Mi’kmaw agency empowered to gain foothold in large- scale clean energy projects

Construction is scheduled to begin this year on the largest energy-storage project ever undertaken in Atlantic Canada.

Three new 50-megawatt battery plants will be built — in Waverley, White Rock and Bridgewater — with the first site expected to be operational next year.

One of the key stakeholders in the $250-million project is the Wskijinu’k Mtmo’taqnuow Agency, a limited partnership wholly owned by the 13 Mi’kmaw bands in Nova Scotia.

The WMA was formed in 2019 by the Nova Scotia chiefs to participate in economic activities through joint ventures and equity investments. The agency is charged with vetting all of the economic opportunities available to Mi’kmaw communities in the province, and to move quickly to seize the best candidates, explains Crystal Nicholas, president and interim general manager of WMA.

“The WMA has the ability to move at the speed of business,” Nicholas says. “In the chiefs’ world, they don’t always have that luxury.”

The Canada Infrastructure Bank has committed $138 million to the energy-storage project, including an $18-million loan to the WMA to acquire its equity position. Notably, this loan represents CIB’s first disbursement through the federal Indigenous Equity Initiative.

Launched last November, the Indigenous Equity Initiative is designed to assist First Nation, Métis, and Inuit communities in acquiring equity in infrastructure projects within their traditional territories that CIB is also investing in. The bank is mandated to invest in the projects involving clean power, green infrastructure, broadband technology and transportation.

Conversations between WMA and CIB began in the summer of 2023. While Nicolas is the only staff member at WMA, she was assisted by a team of volunteer directors that helped navigate the intricacies of the new lending initiative.

“Because we were the first project to access that funding, there was a bit of a learning curve on both sides,” Nicholas says.

While each Mi’kmaw community has its own economic development initiatives, the collective strength of the WMA allows smaller communities to effectively engage in large-scale ventures, Nicholas adds.

“Not all of the smaller communities have the organizational structure to participate in larger projects. The WMA creates a platform for equal participation among all 13 communities.”

WMA’s loan from CIB is supplemented by a $2-million loan from Ulnooweg Development Group.

Ulnooweg is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the success of Indigenous communities, individuals and businesses across Atlantic Canada.

The ability to pool resources and diversify risk opens vast new investment opportunities, says Darrell Hasiuk, senior manager of finance and investments with Ulnooweg Development Group.

“An organization like WMA can make decisions at the boardroom table, without having to go through the government approval process,” Hasiuk says. “Government organizations — First Nations or other- wise — are not very quick to make commitments and decisions.”

The WMA is overseen by a five-member board comprised of three chief-nominated board seats and two filled by community members. The board meets with com- panies to evaluate potential partnership opportunities. In addition to the board, the agency has share- holder seats that are filled by the chiefs of the 13 bands.

The agency can trace its origins to Nova Scotia’s 2010 Renewable Electricity Plan, which included a community feed-in tariff (COM- FIT) program, as part of the move away from fossil-fuel electricity generation. COMFIT allowed local, small-scale renewable energy producers to feed into the province’s electricity grid.

Beaubassin Mi’kmaq Wind Management, owned by the 13 band councils, was set up to explore opportunities in wind generation and took part in a number of projects across the province. The Beaubassin board was eventually dismantled, but the prototype re-emerged with the creation of the WMA.

“The mandate is the same,” explains WMA board member Steve Parsons. “The board is the industry conduit to vet business opportunities for the Assembly.”

The project selection process involves close consultation with the chiefs, first with the initial proposal, and again once the financial projections and business case have been put in place.

“We take our directions from the chiefs,” Parsons says.

The agency currently has other projects in the works with CIB, and has also partnered with Halifax-based Natural Forces Development in the province’s largest-ever program to generate electricity from wind — the Benjamins Mill Wind Project just outside of Windsor — with a projected capacity of 150 megawatts, featuring up to 28 turbines that could collectively power up to 58,000 homes.

The impact of Indigenous economic activity in Nova Scotia is significant. A report from the Atlantic Economic Council counts close to 700 Indigenous-owned businesses in the province, generating $1.3 billion in direct GDP, employing approximately 23,000 people and generating $400 million in taxes.

Wskijnu’k Mtmo’taqnuow Agency translates to “The People’s Agency” and is focused on projects that not only support economic growth, but also respect and preserve cultural heritage, integrating modern technologies with traditional values.

Renewable energy fits nicely with the Seventh Generation Principle. Based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy, the Seventh Generation Principle puts the onus on decision-makers to consider the impact their decisions will have seven generations into the future.

The choices made today will reverberate far into the future, Nicolas points out, with profound economic, environmental and social consequences.

“Too often, we put things off,” she says. “But these are our problems to fix today.”

More about this economic development partnership owned by the 13 Mi’kmaw First Nations communities can be found at https://wmalimited.com/

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