T'Souke First Nation by Andrew Moore Hans Tammemagi A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo © Andrew Moore

Chief Gordon Planes of the T’Sou-ke First Nation in Sooke, BC, motivated his community to become one of the greenest in Canada with a simple idea: “We used to live sustainably, and only took what we needed from the land. We need to get back to that.”

Five years ago, guided by the ancestral custom of looking ahead seven generations, the community prepared a vision with four goals: self-sufficiency in energy and food, economic independence – or as Chief Planes has said, “No more living off the dole” – and a return to traditional ways and values.

But the T’Sou-ke cultural renaissance looks more like the future than the past. In 2009, the community collaborated with contractors to build a 400-panel solar photovoltaic system that generates 50 per cent more electricity than the next largest in the province. Power bills at the three administrative offices where the panels are located have since been reduced by 100 per cent; the other 25 homes the system powers have cut costs by up to half.

In 2009 and 2010, hot-water solar panels were installed on the roofs of 42 of the 86 buildings on the reserve. The remaining houses will be upgraded with heat-pump water heaters by the end of 2014.

Some homes have received extra roof insulation and new appliances to replace obsolete ones, and all buildings are pursuing a comprehensive conservation program using energy-saving light bulbs, low-flow shower heads, weather stripping and hot-water-pipe insulation. Supported by organizations like the youth-driven T’Souke Smart Energy Group, conservation kits and behavioural training are encouraging residents to turn down thermostats and mind light usage. The ongoing goal is to get all buildings to net-zero energy usage.

“Conservation is crucial, since it is 10 times more expensive to generate electricity than to save it,” says special projects manager Andrew Moore, who is responsible for transforming the community’s vision into reality. Another crucial part of the equation is economic self-sufficiency, which the T’Sou-ke community is working toward by requiring band members to receive mentoring, training and to work on all construction contracts.

Members of T’Sou-ke Nation are also mentoring others. This year alone, they hosted 32 schools, 54 municipalities and scores of international tourists for workshops and tours. Since 2012, the community has been working with the nearby city of Colwood and its partners on a $12-milllion project to upgrade 1000 homes before March 2014 (solarcolwood.ca).

The next phase of T’Sou-ke’s revitalization is achieving food security. An extensive community greenhouse is being developed to provide foods such as peppers and tomatoes, and an additional eight greenhouses will grow a cash crop of wasabi (Japanese horseradish) for export. “When all is complete we will have a zero-mile diet,” explains Christine George, a local who champions traditional foods and foraging on the beach and in the forest.

Other traditional T’Sou-ke customs are quietly re-emerging too. When tourist busloads arrive, visitors are served a salmon barbeque and offered carvings, paintings, masks, plants and other goods for sale. In 2014, a closed church will be converted into an arts centre.

The vision articulated by Chief Planes is coming to fruition. Energy usage and costs are tumbling, unemployment is decreasing and an accessible, more nourishing food system is being created. Most significantly, however, the community’s pride and confidence are growing.

Hans Tammemagi is a writer and an adjunct professor at the School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria. His most recent book is Air: Our Planet’s Ailing Atmosphere

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