Islands are wonderful places. By the nature of their isolation they tend to produce self sufficient, independent approaches to decision making.
Haida Gwaii, off of British Columbia’s northern mainland coast, is no exception. Several decades ago, as a result of logging road blockades, court challenges and the assiduous building of supportive coalitions by members of the Haida Nation, a much-needed light was shone on the consequences of unchecked logging activities on the archipelago.
Tract after tract of old-growth forest was cleared as barge load after barge load of logs was towed away to distant sawmills. Few if any benefits accrued to local communities, while distant corporate interests in downtown Vancouver and elsewhere reaped the benefits. As a result of Haida efforts, logging rates on the archipelago were slashed by almost two thirds. Forest conservation rose commensurately. And the path was cleared for long-term, sustainable management of the forest’s resources, for the benefit of all residents of Haida Gwaii.
The Haida people through its leadership have demonstrated on many fronts including land use planning, forest management, and aquaculture. Today, Haida leaders are again taking a leadership role in the quest for local control of local resources. Now the Haida are extending their influence offshore, into the windswept waters of Hecate Strait in pursuit of green, renewable power.
Their timing could not be better. As we collectively confront the enormous challenges posed by climate change, we desperately need examples of how things might be done differently. New, renewable power sources are crucial to any credible plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And, as it turns out, some of the best prospects to do so just happen to be in isolated regions of the province – be they islands, or far-flung communities at the end of long inlets or roads not serviced by the main hydro grid that city residents all too frequently take for granted.
The Haida are not the first to realize this fact. Just a few months ago, in fact, members of Taku River Tlingit First Nation living in Atlin in British Columbia’s remote northwestern corner, celebrated as a new run-of-river project came on line. The facility, owned entirely by the TRTFN, replaced generators which consumed more than 1.2 million litres of diesel fuel per year. At two megawatts in size, the new hydro facility generates twice the power of its predecessor, thus setting the stage for a stronger, more diversified, sustainable regional economy.
But what the Haida Nation proposes to participate in is an order of magnitude greater – an offshore wind power project capable of generating 396 megawatts of power, enough to provide electricity to 130,000 BC homes. Not only would the project move the province well along the path to being electricity self-sufficient, but it would end Haida Gwaii’s dependency on burning 26,000 litres of diesel fuel per day to fire generators which currently provide much of the power to homes and businesses on the archipelago.
At $2 billion, the proposed project by NaiKun Wind Energy Group will not be cheap. And it remains somewhat of an uncertainty, with a rigorous environmental assessment as yet incomplete. But at the end of the day if the project passes that review, the business arm of the Haida Nation has announced its intention to acquire a 40-per-cent equity stake in the venture, making it one of the most significant economic undertakings by any First Nation anywhere in recent years.
In recent months, it has become fashionable in some circles to decry the “power grab” by “multinationals” as a result of the provincial government’s push to encourage private sector developments of renewable power sources. But as events on Haida Gwaii attest, this is a simplistic and frankly harmful portrayal of what is actually unfolding in parts of the province, as the Haida and others pursue opportunities to diversify their economies and end their reliance on diesel fuel.
In its recent Speech From the Throne, the BC government reiterated that it intends to “capitalize on the world’s desire and need for clean energy, for the benefit of all British Columbians” and that it views such energy as “an enormous economic advantage that will benefit every British Columbian in every part of this province for generations to come”.
The Haida Nation shares that goal. Each year, it costs about $15 million to underwrite the costs of transporting, fueling and maintaining diesel-fired electrical generators on their traditional lands. Last winter, one of the colder on record, more greenhouse gasses were emitted than ever by Haida Gwaii’s diesel generators. This summer, one of the driest on record, more fuel was burned in the same generators because lower water tables meant less power from the archipelago’s lone hydroelectric source.
Climate change is upon us. New, renewable energy sources will lessen our dangerous reliance on fossil fuels. The Haida Nation is well on its way to being one of those islands of inspiration we look to as we chart a new, sustainable energy course.
Dave Porter was the first British Columbia Oil and Gas Commissioner, a former Cabinet Minister in the Yukon Government, and served two terms on the BC First Nations Leadership Council. He is now the CEO of the BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council.