As part owners, the communities are active participants in planning their future, hoping to avoid the problems facing other reserves where oil royalties brought more social strife
In Saskatchewan, some First Nations have partnered with corporate investors in the single largest development ever to be conducted on a First Nations reserve in Canada. Not inclined to just receiving royalties, they are equity participants, part owners of the Pehonan hydroelectric project. They’re also taking a more proactive stance by planning for the economic and social impact this project will have on their communities.
Historically, the development of natural resources on First Nations territories has been controversial. The discovery of oil deposits brought millions of dollars in royalty revenues to the Cree people of Hobbema, Alberta, but the community struggles with problems of drug use and gangs. Its per-capita murder rate was almost thirty times higher than Edmonton’s in 2008.
“Because of the lack of community planning, a lack of healing and not dealing with the actual community issues, Hobbema became famous for its social problems becoming far worse,” said Pamela Palmater, Chair of Indigenous Affairs at Ryerson University.
The director of aboriginal relations for Brookfield Renewable is John Kim Bell, a First Nations energy advocate who was born on the Kahnawake Mohawk Reserve. He said that for years the First Nations were invisible to Canadian society. Now laws require developers to consult and accommodate First Nations on any type of business that impacts their community. “In the case of the James Smith First Nations, they are completely happy to have the Pehonan project,” Bell said. “For them it represents a huge, unprecedented economic impact on their community.”
In a 2009 referendum, 96% of the James Smith Cree Nation voted in support of the Pehonan Hydroelectric project. Everybody over the age of 18 was allowed to vote including women and those living off-reserve. The majority of James Smith’s community lives in Prince Albert and Saskatoon. Information sessions were held prior to the referendum and continue to be provided.
“We try to inform our membership,” said Chief Wally Burns. “A lot of good ideas come from the membership in terms of how we can work together and become a prosperous First Nation.”
The James Smith First Nations is, like others, fighting problems related to alcohol and drugs, but Chief Burns is optimistic that these will diminish. “I know for a fact that our membership will get sick and tired of drug users.”
Brookfield has established a positive rapport with First Nations in Western Canada in recent decades, and it brings more than one hundred years of experience in hydroelectricity to the project. With the company’s support, a $7.5 million dollar grant was secured to train First Nations people for employment on all phases of the project. Apprenticeships are being provided to two hundred students in trades like welding, plumbing and carpentry.
Despite its size and scope, Bell warns that single initiatives like the Pehonan project cannot fulfill the economic needs of the First Nations, and calls for the reform or elimination of the main federal legislation dealing with Aboriginal Peoples. “In order for First Nations to be able to achieve basic living standards, there’s a need to reform the Indian Act, or dispense with it, or replace it. The laws are discriminatory and they result in poverty and a form of apartheid.”
At the Assembly of First Nations annual meeting in July 2010, National Chief Shawn Alteo called for an end to the Indian Act within the next five years. He said that the Department of Indian Affairs should be dismantled and replaced with efficient institutions such as a ministry of First Nations-Crown relations and a treaty rights tribunal. Aboriginal people continue to fight for health care, housing, land and other amenities promised in treaties over a century ago.
Pehonan, however, represents a new effort towards self-determination, Bell said. “The First Nations will derive revenues in a way they never have before. It is going to change and improve their community on a permanent basis.”
The Pehonan Hydroelectric Project watershed is located within the traditional territory claimed by three First Nations that share territory and administration:
The James Smith Cree Nation
The Peter Chapman Band/Cumberland 100A First Nation
The Chakastaypasin Band of the Cree
The proposed project will generate approximately 250 megawatts of clean renewable power into the Saskatchewan power grid, enough electricity to power approximately 80,000 homes. The feasibility studies could take three or four years, and the project is expected to be operational in 2018.
There are 2,692 band members of the James Smith Cree Nation, of whom 1,742 live on the reserve (2006). Located 58 km east of Prince Albert, on the edge of the Fort a la Corne Provincial Forest, Saskatchewan, the James Smith Cree Nation is 15,099 hectares in size.