Deer Lake Chief Royle Meekis addresses the crowd gathered in his community’s school gym on April 15. Photo by Lindsay Briscoe
BY LINDSAY BRISCOE
“It’s very different than when I was a child. I’m 60 years old. When I was young, we didn’t have any lights like this. We didn’t even have candles. A long time ago, we’d find a little rock, put a little bit of cloth on it – something to burn – and then we’d put fuel. Where did we get the fuel from? We got it from the fat of different animals. That’s how we lit our camps when I was a child.
Today we are celebrating another milestone for our children: solar panels. And that’s something that’s changing. Everything is changing.” – Deer Lake First Nation elder.
It was a day full of hugs, smiles, handshakes, and feasting at Deer Lake First Nation School last Tuesday as the community came together to celebrate the installation of Ontario’s largest solar micro grid in a remote access community.
Renewable energy projects have been on the table for several years within the six since communities of Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO). But about three years ago the chiefs of Deer Lake, Fort Severn, Keewaywin, McDowell Lake, North Spirit, and Poplar Hill First Nation got together to form NCC Development – their own energy management company. They decided solar would be the perfect alternative to the mainly diesel generators currently used to power those communities and formed a partnership with solar panel manufacturer Canadian Solar to get a solar project off the ground.
“We tried to find a way to find more energy in the community because there are a lot of things our communities want to do. I’ve often said that we’re no different than anybody else out there. We’re no different than people in Toronto, we’re no different than people in Red Lake. We have the same needs and desires…to do and achieve like any other mainstream society, as they call it,” said Keewaywin First Nation band member and NCC CEO Geordi Kakepetum.
“In our remote communities…(they) do not have the capacity to develop their communities – their economies – because there is not enough power to build bigger buildings or bigger businesses,” said Dean Cromarty, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Infrastructure Coordinator/Policy Analyst. “What we want to see is finding ways to increase the capacity right away to help those communities the way Deer Lake is doing…the Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski wants to encourage people to be able to do that themselves…I’m very proud of your school and I think the Grand Chief would be proud too.”
Apart from the desire to expand their economies, one of the main goals of the chiefs is to limit the burning of fossil fuels. They also need to tackle the sheer cost of purchasing and transporting diesel into their communities. Kakepetum says transportation of the fuel alone can run between one and two million dollars annually per community.
“How do we save money to continue our education?” said Deer Lake Chief Royle Meekis. “How do we make better schools? And how do we conserve them? This is one project that we thought would save a lot of money. I’m very hopeful that other First Nations will follow in our footsteps.”
The school won’t be able to run on solar alone, but Kakepetum expects the over 600 solar panels will give the diesel generator a rest 50 per cent of the time. The system includes batteries to store power for when the sun isn’t shining. The freed up power will be used to hook up a number of new homes in the community which have been boarded up for years because they had no power.
And the hope is that Deer Lake’s project will expand. NCC has planned for a demonstration in Keewaywin and has a pilot project in the works for Fort Severn.
Representatives from Jazz Solar Solutions – the company responsible for installing the panels over three weeks in February – addressed the crowd gathered at the school, agreeing that the Deer Lake project is a small part of a much larger picture.
“My personal thought: this project is just the start of something big for the community of Deer Lake,” said Jazz Solar Solutions Founder and CEO Ketan Bhalla. “But you’re really also part of making history because what’s going to transpire here with solar, with batteries, and everything else planned with Canadian Solar and NCC, is really the model of energy for about three billion people with bad or no electricity in this planet we live in. So I feel very honoured to be part of history that’s starting here in Deer Lake.”
The federal government provided some funding for capacity building and administration, but Deer Lake funded the bulk of the $600,000 project.
Kakepetum hopes the project will be a source of inspiration to all KO communities and their chiefs and council members.
“We’re just as good as anybody out there. We’re just as smart and we’re just as capable. There’s nothing that can stop us to do what we want to do…I’m glad that some of the kids are here because that’s my message to you: that if we make up our minds to do something, we can do it. So keep that in mind as you go through your education – that we need to be committed.”