MoCreebec Eeyoud Council in Moose Factory, ON/Joshua Russell MoCreebec Eeyoud Council in Moose Factory, ON/Joshua Russell

The MoCreebec Eeyoud Council, an association representing the MoCreebec people of northern Ontario, is taking charge of their power consumption. And aided by a team of researchers from Carleton University, along with community members and energy auditors, addressing many of their long-standing energy concerns is now within reach.

For years, the MoCreebec people of Moosonee and Moose Factory in northern Ontario have struggled with costly energy bills. Coupled with their historical struggle to earn official band status, the MoCreebec’s comparatively isolated location has limited their access to financial and technological resources, leaving several thousand residents subject to substandard living conditions. It's a problem made worse by poor insulation and the use of electric baseboard heating, a very inefficient, energy-intensive and expensive way to heat a home.

But there’s another angle further complicating the MoCreebec’s energy and housing woes.

“MoCreebec is a unique community [in that] it’s a landless First Nation,” says Jean-Pierre Chabot, senior development officer with the MoCreebec Eeyoud Council. “It’s recognized politically as a First Nation or Indigenous community. But legally it’s not recognized yet.”

When Treaty 9 was signed in 1905, Quebec’s Cree population was deliberately excluded by the federal government, in part because the treaty dealt exclusively with First Nations in Ontario. This came despite MoCreebec people living fluidly in the region for untold generations before Treaty 9 was signed. In more than a century since, that decision continues to undermine the community’s beneficiary rights and access to government assistance. It’s also a leading reason for the community’s challenging housing situation.

We want to know what the community wants for itself, what kind of values are important, what kind of sacrifices are they willing to make in terms of energy reduction. Or, maybe, changing the way energy is used.

Enter Joshua Russell and Keelia LaFreniere, sustainable energy graduate students at Carleton University in Ottawa. As part of their graduate work, both students have sought to understand how local energy production via renewable sources like wind and solar power could improve efficiencies and lower energy costs.

And according to Russell, since MoCreebec is not a registered First Nation (the Eeyoud Council was formed in 1980), they’ve needed to seek out other avenues for generating revenue.

The problem is so large that the entire community is considering relocating off the island where Moose Factory is located on the Moose River near the bottom of James Bay. This would allow the MoCreebec people to consider installing an entirely new district heating system. And although the community hasn’t picked a new site yet, Chabot says, he hopes both Russell and LaFreniere can help survey the land to provide a better estimate of how feasible local power ownership would be.

A ‘Sense of Independence’

The initial problem was how to reduce energy bills for community members. “We proposed doing that by decoupling their reliance on the Ontario energy grid and producing energy locally,” LaFreniere tells A\J. “Solar, wind – maybe hydro generation. We would look into the possibility of integrating those into the system.”

The project, funded by the Independent Electrical System Operator’s Education and Capacity Building program, has looked at both the energy requirements and regulatory and legal aspects of local ownership. Such local ownership could also offer social and economic benefits for the community, Chabot believes.

“If you were generating your own renewable energy sources, then you actually create a sub-industry that was not there before,” he says. Local production, Chabot believes, will generate employment, develop skilled trades and give the community a sense of independence.

In August, Russell and LaFreniere visited Moose Factory for 18 days to gather data and consult with local auditors and community members. LaFreniere approached the problem from an engineering perspective, exploring the technical aspects of creating a sustainable energy grid. Russell, meanwhile, looked at how the community could achieve energy ownership from a policy perspective. It’s an interdisciplinary approach they hope will allow them and the university to build a strong tie with the MoCreebec community to work collaboratively on energy-related programs.

Joshua Russell presenting to MoCreebec community members.

Joshua Russell presenting to MoCreebec community members

In the first days of their field work, the pair helped deliver workshops and focus groups to introduce their plan and gauge community needs and thinking about renewable energy. “From the beginning we were working closely with the community in deciding the research question and outlining the specific goals we wanted to get out of the project,” Russell says.

This included defining early on what role he and LaFreniere would play. Both students knew from the beginning that any proposed solutions needed to align with local values and, ultimately, be realistic in the eyes of the community.

“We want to know what the community wants for itself, what kind of values are important, what kind of sacrifices are they willing to make in terms of energy reduction. Or, maybe, changing the way energy is used,” LaFreniere says. “We spent a lot of time interacting with community elders, council members and youth groups.”

Adapting to Local Conditions

These on-the-ground insights proved extremely useful in determining how an energy ownership project could proceed. Based on data maps they examined before arrival, the Moose River seemed like a promising source of hydro energy. Yet after visiting the area the team had a change in heart.

“[We] more or less wrote off hydro potential in its entirety,” says LaFreniere. “The Moose River is actually so close to James Bay that it’s more of a delta. It’s not very deep, it’s very silty and the water levels change drastically because of the tide. It also freezes completely to the bottom during the winters,” she added, making it “utterly inhospitable” for hydro turbines.

Russell and LaFreniere touring MoCreebec land.

Russell and LaFreniere touring Moose Factory beside the Moose River

And besides the physical challenges posed by using the Moose River for run-of-the-river hydro generation, hydro as an energy source was unpalatable to the community because of past damming projects that left the MoCreebec people worse off.

Russell surveyed homes in the area to better understand how energy is being used. These door-to-door interactions offered the best chance to connect with community members and openly discuss the project, he says. “Once they heard that the project is meant to try and reduce the costs of electricity for the community, and to…help inform future energy-related decisions, I think there was a lot of openness."

But the work is far from over. The Carleton team hasn’t formulated any firm recommendations for how the MoCreebec people could power their own community. Russell and LaFreniere will take the winter back in Ottawa to analyze both geophysical and community input data before helping the MoCreebec Eeyoud Council formulate the plan that works best for them.

The pair will return to Moose Factory next May.

Disclaimer from Carleton University: "This initiative was made possible in part through the financial support of the Independent Electricity System Operator’s (IESO) Education and Capacity Building Program. Carlton University members listed in this article are responsible for implementation of, and the content of any materials produced by, this initiative, and the IESO has no responsibility or liability whatsoever in the event that any person suffers any losses or damages of any kind as a result of the initiative.”

Braydon Black is a recent graduate of the Biological Sciences program at the University of Calgary and is currently working as a freelance writer and journalist. Follow him on Twitter.

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