Indigenous Participation in Canada’s Electricity Sector
- Indigenous communities are already highly involved in the energy sector, owning over 197 energy projects producing over a MegaWatt of power each.
- Indigenous peoples face employment barriers in the energy sector as most of their jobs are short-term and in the realm of construction.
- To attract more Indigenous youth to the electricity sector, Indigenous role models and leaders need to be more visible.
There is strong potential for Indigenous youth and communities to help transform the energy sector, bringing their much-needed perspectives and ideas to the table. Leaders will need to trust in their youth workers and empower them to make substantive changes for Canada to reach its goals for a sustainable future economy.
What is the current level of participation of Indigenous communities in Canada’s energy system?
Eryn Stewart: Indigenous communities across Canada are a powerful force for change in this country’s clean energy transition. Apart from Crown and private utilities, Indigenous communities and enterprises are the largest single asset owner of clean energy assets. This far surpasses that of municipalities, private businesses, and others, and accounting for about 25% of the equity in these projects.
“Apart from Crown and private utilities, Indigenous communities and enterprises are the largest single asset owner of clean energy assets.”Eryn Stewart, Managing Director of Indigenous Clean Energy
This is a significant involvement. There are 197 Indigenous renewable energy projects over a MegaWatt, which equals about 19,150 person-years of construction employment and $1.5 billion in Indigenous employment and contracting income. This is substantive not just in terms of environmental and sustainability impact, but also economic and social impact and that is what is so fantastic about this story.
What would be the economic and societal impact of full inclusion of Indigenous people in the energy system and transition?
Ricky-Lee Watts: That is a really good question. Looking at societal and economic impacts, so much is possible. Economic equity is a benefit for all people and brings further self-empowerment to Indigenous communities in terms of the socioeconomic gaps that exist and bringing economic benefits for all communities. Bringing Indigenous worldviews and perspectives of interconnectedness to the forefront has the potential to transform the way we think and operate and the way our systems are connected. Having more Indigenous and youth voices at these conversations will steer us in a positive direction for greater impact.
What are the opportunities and barriers for Indigenous peoples and employment within the electricity sector?
Eryn Stewart: Indigenous people and communities have thrived in the electricity sector mainly in terms of renewable energy power generation. I have already highlighted some of the substantive benefits and projects that communities have done, and there are still more opportunities there. One of the issues with renewable energy project development like wind or solar projects is the significant employment during the construction phase that disappears once it is in operation. We need to create jobs that are long-standing and will continue to evolve with opportunities for growth. Indigenous communities have taken advantage of that construction and operations stage, but the problem is scalability, opportunities for growth, and careers instead of short-term jobs.
There is a major opportunity right now for more Indigenous people to be involved in utilities and government, whether that be tribal, federal, municipal, provincial, or territorial government. There is a major role for Indigenous communities and peoples to play. There are also opportunities in the evolution of the sector. When looking at the amount of energy generation projects in the coming years, there is still opportunity but it is quickly diminishing as there is less of a need, especially with diesel reduction, microgrids, energy efficiency in housing, retrofits, transmission and distribution, and other electrification projects.
“There is a major opportunity right now for more Indigenous people to be involved in utilities and government.”Eryn Stewart, Managing Director of Indigenous Clean Energy
Indigenous Clean Energy has been looking not only at building on past successes, but also at where the opportunities are yet to come. This is a major area of opportunity and is something we are actively exploring. One simultaneous barrier and opportunity is that a lot of jobs in the electricity sector are not remote jobs. Looking at people that want to stay connected with their community and culture, we need to ask how we make those jobs and roles suitable for them.
In the virtual world of COVID-19, there has been a lot of varied opportunities for people to work remotely. How do we make sure these kinds of career paths are more suitable for people who want to live in their community? That is a barrier that a lot of people face but also an opportunity in terms of what our future looks like.
How do we attract more Indigenous youth to work in the electricity sector?
Ricky-Lee Watts: Reflecting on various experiences working with communities and seeing the gaps that exist, what is really important for attracting Indigenous youth to the energy sector is for them to see themselves in that space—to see leaders and role models in that space and know that they can follow their footsteps. They need to know what the dream destination is, the pathway to get there, and have the confidence to take those steps. Furthermore, we need spaces and opportunities that are Indigenous-led, have role models, are culturally grounded, and also address systemic barriers that exist so that we can all have an understanding of why things are the way they are and how we can advance towards a better future. Having these facets be a part of programming and opportunities will attract more Indigenous youth to the electricity sector.
Do Indigenous leaders within the sector need to reach out more or does the industry need to create more opportunities for Indigenous youth within the sector?
