Just Transition
Canada's future: Decarbonise and decolonise

Canada is one of the world's largest exporters of oil and gas. Much of that oil moves through pipelines that run through lands where the country's original inhabitants, or First Nations, live. 

The history of Canada's relationship with its 1.67 million First Nations communities is heavy with brutal violence, abuse and marginalisation.

In 2015, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for the country to build a better relationship with First Nations in all aspects of life and work, including “economic reconciliation.”

With growing demand for renewable energy and a reduction in oil and gas use, what does that reconciliation look like? 

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Read the full transcript below or via the transcript tab above.


Iman: When much of the world thinks about Canada, they imagine stunning vistas, clean lakes and rivers, endless acres of old growth forests and free roaming wild animals like grizzly bears, moose and beavers. All of that is true. But there is obviously a lot more to the country and the people who live there. And when it comes to joining the world in a rush towards a just transition, the move is equally as complicated and nuanced as anywhere else. Today's episode: “Canada's Future, Decarbonize and Decolonize”.

Iman: Welcome to “Just Transition”, a podcast from Thomson Reuters Foundation about the effort to make the planet cleaner and greener.

Clip 1: And recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.

Iman: Without leaving anyone behind.

Clip 2: Just transition but effective people and communities and communities.

Iman: I'm your host. Iman Amrani. This podcast will look at how we are to ensure a just transition and what's at stake if it's ignored.

Clip 3: There is so much that we can do to keep this from getting worse.

Iman: Canada is one of the world's largest exporters of oil and gas. Manufacturing it is messy, with a big environmental footprint. Much of the oil extracted from Canada is moved around and out of the country through pipelines. A political hot potato both in Canada and the United States, where much of this resource flows. These pipelines wind their way around thousands of miles of land, including lands where the original inhabitants of Canada live - a complicated land negotiation at the best of times. But the relationship between Canada and the 1.67 million indigenous peoples is strained, to say the least. Since 2015, the country has been in a time of truth and reconciliation. The conversation started around residential schools where indigenous children were removed from their families and forced to attend government and church run schools. There, the children were denied their language and culture and in a lot of instances, beaten, tortured and experimented on. The reconciliation is an attempt to build a better relationship with indigenous people in all aspects of life and work, that includes economic reconciliation. To get a better understanding of this issue, we are starting this episode in British Columbia on the West Coast of Canada. A province with a bounty of resources from old growth forests to fishing and mining, and where 198 First Nations call home many with their own traditional laws and cultures.

Nelson: And that has resulted in a lot of uncertainty in recent decades. There's been a lot of uncertainty over land, land rights, land claims and that sort of thing, especially for industrial development.

Iman: To help us navigate this complicated story, I'm joined by Nelson Bennett, a journalist with BIV.com (Business in Vancouver). He's been covering the energy sector and First Nation stories for almost 30 years.

Nelson: First Nations don't own the land per se. It's held essentially in trust by the federal government. But the First Nations will have an elected band council, and they deal with various issues, sort of like a municipal government, I guess. They're in charge of, you know, housing and things like that.

Iman: Things like education, health and economic development that leads to economic reconciliation.

Nelson: Lately, we're hearing more and more about economic reconciliation. Because First Nations themselves are saying that they need to have more control of their own economic destiny in order to, you know, have their own source revenue. Because most First Nations that receive funding from the federal government, in most cases, it's really just not enough. You know, there's a serious lack of decent housing on many reserves. There are many First Nations communities in Canada that still don't have clean drinking water. There's now this notion that First Nations want to become more economically self-sufficient. There are a few examples that you could point to where First Nations are really sort of taking the initiative themselves to develop their own economies and having, I think, some good success with that. And many of them are doing this by working in partnership with industry, whereas before it was very often a contentious sort of relationship. Now it's becoming a bit more co-operative. You have cases of First Nations that are developing their own businesses and working in partnership with industries like oil and gas or mining or forestry.

Iman: Successful partnerships mean more money can go towards preserving their languages, culture and history.

Nelson: They wouldn't have had the money to do that before if they were just relying on the federal government.

