially- or fully-owned and operated by the communities themselves. This is important because while there are many economic, social, and environmental benefits to pursuing a RE project—the creation of new jobs, for example, or the simple fact that renewables are far less environmentally damaging than their fossil-fuel-based equivalents—the projects themselves are often part of a larger, more long-term goal for the communities pursuing them: the goal of energy sovereignty.
Energy sovereignty (or energy autonomy) can be defined as the inherent right of individuals, communities, and Indigenous peoples to make their own decisions about the energy they use, including decisions about how this energy is generated and distributed. In the words of Haida scholar Valine Brown, it means enabling Indigenous communities to own and operate their own energy systems using renewable and locally available energy sources like wind or solar, and to stop relying on fossil-fuel-burning corporations for energy. Democratic energy systems such as these are much better aligned with Indigenous cultures, knowledge, and land rights, and “they increase the resiliency of Indigenous communities that have been negatively impacted by colonialism and capitalist resource extraction” (Brown, 2019). In essence, energy sovereignty is all about autonomy and self-determination because it enables Indigenous communities to choose the energy system that works best for them no matter what the colonial institutions that currently structure energy access in Canada have to say about it.
This is why energy sovereignty is such an important factor in the larger effort towards decolonization more broadly. The history of energy is colonial in nature, and renewable energy is no exception to this. The so-called ‘clean energy industry’ (which includes large-scale hydro) is still mostly dominated by large, profit-driven corporations who care little about the environment or the communities who will be most drastically affected by their project development. Energy sovereignty provides Indigenous communities with the political self-determination and independence necessary to govern themselves (and their energy initiatives) without interference from these colonial institutions, and to reduce their reliance on these institutions for energy by increasing their own energy self-sufficiency (Masuda et al., 2019). Furthermore, while it might be encouraging to learn that renewables are currently on the rise in Canada, it is important to remember that there are still many ongoing and historical injustices related to certain types of renewable energy—such as flooding caused by large-scale hydro, for example—that still need to
be addressed in order for any sort of meaningful reconciliation to occur, and that these issues will only continue to worsen through climate change.
Indeed, climate change might be a global issue, but the truth is that it won’t affect everyone equally. Climate change will disproportionately impact Indigenous and northern communities for a variety of reasons, including their geographic positions as well as their heavy dependence on the land. Flooding and erosion along the shorelines—which is already a huge issue for hydro-impacted communities today—will only continue to worsen as climate patterns such as rain and snow are disrupted, and many plant and animal species will be affected as a result, which will significantly impact the health and well-being of the communities who depend on these species for traditional foods and medicines (AFN). Plus, the cost of energy—which is already staggeringly high for many remote communities—will only increase from here as solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are put in place (AFN). This means that energy sovereignty—that is, the right to choose green, culturally appropriate renewable energy to power one’s community—is needed now more than ever in order for Indigenous communities to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis as much as possible, and before it is too late to do so.
Fortunately, the transition away from dirty fossil-fuel-based energy systems and towards more sustainable forms of renewable energy has already begun, and we have Indigenous communities to thank for it. With thousands of renewable energy projects either already completed or currently on-the-go, Indigenous communities have more than proven themselves to be the leaders of the renewable energy transition, and the ones to whom the rest of us should be looking for inspiration. The climate crisis won’t affect everyone equally, but it will affect us all to some degree, and there is still much that needs to be done in order to reduce its impacts as much as possible while we still can. Many Indigenous communities have already started on this by deciding to make the transition to renewable energy, and for the sake of our beautiful planet, and for our future as a species upon it, I can only hope that the rest of Canada catches up soon.
Assembly of First Nations (AFN). “Mitigating Climate Change: Community Success in Developing Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Projects.” AFN.ca, n.d. https://www.afn.ca/uploads/files/env/07-03-31_health_canada_climate_change_report-final.pdf
Brown, Valine. “This is what Indigenous energy sovereignty looks like.” Briarpatch, April 29, 2019. https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/indigenous-climate-action
Masuda, Jeff et al. “Renewable Energy and Energy Autonomy: How Indigenous Peoples in Canada are Shaping an Energy Future.” Environmental Reviews, 2019, Vol. 27 (1), 95-105.