MANITOULIN—In what might literally be described as a power play, area First Nations have joined forces with the McLean’s Mountain Wind Farm developer for an equal share in the controversial project.
A major announcement concerning a “50/50 partnership” between Northland Power and the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising (UCCM) will be made in Sudbury tomorrow (Thursday), according to a media advisory jointly issued by Northland and the First Nations group.
The deal for co-ownership of green power on Manitoulin “starts with the McLean’s Mountain Wind Farm project, but includes all future renewable energy projects on the UCCM First Nations’ traditional territory, and down the road may include solar, hydro, gas or electrical infrastructure projects,” the advisory indicates.
Northland president and CEO John Brace said he wasn’t at liberty to go into much detail pending the formal announcement on Thursday, but expressed satisfaction that an agreement had been reached with the First Nations.
“I can confirm the obvious, which is that Northland and the UCCM corporation are getting together on the McLean’s Mountain project,” he said. “We’re happy with this, and think it’s a good step. It’s something we’ve been working on, and it’s just coming to a culmination now.”
While the Northland-UCCM collaboration is a major development, Mr. Brace pointed out that it’s not an entirely new concept for the industry, or for his company. “We have worked with First Nations before on projects,” said the Northland CEO. “We have a partnership with the Constance Lake First Nation near Hearst on a water power project, which is now in the environmental permitting process, and in Quebec we have a relationship with the Pessamit First Nation on wind power projects.”
M’Chigeeng First Nation Chief Joe Hare noted that the UCCM formed the Mnidoo Mnising Power Corporation this fall as a way to become a player in renewable energy development on Manitoulin, and more recently approached Northland for a role in the McLean’s Mountain project.
“We went to them and said, ‘We want to be part of this development,'” he said. “At first they didn’t respond, but after a second approach they agreed. Once they agreed we had to get approvals through our respective band councils.”
All of the UCCM communities are on board, he said, including Aundeck Omni Kaning (AOK) and the Sheguiandah First Nation, which border on the McLean’s Mountain development and have previously expressed misgivings about the project. Wikwemikong, which is not represented by the UCCM and has its own sizeable wind project in the planning stages, “is not in on this,” he added.
The deal for a 50/50 share in the McLean’s Mountain project—meaning both its financing and profits—is “a major undertaking on the part of the First Nations,” said the chief, adding that the Sudbury press conference represents a chance “to broadcast to the industry in general, and other First Nations, a benchmark that they can aspire to.”
In most cases, “the developer takes most of the profit,” said Chief Hare. “This shows how corporations can enter into a good relationship with First Nations, and vice versa.”
The surprising move comes less than a year after the UCCM took a firm stance against the Northland initiative. In a statement delivered at a public meeting last March, UCCM tribal chair Franklin Paibomsai complained that a duty to consult with First Nations “has been ignored and continues to be ignored.” Until such time as the province agreed to talk directly with First Nations, “the chiefs will remain opposed to the project,” he asserted.
To be fair, those objections were directed more at the Ontario government than the developer, but generally speaking there seemed to be little warmth between the First Nations and Northland Power until very recently.
AOK is also on record as resisting the project. A band council resolution from last January states that the First Nation “categorically opposes Northland Power’s wind-farm project proposal until such time as all encroachments of noise, low-frequency noise, health effects issues, and environmental concerns that will affect the health of our membership (are) addressed and to our satisfaction.”
Ray Beaudry, a non-participating resident of the project area and member of the Manitoulin Coalition for Safe Energy Alternatives (MCSEA), isn’t terribly shocked by the news, as he had a sense that something was in the works between the First Nations and Northland. But he’s certainly disappointed.
“It’s very upsetting for us,” he said. “We’ve been raising environmental awareness all this time, and First Nations are supposed to look after the next seven generations.”
Given that industrial wind turbines can have a negative impact on both wildlife (including eagles, sacred to Native people) and humans (some of whom report health problems like sleep disruption and arrhythmia), he feels supporting the project is inconsistent with “their future outlook” to protect the land and their descendants.
Chief Hare acknowledges that there are some concerns regarding wind energy, but in his estimation “it’s the lesser of evils” given the other options for power generation. “We feel that, as far as protecting Mother Earth as much as possible, it’s preferable to embrace clean, green energy,” he said. “When we looked at these alternative energy projects, we felt it was better to support them because they don’t disturb the climate and environment as much as coal or uranium.”
It is also, more practically, a way to generate some revenue for First Nation communities that otherwise have few development options. “On the economic side, there’s not much for First Nations to capitalize on with where we are situated,” said the chief. “The forests are not there, and tourism is limited.”
The McLean’s Mountain project might not be taking shape on lands currently owned by First Nations, but this corner of the Island remains a part of their traditional territory, not to mention spans road allowances to which they retain some claim, pending the resolution of the 1990 treaty process.
