Polluted First Nations Community Asks Big Oil To Pay For Its Solar Panels

CREDIT: Emily Atkin

An aerial view of Fort Chip.

FORT CHIPEWYAN, ALBERTA – A good deal of sunlight shines on the remote First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan. On Thursday, the sub-arctic Canadian settlement’s sun rose at 5:50 a.m., shining until it set at around 9 at night.

The community’s population of 1,100 could meet its energy needs entirely with sunlight if it wanted, a recent study showed. At present, though, solar and other types of renewable power are far from Fort Chip’s collective mind. Nearly every home there is saddled with large, grey, 168-gallon tanks of diesel fuel. The recreation center is branded with a large Syncrude logo. The children’s playground is named after Suncor. The school has a Shell sign.

The nation is peppered with constant reminders of its dependence on the oil industry — the same industry that has polluted their land to the point where Fort Chipewyan’s people can no longer hunt, fish, or swim to their leisure — the same industry that residents believe has caused cancer and sickness rates to skyrocket in the last 30 years.

“[The dependence] 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,” said Mike Mercredi of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations (ACFN), one of three aboriginal groups that live in Fort Chip. “We try to get money from industry now.”

With recent advisories limiting consumption of native fish, animals, and plants, the tradition of making a living off of hunting and trapping in Fort Chip is gone. Instead, much of Fort Chip’s ACFN population makes its money via 17 tribe-owned businesses that service the booming tar sands industry, located less than 200 miles upstream in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

The ACFN’s businesses (all of which are environment-focused — waste management, recycling, clean-up, etc.) are not, however, the only way the community gets money from the oil industry. Because of the harm tar sands pollution has done there, oil companies agree to pay for projects that will help heal the bruises. Hence the Suncor playground.

But a playground won’t release Fort Chipewyan’s people from big oil’s grip, and won’t halt many native people’s idle acceptance that fossil fuels are necessary to live in one of the oldest settlements in Alberta. That’s why Mercredi is hoping that the next “bruise-healing” project Suncor funds will be solar panels for 400 of the settlement’s 700 homes.

“People here have adapted. They turn on a light and it’s on,” Mercredi, who has spearheaded a number of environmental initiatives in the community, said. “I’m working on changing that thought pattern. I want people to want the light from their light switch to come from the sun.”

Mercredi first got the idea for solar a few years back, and founded the Fort Chipewyan Renewable Energy Society. He learned more by speaking with elder Matthew Lepine, who installed a solar panel on his cabin, and the T’Sou-ke First Nation in British Columbia, which runs a great deal of its reserve on solar.

An aerial view of Fort Chip.

An aerial view of Fort Chip.

With that knowledge, Mercredi was able to secure a $7,500 grant from the Alberta Ecotrust Foundation, which paid for the study that found that 100 percent of Fort Chipewyan’s energy needs could be met by solar, Mercredi said. The energy audit study, done by the Pembina Insitute, also found that 71 percent of the community’s energy needs could be met by wind.

“Solar is the least expensive and easiest option,” Mercredi said.

If Fort Chip’s power can come from the sun, Mercredi hopes the younger generation’s connections with nature — and by extension, aboriginal culture — can be re-established. Tar sands development has not just brought pollution to Fort Chip’s lands, sickness to its people, and a halt on their way of lives, he says. It has disconnected the ACFN and the other two aboriginal groups — the Mikisew Cree First Nations and the Métis people — from their roots, by effectively preventing widespread hunting and trapping.

“They took away the things that the First Nations were naturally good at,” Mercredi said. “You could almost say that our ways are becoming extinct.”

Securing the funding for solar in Fort Chip won’t be easy. These “bruise-healing” agreements with the oil companies, also known as Impact Benefit Agreements, come with various setbacks, according to ACFN spokersperson Eriel Deranger.

For one, every detail of the project must be agreed on by both the oil company involved and representatives of the First Nations. When those funds are approved, they can take years to actually show up in the community — “like pulling teeth” once the agreement is signed, Deranger said.

And even when those projects are finished, the money doesn’t go far enough. The state-of-the-art health center in the center of the community is a good example, Deranger said, as it is not well-staffed or funded for long-term use.

“These are very restricted funds,” Deranger said.

Another setback of the agreements is that they are often proposed by oil companies as ways to prevent First Nations people from filing formal legal opposition to new tar sands development applications. They’re spun to the community as “mutually beneficial” agreements — costly and timely legal proceedings are avoided, and Fort Chip gets some money from the deal.

“We just don’t have the money to file oppositions on every project that pops up,” Deranger said. “It’s just a matter of survival.”

Still, Mercredi is pressing on, despite what he says is a very tense, bitter relationship with the oil companies. 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.

“The very industry that is destroying our way of life could be helping us sustain it,” he said. “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.”

Suncor did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the meeting. But 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 said. “It just takes some will and money, that’s it.”

Gridworks is already working to put solar panels on the ACFN’s Youth and Elder Lodge, a main meeting center in the community. The elders’ homes are hopefully next. Then, maybe, all the ACFN’s homes — maybe all the homes in Fort Chip.

“All of this is possible, It’s just a matter of it getting done. One day I will plug in my truck and be able to drive,” Mercredi said. “That exists now. It just doesn’t exist here.”