Ricky-Lee Watts: A bit of both. Leaders need to reach out within the industry to create space and uplift the Indigenous professionals who are already creating impact to highlight that these professionals’ worldview brings a special dynamic to the work that is super valuable when looking at what we are going to be doing in the future.
What programs already impact Indigenous participation in the electricity workforce and what improvements can be made?
Eryn Stewart: Some great programs out there include the Coastal First Nations Climate Action group. They are doing some great work on the ground with climate change coordinators in every community on the coast. In Alberta, we have seen a little bit of a stall because of provincial government directives, but there is the Alberta Indigenous Electricity Technical Working Group that is looking at the electricity sector and what needs to be done.
In the Prairies, the First Nations Power Authority is working on community energy planning and project development initiatives. In Ontario, there is the Community Climate Champions program that governments are funding which has done a lot of fantastic work in terms of community development and project development. In the Atlantic, there is Efficiency Nova Scotia, NB Power, Mi’kmaq chiefs, and the Joint Economic Development Initiative (JEDI) who have all been doing fantastic work. In the north, there are groups like Arctic Energy Alliance. In the Yukon, there are a number of different programs and groups working with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) on climate action to come up with a climate action strategy. Nunavut is doing an extensive work plan in terms of community energy planning development, working with the Nunavut Economic Developers Association and the Nunavut Government. In Nunavik and Nunatsiavut, there are similar Climate Champion Programs.
There are a lot of different initiatives going on and a lot of different groups working on the ground. Furthermore, there is ICE. We are providing capacity-building programs nationwide and we have a number of different initiatives. The ICE Network hosts completely free and open webinars that anybody can attend on a variety of different energy topics. We also offer a number of free tools and resources that anybody can access through our ICE Network. We have the 20/20 Catalysts Program, our award-winning flagship program that focuses on Indigenous clean energy capacity in all sectors from energy planning to project implementation. Through that program, we have worked with over 120 Indigenous communities across the country.
There is an enormous amount going on in terms of our nationwide influences, but that is also being backstopped by great community work on the ground. It is so important that those run parallel to one another. We need to be able to look into another person’s backyard and see what is working or not working there before we make our own steps, but also have people that are able to provide ground support whether that be from a technical or community perspective.
“There is an enormous amount going on in terms of our nationwide influences, but that is also being backstopped by great community work on the ground.”Eryn Stewart, Managing Director of Indigenous Clean Energy
There are gaps in programs for Indigenous participation in energy, but there are already people thinking about them. If you are an organization that has not worked in this space and is considering this space, look to those who have already been in this space for a long time, especially groups that are Indigenous-led, because that is where you will get the most information you need to advance your projects.
Ricky-Lee Watts: I am blown away by how beautifully Eryn answered your question. Stepping into this sector, we need to recognize the interconnectedness of Indigenous youth and clean energy. These two spaces being so interconnected has so much power for potential going forward. The Youth Program for Indigenous Clean Energy’s Generation Power is such a powerful program, bringing the Indigenous youth perspective to clean energy. While there may have been a gap there, this program is being developed and will be implemented so that across the country, Indigenous youth and employers will be working together and advancing towards a future that is more sustainable and equitable for all. Having Indigenous youth in this space with Generation Power is something I am personally involved in and really excited about. It is moving quite quickly and in a good direction.
What excites or concerns you the most about the future of the Canadian power sector?
Eryn Stewart: As a youth myself, what I would love to see more of in the electricity sector is opportunities for youth to lead and provide valuable insight. Often, youth are put into a box of what they can and cannot do. They are expected to follow the chain in order to make change. I do not see the substantive changes needed for our future economy happening with the traditional hierarchical approach.
“What I would love to see more of in the electricity sector is opportunities for youth to lead and provide valuable insight.”Eryn Stewart, Managing Director of Indigenous Clean Energy
I was 23 when my boss, Chris Henderson, and I develop the 20/20 Catalyst Program. It started with the two of us and now we have 16 staff and I am the managing director at 28. It is not me who was special—I was given those opportunities to grow, learn, and evolve, and there needs to be more of that in the energy sector for youth to explore, be innovative, and learn how to run organizations. There is so much opportunity in terms of what we know and we should be valued in every workplace.
Ricky-Lee Watts: As a 27-year-old indigenous youth, I have looked upon my life journey of what may be for the future and what matters so much for anyone who is young is having someone believe in them. Like with Eryn’s story, having someone believe in her in that very moment catalyzed the 20/20 Catalyst Program and created so much potential beyond. We need to believe in youth potential—there is a lot of passion and energy. With the wisdom and experience of someone who can bring mentorship, we can connect these ideas that can bring forward powerful change for the success of the future economy.
“We need to believe in youth potential—there is a lot of passion and energy.”Ricky-Lee Watts, Youth Program Manager of Indigenous Clean Energy