Mike Metatawabin admits he smirked when the discussion first came up about creating a Native-owned not-for-profit power transmission company.
While working as a translator at a Kasabonika conference of Northern chiefs more than a decade ago, Attawapiskat Chief Ignace Gull made a motion looking for support to construct a power line connecting the remote coastal communities with the main Ontario grid at Moosonee.
“I was thinking, yeah right, a hydro line coming up this way,” says Metatawabin. “Back then I couldn’t fathom the idea.”
As Chief of the Fort Albany First Nation, he now serves as president of what they would create in 1997, Five Nations Energy Inc.
“I was picturing this small line coming through the muskeg. When I look back today, I’m amazed at what’s been accomplished.”
As Ontario’s only Aboriginally owned and operated energy transmission corporation, Five Nations’ 270-kilometre line passes through the traditional territories of the Moose Cree, New Post, Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Attawapiskat First Nations.
The corporation is headquartered in Moose Factory.
Ontario Hydro did not want to provide distribution in the communities so three corporations were created to carry that out.
These stand-alone entities with their own administrators, are owned and controlled by their respective Chief and Council, who maintain their respective systems, conduct the billing and collections.
Each distribution company holds equal ownership position in the corporation.
Metatawabin views Five Nations as more than a supplier of power, but as a catalyst for social change.
The Far North is opening up to new development with a flurry of diamond exploration and better infrastructure and job opportunities in various sectors.
In the past, communities relied on diesel generators supplied by the Ontario Hydro Remote Communities. They survived, but didn’t thrive, with only 15 amps per household in some places.
Because of a chronic power shortage, adding new connections to the local system was restricted.
Growing up in Fort Albany, Metatawabin remembers many freezing mid-winter nights when storms knocked out electricity, plunging residents into darkness for days, the weather would blow out and Hydro One technicians could be flown in.
Then spring flooding hindered the ability of schools, hospitals and stores to function effectively grinding community life to a halt.
In the planning stages, Five Nations administrators had to overcome many challenges with some creative solutions in providing essential and basic infrastructure over a vast and unforgiving environment.
As one of four licensed electricity transmitters, Five Nations began during a period of extensive regulatory change in Ontario’s electricity sector in the late 1990s.
As a First Nations-owned business with no track record and no collateral, their project team faced steep challenges raising money for the line.
The $58 million construction price tag was financed through a mix of private and public funds, with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada providing one-time funding of $38 million and Northern Ontario Heritage Fund adding a $4.9 million loan.
SNC Lavalin Services was awarded the contract to build a 138 kV transmission line system.
Clearing the right-of-ways began in 2000 with the line extended to Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Attawapiskat by 2002.
Obtaining insurance required by lenders of the project’s construction was another task.
World events such as 9/11 made the costs exorbitant and unobtainable. Without funds to self-insure, Five Nations struck an innovative deal with Hydro One Networks to serve as an insurance backstop to ensure operations would be safeguarded.
Today, the surpluses made by the corporation go into an insurance reserve fund. By March 2007, $4 million was placed in the fund, allowing Five Nations to terminate the agreement.
In the years since the communities have linked, there’s been new subdivisions, new schools, recreational facilities and a bright future filled with career opportunities for young people.
Wind energy developers are knocking on their door, there’s talk of hydro development on the Albany River and De Beers Canada is set to open its Victor diamond mine in 2008.
“I see opportunity and I hope to make it my job to make people aware of that.”