Iman: After hundreds of years of having First Nations and their lands taken for granted with no autonomy over their futures. Things are changing.

Nelson: One of the reasons many First Nations are agreeing to partner because what they're saying is that environmental protection is very important to them. And so they therefore want a say in how things are done. So we've even had, you know, examples here of First Nations that are supporting a project. But in doing so, they are doing their own environmental assessment. They're integrating not just science and engineering and things like that. They're also integrating traditional cultural knowledge, you know. So whereas an environmental assessment might only look at the impact on fish and water of something that crosses a stream, traditional First Nations knowledge might say, OK, well, that was an area where we traditionally gather medicine herbs for medicine, or it might be a bathing pool.

Iman: Can you just introduce yourself?

David: My name is Dave Isaac. I run a small firm called WDC Energy Group. It's actually an abbreviation of my traditional Mi'kmaq, which is Wagadusk, which was given to me as an infant. Actually translates to aurora borealis, so wagadusk is old Mi'kmaq for aurora borealis? A lot of the work we do is working with First Nations and indigenous communities across Turtle Island, across Canada, mostly.

Iman: Many indigenous people call North America, Turtle Island. It comes from a number of oral histories that tell the story of a turtle who holds the world on its back.

David: And we do things from solar to year round greenhouse food, systems production, really just sustainable infrastructure, but with a main focus on energy sovereignty.

Iman: David says this work is, by its very nature, an act of decolonization.

David: To understand energy and to talk about things like the just transition you have to look at the history of Canada and really most colonial states or countries and the sort of the historic and the entanglement between colonialism and energy is a very, it's very strong. So when you look at things like resource extraction and you look at quote unquote modern day energy and energy systems in that sector, it's really an extension of this colonial wave that goes back again to really the 1800/1900's. And so the work we do really is about modernizing communities in a way that really lends itself for even further, I should say, aligns itself with indigenous worldview perspectives and traditional philosophies to, you know, minimize the impact on Earth and to also, you know, really become part of this global citizenry that we're seeing across the world when it comes to renewables, when it comes to becoming more of an egalitarian type of model or society. And really, First Nations communities are in Canada at least very much early adopters and actually leading a lot of renewable energy integration in this country.

Iman: When it comes to it and you're doing the work that you're doing on the ground, can you walk me through how to build a solar park?

David: Yeah, for sure. So what is renewable energy? Renewable energy is what's most abundant in your backyard, so to speak. And so fortunately, a lot of the communities we work with, their territory will usually have at least, you know, two or three potential sources. If you've been to a reserve or a first nation or indigenous community in Canada, you'll see that not in all cases, but clearly the built environment hasn't been designed or isn't up to certain standards, let's say. So we like solar farms because we can, you know, usually most communities will have, you know, seven to 10 acres of, you know, ideally brownfield site or underutilized property. But essentially, we try to bring in just a handful of core experts on the engineering and on the electrical side, but the majority of the project is actually built by the community itself.

Iman: David says one project they did in Manitoba, a province in central Canada, exemplifies the good work they can do when the community gets involved.

David: The community members have never saw a solar panel their whole lives. The week before. We're able to put up three thousand panels and build a utility scale solar farm that would effectively or will effectively power their community for the next 25 to 40 years. So it's very inspiring to see that happen so quickly; it actually happened too fast. We plan for a month, but so we had a bit of an issue. We had a few weeks where they didn't have anything to do with already hired them, so it was a good problem to have. But we really, yeah, again, also having the community build it. There's again, this instant modernization and this- the sense of pride that comes out of these projects for communities because they again. Lackluster built environment and when you can modernize a community with some, you know, with the technology of resiliency, it's a beautiful thing in the community it inspires. And the next thing you know, communities are planning greenhouses, they're planning green homes, and it really creates this cascade effect that we see in terms of community development. And that's what's really exciting growth. And then it's also really exciting getting youth and seeing young people learn about this and see it in their backyard. And it often, you know, I think it's going to inspire a lot of young future scientists, future environmentalists, because when you think about a solar panel is kind of a magical thing. I mean it, it's catching these photons that fly across the Solar System and converts them sort of mysteriously into electricity that powers their community. You're literally bridging your community to a star. And then when you can form this bond between a star and your community, it's it's a powerful thing.