“The 1990 land claim settlement included us forgoing our rights in terms of resources like aggregates and water, but we don’t look at it that way,” said Chief Hare. “We believe we own certain rights of way, and you have to use that to your advantage. You go with what you’ve got and what you own.”
Partnering equally with Northland on the Island’s first major wind farm—at last count, it was to include 43 wind turbines that would generate 77 megawatts, and could expand—will represent a major investment on the part of the UCCM communities, but Chief Hare believes it’s doable because of the cachet that Northland has within the industry.
“It’s virtually impossible for First Nations to raise money on their own,” he said. “We can put up some equity, but the rest has to be borrowed, and it makes raising capital easier when you have a major corporation as a partner. They’ve been in business for many years, with projects in Europe as well as here in Canada, so they bring a lot of credibility when it comes to lenders.”
While Mr. Hare didn’t specify the exact amount of money that would have to be ponied up by the UCCM for the project, it certainly won’t be a trivial amount. In its environmental screening report issued in 2009, Northland estimated that “the construction of the McLean’s Mountain wind farm will require a capital (outlay) of approximately $200 million on turbine components, civil construction, electrical, crane and many additional specialist contractors.” Half of that would be—you got it—$100 million.
Mr. Beaudry hopes that the First Nation share of these funds won’t come in the form of low-interest government loans, as that would mean taxpayers will be on the hook (to some extent, at least) for a project that many on Manitoulin don’t welcome.
Mostly, though, he’s dismayed that a group that formerly represented an ally in resisting the development has gone over to what he would consider the dark side. “Until now, the First Nations have been a real stumbling block for Northland,” he said. “Now that they’re partners, it will probably roll full steam ahead.”
Northland was already poised to submit its revised bid for Renewable Energy Application (REA) approval this spring, in Mr. Beaudry’s understanding. He expects that application will go forward sooner now, if it hasn’t already been filed.
“We won’t know until it gets approved,” he said. This could take as long as six months, following submission to the Ministry of the Environment, although his hunch is it will “be approved in less time than that.” At that point, “you get 30 days to comment on it, and after that, there are 15 days to appeal.”
Mr. Brace said “there are still some documents that we have to finish drafting before the REA application can go in, but it will become fully public once it is assessed to be complete.”
While the odds now seem stacked against anyone who opposes the development, Mr. Beaudry believes a few tools are still left at the disposal of wind critics—one being the aforementioned REA appeal process, as is currently occurring in Chatham-Kent following a nominal green light for a project in that area. “We would appeal on the basis of irreversible harm to the environment,” he said.
Another avenue to thwart the process could well rest with members of the First Nations whose leaders have inked this deal, Mr. Beaudry suggested, particularly since the pact seems to have been reached without community input. “They should be holding community meetings and having debate on this,” he said. “I don’t believe the Elders would support this kind of environmental impact.”
Chief Hare noted that “we had discussion at the council level” on the issue of the UCCM partnership with Northland, while admitting that “we didn’t go to the community,” in part because there is already a process in place in which Northland is required to hold public consultations.
In Mr. Beaudry’s experience, however, the public meetings that Northland is obligated to hold are essentially pointless in terms of citizen impact. “They’ve never listened to any of the issues we’ve raised,” he said. “It’s basically: ‘We’re coming into the community and this is what we’re doing, whether you like it or not.’ It’s not true public consultation.”
That said, some accommodation does seem to have been made in regard to the concerns of Aundeck Omni Kaning, said Mr. Beaudry. In stating its objections to the project last year, the leadership of AOK asked for a buffer of at least two kilometres (as opposed to the provincial requirement of 550 metres) between turbines and dwellings.
Northland appears to have complied with that demand, or at least come close to it. “According to the map of the project presented at last Tuesday’s council meeting, they’ve moved some turbines away from AOK,” said Mr. Beaudry. “It doesn’t look like a full two kilometres from their fence lines, but maybe from the downtown core of AOK.”
That adjustment in the layout comes at the expense of Northeast Town residents whose land abuts the project area, however, according to Mr. Beaudry. “They’ve also moved turbines closer into clusters that will affect non-participating landowners, which they can do because of the latest EBR (Environmental Bill of Rights) ruling that hunt camps and severed lots don’t count,” he said.
Mr. Beaudry understands that First Nations need to look out for themselves and seek economic development where it’s available—unlike some other folks in the Northeast Town, he has never had a problem with the hotel development in Little Current that will be First Nation-owned and -operated, as it benefits the community without posing any major environmental consequences—but he worries that this new arrangement between Northland and the UCCM is being carried out at the expense of both the environment and the non-Native residents of the area.
“First Nations are now recognized as stakeholders, but the same protection isn’t provided to non-First Nations people,” he said. “This project has already been divisive enough within the non-Native community—how is this going to affect the good relationship we’ve had over the years between Native and non-Native?”
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