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Manitoulin First Nation wants provincial wood heating program restored

Wood pellet mill on Wiikwemkoong’s agenda to achieve energy self-sufficiency
Rentech 1
Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory has ambitious plans for an annual 100,000-tonne wood pellet manufacturing plant.

A Manitoulin Island First Nation leader said he’ll work with other Northern Ontario communities in lobbying for a reinstatement of a residential wood heating incentive program, recently axed by the new Ford government.

Chief Duke Peltier of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory was “somewhat confused” with the government’s decision to close the Green Ontario (GreenON) Modern Wood Heating program as part of Premier Doug Ford’s purge of the previous government’s cap-and-trade programming and carbon tax schemes.

Closing the program messes with the band’s ambitious plans to become energy self-sufficient and create biomass economy-related jobs.

Along with Nishnawbe Ask Nation, Sioux Lookout and Wawa, Wiikwemkoong was one of four pilots – two Indigenous and two municipal – selected in locations where there is no access to natural gas. 

The wood heating program was for participating homeowners and property owners to remove inefficient wood stoves and heating systems for newer, cleaner burning wood technologies.

The funding provided free installation for Indigenous communities.

“We will likely be reaching out with the others (communities) that are affected because we had some fairly large plans that we were going to see employment opportunities created,” said Peltier.

Of the $6.7 million announced for the wood heating program by the previous Wynne government just prior to the provincial election in early May, Wiikwemikoong was promised the lion’s share of the funding pool at $3,877,742.23. 

Program money was to have come from the Green Ontario Fund, a provincial agency which was to have been funded by Ontario’s carbon market.

Peltier said the wood stove exchange program was a springboard to build a local economy based on green technology, and involved plans for a large-scale wood pellet production plant.

“Our goal is to become self-sufficient and reduce the (heating) cost on our people.”

Seven weeks after the program launch on May 2, the band had 200 homes in the queue and completed engineering to install a pellet system into the local high school, one of three institutional buildings on the reserve slated for conversion.

“It’s pretty significant for not only the homeowners but also some of the business owners that were going to be supplying all that material to us,” said Peltier.

Just recently, he said four local individuals had completed their training to install these stoves and were ready to start work in July.

In sourcing their own fuel, the band wants to construct a pellet mill with production capacity of more than 100,000 tonnes annually to supply the community, northeastern Ontario, and even export markets.

“We were looking at vertical integration with pellet production and creating a mill in northeastern Ontario,” said Peltier. “It’s all connected. We’re going to get these things clarified once there’s a minister (of environment) named.”

Rod Phillips was named Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks on June 29.

About 30 to 40 mill jobs would be created, with more harvesting and transportation jobs. Financing is coming from private investors. 

Last April, FedNor provided $705,619 for the planning phase of the plant.

Sourcing the wood residuals to make the pellets won't be a problem, Peltier said.

“There’s a whole lot of product that currently gets left behind in the Spanish and Vermillion Forests."

Of the more than $3.8 million promised to Wiikwemkoong, the band has received $1.5 million to date.

Peltier expects Queen’s Park to make good on the rest.

“We know there was a contract signed off to us, that’s as good as a cheque. But we’ll have to wait for a clarification.”

Peltier said he’ll be joining forces with the leaders of the other pilot communities to approach the government in asking for a restoration of the program.

“I think it’s important for cooperation and unification on this front because these are commitments that the government made. 

“It’s unfortunate. Had there been an announcement that the program was going to wind down as soon as the election was done then perhaps we would have waited before spending some of the resources we thought were already allocated.” 

A reinstatement of the wood heating program appears unlikely, according to an environment ministry spokesman. And there is no indication of what the new government has in mind to replace it.

“I can tell you that Ontario has taken swift action to cancel the cap-and-trade program as part of its commitment to bring gas prices down and help reduce costs for Ontario families and businesses,” effective July 3, replied Gary Wheeler by email.

“All programs currently funded through cap-and-trade proceeds will be cancelled, including the immediate wind down of the Green Ontario Fund. The province is committed to an orderly wind down of the cap-and-trade Program. In the coming weeks, more details will be shared to support the orderly wind down.”