Western British Columbia First Nation Moves Toward Energy Sovereignty |  Radio-Canada News

Western British Columbia First Nation Moves Toward Energy Sovereignty | Radio-Canada News

Six years after a devastating diesel spill exposed its dependence on fossil fuels, the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) Nation in western British Columbia says it is moving towards energy sovereignty and decarbonization, by introducing everything from heat pumps, solar panels and solar composting to his community.

On October 13, 2016Nathan E. Stewart of Kirby Corporation spilled about 110,000 liters of diesel and another 2,000 liters of lubricants after it ran aground in the Seaforth Channel near Bella Bella, British Columbia, the largest community in the Heiltsuk Nation.

The nation sued the multi-billion dollar company in 2018, but said federal and provincial aid were hard to find in the years after the spill devastated clam beds on the nation’s traditional territory.

Q̓án̓ístisḷa (Michael Vegh), the energy implementation advisor for Heiltsuk’s climate action team, says this was part of the motivation behind the country’s later clean energy projects.

“I think [the spill] made the community aware of how real the risk is when we ship oil and diesel to heat our community,” he told CBC News.

“Today it’s just not a risk anymore that we have to take and we can find alternatives to that…we’re not just stuck in the trauma of this event anymore. We’re taking action.”

A pool of water shows oil shards visible after a diesel spill.
Diesel leaked onto the shore of the Great Bear Rainforest Islands for weeks after the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart near Bella Bella in 2016. (April Bencze/Heiltsuk Nation)

The history of the Heiltsuk Nation, located relatively far from urban centers and therefore dependent on imported energy, is not uncommon across Canada.

Vegh says one of the top priorities of the country’s climate strategy was to tackle home heating, which made up 60% of the community’s greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from diesel heating.

Today, approximately 75% of Bella Bella homes are equipped with energy-efficient installations electric heat pumps installed – Vegh estimating that the average household saves $1,500 in heating costs and produces five tons less greenhouse gas emissions per year.

A stubby box similar to an air conditioner sits outside a house.
Hundreds of heat pumps, like this one pictured here, have been installed in Bella Bella, British Columbia, as part of the Heiltsuk Nation’s climate sovereignty plans. (Camille Vernet/Radio Canada)

“At a very domestic level, heat pumps create a better source of heating in homes and create better air quality which reduces respiratory problems,” he said. “It’s having a home in the community that [much] more affordable.

“Our climate action goals…ensure that all energy, transportation and resources in our community are sustainable and will not harm our way of life.”

Solar panels and compost

Q̓átuw̓as (Gahtuwos) Brown, Communications Officer for the Heiltsuk Climate Action Groupsaid the community’s electricity comes largely from a BC Hydro power plant operated by private company Boralex.

She said the nation was in talks to buy the hydroelectric plant, as part of consolidating Heiltsuk’s energy sovereignty.

“They’re trying to sell it to us for over $12 million,” she said. “It shows the financial inequities that still exist between settler society and Indigenous societies, as well as value systems.”

A large room with native artwork next to a totem pole.
The Heiltsuk Nation comprises over 2,400 people. More than 1,600 of them reside in Bella Bella, British Columbia, on the east coast of what is now known as Campbell Island. (Camille Vernet/Radio Canada)

Brown says the community still had backup diesel generators in the event of a power outage, which she says is “quite often” in Bella Bella because the plant was at capacity.

Today, one of the community’s buildings, the Kunsoot Health and Wellness Centeris powered entirely by solar panels, including its toilet – something Brown says is a marker of things to come.

A woman sits on the edge of a boat next to three buildings with solar panels on the roof.
Q̓átuw̓as Brown sits on a boat next to the solar-powered buildings that make up the Kunsoot Health and Wellness Centre. She says there are plans to introduce solar panels nationwide. (Camille Vernet/Radio Canada)

She says the country’s energy sovereignty efforts are also linked to their food sovereignty efforts, which include a push to vertical farming.

Federal government says more funding to come

The Heiltsuk First Nation Climate Action Plan has stood out at the federal level for the scope and quantity of its proposed projects. It won the Community of the Year award from Clean Energy BC in May.

The nation is one of the participants in the federal government Non-Diesel Indigenous Initiativewhich helped donate $1.8 million to projects including the solar-powered community center.

A series of small buildings with solar panels on the roof.
Solar panels installed at the Kunsoot Health and Wellness Center helped power its construction. The center seeks to connect community members to nature and the earth. (Camille Vernet/Radio Canada)

“When I think about the inequalities that exist in Canada, I know it’s a unique story and shouldn’t just be a beautiful, unique story,” Brown said. “It should be the norm, it should be the bare minimum for every First Nation.

“We are a small community of about 1,600 people. Our carbon footprint is not huge, but what we hope is that other communities, other municipalities will be able to watch what we are doing.”

Two women sit on a boat with solar panel buildings behind them.
Q̓átuw̓as Brown, left, and Astrid Wilson, right, say they are proud of their country’s work to fight climate change. (Camille Vernet/Radio Canada)

According to Natural Resources Canada, there are 224 “remote” communities in Canada that rely on diesel. More than 70% of these communities – 162 in total – are indigenous communities.

“The long-term plan is to be able to help all communities reduce their reliance on diesel wherever and whenever possible,” said Éric Lévesque, policy development officer at the ministry.

“Over the past few years…we have supported over 130 communities.”

sunrise north6:43Energy sovereignty as decolonization

The Heiltsuk Nation embarks on a plan to wean itself off fossil fuel.

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