The First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan in Alberta, Canada, has been hit quite hard in recent years by the lingering effects of decades of fossil fuel industry extraction in the region. The inhabitants can no longer practice their traditions, or, for that matter, even provide a livelihood for themselves except through involvement with said industry — hunting, fishing, and various other traditional means of living are no longer viable because of the extensive pollution.
So, what to do? A partial solution, according to the Fort Chipewyan Renewable Energy Society, is for the community to transition from one reliant upon fossil fuels for energy to one that is powered 100% by renewable energy, something that is entirely possible, according to a recent energy audit study performed by the Pembina Insitute.
That study — which was funded with a $7500 dollar grant from the Alberta Ecotrust Foundation — found that the Fort Chipewyan community could be powered 100% by solar energy, and/or 71% by wind energy.
“Solar is the least expensive and easiest option,” stated Mike Mercredi of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations (ACFN), one of the First Nations groups that lives in the area.
Mercredi came to that line of thinking several years back now, and soon afterwords created the Fort Chipewyan Renewable Energy Society to advance it. Part of the catalyst for this creative act was a conversation that he had with elder Matthew Lepine — who had previously successfully installed a solar panel on his cabin in the area. Interactions with the solar-energy-using T’Sou-ke First Nation in British Columbia also contributed to his actions, he said.
Mercredi’s hope is that, through a breaking away of dependance upon the fossil fuel industry, that the younger generation can reconnect with their roots, and that, effectively, ties can be re-established with the aboriginal culture. Ties which have been nearly severed in recent times.
The fossil fuel industry brought with it more than just pollution and disease, but a deep disconnection from the culture’s identity — largely through the loss of the traditional livelihood of most of those that live in the region.
“They took away the things that the First Nations were naturally good at,” Mercredi explained. “You could almost say that our ways are becoming extinct.”
“(The dependence on the fossil fuel industry) does feel weird, but it’s almost like, what are we supposed to do? Our way of life doesn’t provide anymore, and it doesn’t put food on the table. (So) we try to get money from industry now.”
That’s what Mercredi thinks needs to change — a transformation from dependance on an industry that brought so much difficulty to the region, to near energy self-sufficiency through solar energy technology.
“People here have adapted. They turn on a light and it’s on,” continued Mercredi. “I’m working on changing that thought pattern. I want people to want the light from their light switch to come from the sun.”
Of course the only real funding available for such an undertaking, in such a (relatively) poor region, is from the fossil fuel companies — the industry sometimes provides funding for various sorts of community projects in negatively affected regions. But these “Impact Benefit Agreements” often have substantial drawbacks to them.
For one, they take a great deal of work, time, money, and effort to make a reality. The industry doesn’t just hand out large wads of cash because you’re asking. And, perhaps more importantly, even once agreed upon theses deals often substantially limit the legal rights of community members — specifically, the right to file formal legal opposition to new tar sands development applications.
So, what to do? Simply press on, according to Mercredi.
“The very industry that is destroying our way of life could be helping us sustain it,” he explained. “And that’s the only thing that helps me sleep at night — that we’re keeping our culture alive and they’re giving us money to do so, even though they’re destroying the land in the process.”
Climate Progress provides a bit more information:
Mercredi recently met with both ACFN representatives and Suncor about funding solar for Fort Chip, and seemed optimistic about the results. The way Mercredi sees it, it really should be the oil industry that pays for the panels.
Even if Suncor does not ultimately agree to fund the panels, Mercredi says that is not the end of the line for solar in Fort Chip. The ACFN has already connected with Gridworks Energy Group, an Alberta-based photovoltaic design and installation company, to train residents how to install and maintain their own panels — something Gridworks owner Randall Benson says should bring more autonomy to Fort Chip.
“If they can do most of the work, the projects themselves can keep [residents] employed,” Benson noted. “It just takes some will and money, that’s it.”
Gridworks is currently working on a solar panel system for the ACFN’s Youth and Elder Lodge — the primary meeting center in the community.
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