Grid connection to bring “power to the people”

Xa'xtsa Chief Don Harris, photo courtesy of Cloudworks

Two Fridays ago I took a trip for 2.5 hours down a forest service road into the Lower Stl’atl’imx communities, First Nation reserves that are well cut off from the mainland. They entered the 20th century last week when they were connected to the power grid. Incredible event that I wish I could have given more length to in the story.

Remote First Nations communities to be hooked up to BC Hydro power grid

by Jesse Ferreras, Pique Newsmagazine

November 17, 2010

St’at’imc First Nations celebrated last week the upcoming connection of their communities to the power grid, finally allowing them to benefit from the electricity that has traversed their traditional territory for decades via power lines.

The celebration was held last Friday at Tipella, a remote reserve at the northern tip of Harrison Lake that falls within the traditional territory of the Xa’xtsa, or Douglas First Nation. Four St’at’imc communities are being connected to the grid – Skatin, Baptiste Smith, Port Douglas and Tipella – and no longer have to depend on diesel generators for electricity, an option that’s dirty, expensive and unreliable.

“A century and a half ago, Port Douglas was the centre of commerce in what was to become British Columbia,” Douglas Chief Don Harris said. “Until recently, the people in the Lillooet Valley were a forgotten people. That’s changing now.

“With the same service as other B.C. Hydro customers, we can now refocus our efforts to other important matters like improving our roads, getting phone and internet services, developing our communities, building a sustainable economy and bringing our people back home.”

The actual connection is expected to take place Nov. 22-23, with the completion of two substations – one located near Skatin in the north along the Lillooet River, and another at Tipella in the south. Some 30 kilometres of new transmission lines are helping facilitate the transmission alongside the two new substations.

The $30 million project is being financed through a partnership between the St’at’imc Nation, B.C. Hydro’s Remote Community Electrification program and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, and comes as part of negotiations to resolve historical grievances with the St’at’imc Nation, according to a news release from B.C. Hydro.

The connection comes after years of negotiations with the St’at’imc communities that began in 1993, when the St’at’imc Nation and B.C. Hydro began discussing the impacts of the power authority’s facilities and operations in its traditional territory.

Darryl Peters, chief of Douglas First Nation starting in 1996, was drawn into the negotiations around that time and has since played a key role in getting the communities connected.

From talking to elders, he learned that B.C. Hydro – back when it was B.C. Electric –  long ago said they would provide the St’at’imc Nation with power if it provided access to their land.

“There were agreements, definitely,” Peters said in an interview. “B.C. Electric and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs came into the communities, all of the communities. There’s other nations where they’ve done the same thing. What they’ve done is they have said that ‘we will provide you with electricity if you provide us with access to your land,’ so that we can have transmission lines.”

The power authority and the federal government, however, did not allow members at the time to have translators so that they could understand the agreements in their own language, said Peters.

From that time, about 60 years ago until now, power lines traversed the St’at’imc Nation’s traditional territory, towering over people’s homes without benefitting the people who lived beneath them.

The diesel generators required purchases of fuel simply to operate them, and sometimes they would short out, leaving communities without power for days at a time.

That began to change when Cloudworks Energy Inc. took an interest in the area. The company surveyed local creeks and saw the potential for run-of-river hydro generation. It acquired licenses on water bodies including Dougals Creek, Fire Creek, Stokke Creek and Tipella Creek.

Cloudworks engaged the Douglas First Nation to help build its projects, which required the construction of transmission infrastructure that could connect its communities to the grid. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that the hydro projects were powering the communities directly, but would allow them to benefit off the electricity already circulating inside the grid from other projects.

In 2007, BC Hydro and the St’at’imc Nation began work through the Remote Community Electrification Program, which helps facilitate power service to remote communities. Two years later the power authority committed to connecting the four St’at’imc communities – a commitment that brings us to the present day.

For Peters, one of several St’at’imc members who’ve helped bring “power to the people,” the news of grid connection is “uplifting.”

“We can turn around and say to the elders that have passed on, and to former leaders, we did what we could to make a difference,” he said. “We’ll have safe, reliable electricity and we’ll become closer to becoming equal with the rest of British Columbia.”

The connection, however, is unlikely to come without challenges. Marilyn Ryan, a councillor with the Xa’xtsa First Nation, said members are now going to have to get used to the idea of paying for their own power. Band governments used to pay for the generators; now individuals will have to pay for their own consumption.

“It’s going to be an adjustment for some people,” she said. “There was a level of dependency because the community took care of the diesel costs. Now it’s going to be on the individual to, which will be new to them, to have hydro bills. So I think it’s a step away from dependency.”


About jesseferreras

Sea to Sky-based journalist. Snowboarder, cyclist, cinephile, bon vivant.
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