Iman: I love that it does have poetic value, and that's part of what I guess does inspire people as well. When you say something like that, it draws people in and there's that investment as well that you're talking about.

David: Yeah. Well, fortunately, as our work has started to ramp up, somehow, you know, wind and solar have become on a price per watt basis, the most economic forms of power in the world. With that said, every community is different. And you know, not all communities, most communities, you know, are always looking to try to own a system and have the equity. And so that's something we're very cognizant of. And I would say just as much effort goes into finding whether it's government grant supports or a blend of philanthropic and the community's own investment, it's usually a blended model of finance that we facilitate business as usual. And as history dictates, you know, traditionally communities will get a very, very small equity percentage or they'll have some sort of minimal sort of revenue stream. And so we're trying to do the inverse of that. And I think there's more mechanisms for communities to go down this path and to set themselves up for the, you know, it's a future proof for climate resiliency, but then also having the ability to I think every community should have at least a one megawatt solar farm. Every Canadian community should have a year round greenhouse growing facility. You know, just to take the burden off the cost of living, basically. Not in some sort of active, yes, it's a decolonizing process, but it's also just, you know, what makes a healthy and robust community. Every time a community transitions to renewables, there's no going back. And I think that's a powerful force that it's unstoppable at this point.

Iman: I'm glad that you have that sense of optimism. You can bring that to this conversation because so many of these conversations do feel like slightly depressing, and some people feel a bit disheartened that you know nothing is changing. So it is reassuring to hear that you feel that or that you know that exists. Do you know what I mean? Overall, some of this can feel quite daunting, and people wonder if we're going to make any change happen. So it's good.

David: Yeah, I'm optimistic. Don't get me wrong, I'm also, you know, I definitely have my days where it's a bit overwhelming to just sort of see the status quo and the lack of global leadership.

Iman: And David's work is, of course, not nearly done. His organization is involved in another solar farm to be built this summer. What is the name of this place?

David: It's called Piapot First Nation, and it's - I guess you could say, yeah, it's really in the heart, almost the geographic center of North America. They've got a great chief and leadership and a real, real history, like most communities. But this is really, I think, going to, you know, represent for them a real shift or a tack towards a new economic path. And so it's a wonderful way economically to really generate income and revenue for its- for a community. And doing it in a fashion that again is aligning with the old ways with the way the elders or the ancestors would no doubt choose. And of all the available technologies, obviously, this is very aligned with this indigenous worldview perspective. The other aspect, of course, is the creation of jobs and and again, that attach to that, which I think is more important, is that sense of ownership and community pride. It's also, I think, an active decarbonization is decolonization. And so if a community can put up this, this bold addition to the built environment. It's also letting the world know, it's also letting its community members know, particularly its young, youthful are youth members know that this community is investing in their future and they are part of, again, global citizenry. They are part of leadership to make change and doing it in their own backyard. It's not any- there's not many revolutions you can do in your backyard. There's a lot more than electrons in a solar panel, that's for sure.

Iman: Canada itself has a lot more energy options than just solar, and each offers a chance for a just transition.

Speaker 3: So Iron and Earth is a nonprofit that was developed as a result of the energy transition that is going on in Canada, but more focused in the oil sands in the Alberta region.

Iman: This is Keegan Leahy.

Keegan: I'm from the Naotkemewanning First Nation.

Iman: In Alberta, If you're talking about employment in resources and energy, you're talking about work in oil and gas. If Canada is to meet its climate change targets, these fossil fuel jobs will need to change jobs held by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

Keegan: You have a lot of people that work in the industry and have been very focused on the oil patch for pretty much their whole life, and a lot of these individuals don't always know that their jobs can be replicated in other places outside of the patch, right? We still need pipefitters. You still need people to be electricians. We still need people around to run heavy equipment. These are all jobs that are in most cases more sustainable than the patch. They're more regular. They're just as high-paying. So we want to create both a training platform for lateral training and upskilling and reskilling. But at the same time, we're looking at different options.

