Pic River First Nation considers itself an Aboriginal trailblazer, moving towards achieving economic self-sufficiency and environmental stewardship.
The progressive First Nations community on the north shore of Lake Superior was picked by the Ontario government in its renewable energy RFP to develop a 23-megawatt (MW) hydro-electric plant on the White River.
The proposed $49-million Umbata Falls hydroelectric project - a partnership of the Pic River First Nation and Innergex II Income Fund, a Montreal-based power development company - is among a handful of wind, water power and landfill gas projects selected by the province to secure new sources of renewable energy.
Located 30 kilometres southeast of Marathon, the generating station will be the band's third hydro-electric project, which includes the 13.5 megawatt
Black River generating station and the five-megawatt Twin Falls station on the Kagiano River.
Economic development officer Byron LeClair says Umbata is the first renewable energy project of its kind in Canada in which an Aboriginal organization will be involved in the majority ownership, management and operation of a facility through their own energy development corporation, Begetekong Power.
"I think it's something the province should be proud of."
With Acres International of Niagara Falls aboard as designers, the corporation is in the process of selecting a general contractor with sub-contracts slated for tendering by the end of the month. Construction is expected to begin in July with the station's commissioning set for early 2007.
Plans call for the installation of two turbines producing 136 gigawatt hours of electricity annually for the provincial grid.
"Our revenues could be in excess of $10 million a year," with expected dividends of between $1 million and $1.5 million annually, says LeClair.
About $21 million in spinoffs is expected for area businesses and contractors. The project is anticipated to create as many as 185 construction jobs, plus three to five positions when the station is operational.
The powerhouse will incorporate unique design features, "almost in a tee-pee fashion," with interpretative displays built into the facility to tell the First
Nations story, as well as the project specs.
Their run-of-the-river designs for their hydro projects have won praise from The David Suzuki Foundation in minimizing environmental impact and generating revenues for community projects, such as a women's crisis centre, high-speed Internet access, as well as addressing family housing shortages and elementary school funding deficits.
"One of the big tragedies that could happen in this community is having to shut our school down and send (kids) to Marathon because we would lose all the cultural and language aspects that we're able to control and deliver at our own school here," says LeClair.
"These hydro projects will go toward supporting those types of ongoing activities."
As well, there are capital investment opportunities, including a possible partnership with forestry giant Tembec to provide shipping services for the company.
The Begetekong Power Corp. is also at the grassroots stage of examining other green energy opportunities in wind power.
But the project has not been without its share of frustrations. After 14 years of study, the band overcame many challenges to acquire the site disposition rights before finally breaking into the power-purchasing market in 2001.
The largest hurdle was finding a credible customer to allow the financing of the project's construction. That did not happen until the province stepped up with its renewable RFP.
"It shouldn't take 14 years to bring 25 MW of additional capacity on line in Ontario, a province that is essentially starving for electricity," says LeClair.
Since the site resides on the edge of Pukaskwa National Park, the project has attracted opposition from canoeists and environmental groups, but LeClair says the corporation has gone to great lengths to ensure the project will only deliver a low-impact footprint on the landscape. The band previously endured a legal challenge with its Twin Falls project that ended up in a federal court of appeals.
LeClair says the province's Water Management Planning Strategy represents a "contradiction" to hydro projects in Ontario where Ministry of Energy is championing more hydroelectricity projects, but the Ministry of Natural Resources at the district level is trying to "claw back your energy potential" at the approvals stage.