Power to the people

September 2023

We had a positive reaction to the “Boomtown” article in the summer issue of Bayview where we gave some attention to the numerous construction projects in the area that are injecting not just millions but billions of dollars to the area economy. The impact of these projects led to an announcement by the Conference Board of Canada that Thunder Bay’s economic GDP growth rate will be the highest in the country for the next few years.

One of the large-scale projects fueling this growth is the Wataynikaneyap (Watay) Power Project north of Thunder Bay. The over 1.6 billion dollar project is employing hundreds of workers and will result in the energization of 17 First Nations communities.

Margaret Kenequanash, the CEO of Wataynikaneyap Power says the project began to take shape in 2007 after the Musselwhite Mine, some 500 miles north of Thunder Bay began experiencing a number of power outages.

“The area chiefs also knew that the lack of reliable energy was becoming a big concern in their communities”, said Kenequanash. At that time both Frank McKay, the Chief Executive of the Windigo Tribal Council, and Kenequanash along with 13 First Nations worked with the government to help bring the issue to the forefront.

On the most basic level, not having reliable energy was becoming a quality-of-life issue in the area. The unreliable power affected water supply, food security and interfered with the use of medical devices required by residents.

One community experienced a 10-day outage over Christmas and in other communities, the power grid was so maxed out that it presented a fire risk due to overcrowding while newly built homes were unable to hook into the overextended grid.

Communities generated their power through diesel fuel which had to be transported through the winter road system which was not only expensive but unreliable. The dirty diesel power created issues around air quality, noise and was vulnerable to power surges.

“We’ve seen many of our Elders sent to urban settings for long periods of time and could not be moved back to their own communities before moving on to the spirit world because of unreliable power at home. It was a huge issue”, said Kenequanash.

By the time the project was ready to begin, 24 First Nations had signed on. And these communities retained a 51% ownership in the project, with the goal of a 100% ownership stake within 25 years.

In all, 4,230 towers are or are close to being erected with over 22 substations to distribute a reliable power supply to each community.

With the 51% ownership, the project assured First Nations would be engaged in a meaningful way presenting employment opportunities during and after construction. “The original community assessments stressed the importance that members of these First Nations communities be trained and employed. The contractor, Valard, agreed to provide training for linespeople, land prep workers and environment specialists. In all, 604 First Nations members were trained to be employed for the project”, says Kenequanash.

The project continues to move along with 94% of construction completed so far, covering a massive footprint of over 1,800 kilometers. “Considering the papers were signed to begin the project just a few years ago in 2019 and acknowledging the challenges Covid presented, I think the project team has done a heck of a job”, said Kenequanash.

So far the First Nation communities of Pikangikum, North Caribou Lake, Kingfisher Lake and most recently Bearskin Lake celebrated their new connections. Bearskin Lake Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin says the upgrade was essential to future growth. “The grid connection is necessary to power the future needs of the community, including our future water and wastewater upgrades. Reliable power enables us to grow. We have multiple houses and buildings ready for connection, as we no longer have to worry about being at max capacity for power.”

More information on the Wataynikaneyap Power Project go to: www.wataypower.ca

Bill Wrightsell is a marketing consultant and regular contributor to Bayview Magazine. Email him at wrightselladto@rogers.com

Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by WeebPal.