Iman: Keegan says that the biggest challenge so far is that people are hesitant about change.

Keegan: People just need to see successful stories. So I know in my region we have a lot of significant wind capacity, but a lot of people one have the NIMBY approach to it. They don't want to see these big wind turbines. They think that they, you know, in the past that they have had some issues with bird kills and noise. But modern wind turbines have a lot more technology available to them that can mitigate a lot of these issues. You have a lot of people that are very pro renewables, but they just don't know the details.

Iman: Both Keegan and David Isaac agree that the move towards a just transition in Canada is a very natural direction for First Nations to go in.

Keegan: For my own perspective, and one of the reasons why I love renewable energy is that traditionally the sun, the earth, the water, the wind gave us everything that we need to survive and thrive on this planet, prior to colonialism. And ever since colonialism came to our lands and the lands were taken from us, we've been struggling to adapt, to thrive as we once did. But with the advent of technology where it is right now and in the energy transition being pretty much a thing that has to happen and the world agreeing to that, I believe that this is one of our opportunities to utilize the technologies that exist and incorporating many of our traditional values to bring wealth generation back to the community, communities.

Iman: But Keagan doesn't have blinders on, especially in Alberta.

Keegan: You know, I believe that oil and gas is always going to be around. Well, maybe not always, but for the foreseeable future, that's for sure. Majority of First Nations that are in and around the pipelines and or new pipelines are actually pro pipeline. Because they see it one as being a source of employment, sustainable employment, good paying employment. But it's also an opportunity for First Nations to own it, own a portion either all or a portion of the project. And why that is important is that when indigenous people have ownership in a project, we have a voice and we have the ability to control the environmental impact of the project. We can be the voice to say, OK, well, this is not something that is supportive environment, and we want to be able to say that if it's going to cost another $20 million to do it, to route it another way or do more more environmental assessments to make sure that we do this righ. Most cases that's not going to happen without an indigenous voice, either on the board or controlling it.

Iman: Reporter Nelson Bennett has seen this change happening on the ground, in fact, not only our First Nations asking for a seat at the table, rather, now...

Nelson: The successful companies you'll find what they're doing is they're taking the initiative to go into First Nations communities where they want to operate and talking to them first and building a relationship with them. Explaining what their plans are and also negotiating benefits agreements with them so that they are benefiting. One of the things you will hear from First Nations over and over again is that they're not opposed to economic development and resource extraction and that sort of thing. But they want,number one, they want a say on how it's done and, number two, they want some benefits from it. Previously, First Nations may object, but they would get very little benefit from the work. Now what you're starting to see is First Nations will get cash, maybe annual revenue sharing, a guarantee of jobs and contracts and that sort of thing.

Iman: That's the business side of things. And Nelson says that things are changing on the cultural side, too. Not only are there meetings now with the chief and council, there's also an attempt to hear from the wider community.

Nelson: Very often it might be like in a feast hall or something like that more of a community hall kind of gathering.

Iman: Is there a specific example you can show where cultural knowledge was incorporated in a resource project?

Nelson: That's around the woodfibre LNG project. The site where it will be located is on an old pulp mill site, an old industrial site. But this is within Squamish First Nation territory. So they met with the Squamish First Nation and managed to develop an agreement, and that agreement included the Squamish First Nation undertaking sort of their own environmental assessment. As a result of that, they had 25 conditions that they insisted on having being met, and the company behind the wood fiber LNG project agreed to all 25 conditions.

Iman: Corporate Canada agreeing to indigenous demands, Keegan says that's really it. The key to a just transition.

Keegan: The silver lining for me is that indigenous voices are being heard, and even if it's not as loud as we want it, it's sticking. And I emphasize that word sticking, meaning that indigenous voices have always been loud, but we haven't always been heard. And I really feel like our voices are sticking and being heard more and more. And that's not just in Canada.

Iman: If you'd like to read more about just transitions elsewhere, head over to the Thomson Reuters website. Links are in the show notes.