Neskantaga First Nation has been under a boil water advisory for the past 20 years. Like most reserves in Ontario’s northwest, electricity comes from noisy and polluting diesel generators. The community is connected to the rest of the world only part of the year by a winter road that stops being useful the moment the ice starts to thin in spring. When the winter’s shipment of diesel fuel runs out, it has to be flown in on floatplanes at enormous expense.
In short, Neskantaga and other First Nation reserves in Ontario’s vast northwest have to live in conditions that nearly everyone in Ontario would find unacceptable. The nearby Ring of Fire mineral deposit, potentially worth $50 billion, is supposed to help change that.
“Unless we really open up the north and provide access to remote First Nation communities, we’ve really missed the boat,” says Ontario’s Minister of Northern Development and Mines Mike Gravelle.
A lot of debate around the Ring of Fire revolves around what kind of transportation links to build to get the rich minerals found there to global markets. However, more basic forms of infrastructure are also planned, such as reliable electricity.
Limited electrical power isn’t just expensive: it limits all economic options on First Nations reserves, and exacerbates the existing housing shortage. The limited capacity of the existing diesel generators prevents some reserves from allowing new homes to be built.
Wataynekineyap Power (or “Watay Power” for short) is a coalition of 20 First Nations looking to connect most of the currently diesel-powered reserves to Ontario’s electrical grid. They’ve already completed the environmental approvals for Phase One of the project, which will upgrade an existing transmission line to Pickle Lake – a necessary first step for expanding the power grid. They hope the upgrade will be done by 2018, with the first remote connections completed by 2019.
The transmission lines Watay Power will require may also open up the possibility of new roads, though Margaret Kenequanash, chair of Watay Power, is focused primarily on the fundamentals of electricity transmission. “We’re trying not to complicate things – this is complicated enough as it is.”
The agency responsible for planning the province’s transmission grid, the IESO, declared in 2014 that the cost savings from phasing out the current system of diesel generators are enough on their own to justify connecting most of northwest Ontario’s remote reserves. The development of the Ring of Fire, however, would create more demand for electricity in the area, which means the plan would break even for the provincial and federal governments even sooner.
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