First, they found out they’re getting giant wind turbines even though they didn’t want them.
Now, residents of a Southwestern Ontario township are learning the support of six Ontario First Nations communities – more than 1,000 kilometres away, some not even in the same time zone – helped give a Chicago-based energy giant an edge in its winning bid to build the unwanted wind farm.
One of the native communities is along Hudson Bay, the others in the province’s northwest near the Manitoba border.
It’s another sign that for all the changes Ontario has made to ensure the controversial projects aren’t imposed on areas that don’t want them, as they have been in parts of Southwestern Ontario, problems – and surprises – persist.
“It’s ludicrous for them to do something like that,” said Jamie Littlejohn, a spokesperson for Dutton/Dunwich Opponents of Wind Turbines.
Littlejohn heads a citizens’ group opposed to the project in Dutton-Dunwich Township, southwest of London.
Progressive Conservative MPP Jeff Yurek said he was “shocked” that communities so far away could influence an energy project in his riding, and he wants the ruling Liberals to shelve the wind farm.
“I don’t think it’s fair to residents of the municipality – it’s a huge loophole the government needs to close,” said the Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP.
Residents in Dutton-Dunwich, in rural Elgin County, are vehemently opposed to Invenergy LLC’s project.
Under Ontario’s new bidding system for wind-energy contracts, participation by a First Nation gives companies an extra edge.
Invenergy, which won one of the coveted contracts for its proposed Strong Breeze Wind Farm in Dutton-Dunwich, found its First Nation support – and investment – in Ontario’s northernmost community and remote reserves near the Manitoba boundary.
One of the First Nations communities participating in the project, McDowell Lake, has only 59 members.
Last year Dutton-Dunwich was the first municipality to hold a vote on wind farm development, rejecting it by 84 per cent.
Ontario’s Independent Electricity Operator (IESO), which awarded the renewable energy contracts, released details Tuesday of what projects had the backing of local landowners, municipal councils and First Nations communities.
Three of the 16 contracts were awarded to companies despite no backing from landowners, municipalities and First Nations.
Eight contracts went to companies with the backing of all groups.
While community support helped companies, price and availability of connection points to the power grid were major considerations, the IESO said.
Under its old system for awarding wind farm contracts, Ontario’s Liberal government was heavily criticized for signing long-term deals that often paid companies far more than consumers pay for the electricity, leaving the public to subsidize the difference.
In the case of the Strong Breeze Wind Farm, Invenergy was awarded points for gaining the support of 75 per cent of the leaseholders and landowners next to the project and the First Nations of Fort Severn, Poplar Hill, McDowell Lake, North Spirit Lake, Keewaywin and Deer Lake.
The small native communities share some services – including public works, education and health care – as the six members of the Keewaytinook Okimakinak, or Northern Chiefs Council.
James Murphy, vice president of business development for Invenergy, said the First Nations had joined together to form the NCC Development Corp.
NCC has a 10-per-cent interest in both the Strong Breeze Wind Project and the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport Solar project.
“Invenergy is proud to have an Ontario-wide partnership with the NCC for all of our projects that were submitted in to the large renewable procurement,” Murphy said in an e-mail.
Invenergy had submitted bids for nine projects, winning two.
Murphy said the First Nations communities will invest the revenue generated from the projects into education, health care and environmental projects in their northern communities.
“These are communities that are most susceptible to the risk of climate change and face tremendous local challenges. We think they are excellent partners and we commend them for their leadership, vision and action,” he said.
Officials at the First Nations couldn’t be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.
An IESO spokesperson said the First Nations had to have at least a 10-per-cent financial stake in the renewable energy project in order for it to qualify for the extra points.
Both Littlejohn and Dutton-Dunwich Mayor Cameron McWilliam were shocked that First Nations that far away were part of the bid to build the wind farm.
“It is an indication of how flawed the system is, when they can do that and they ignore our own three bands locally,” Littlejohn said.
The citizens group contacted the area First Nations communities and were told they weren’t taking part in the Strong Breeze project, Littlejohn said.
McWilliam said he doesn’t believe it’s fair that wind farm companies can draw their support from First Nations that are not in the area.
Yurek said the case underlines how the Liberals have ignored rural Ontario for more than a decade in decisions about where to locate such projects.
“The project should be held.”
— With files by Dan Brown and Debora Van Brenk, Free Press reporters
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