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First Nations Business Award of Excellence: Watay Power

Unprecedented for its size and scope, the $1.6-billion Wataynikaneyap (Watay) Power project will connect 17 remote Indigenous communities to the provincial power grid for the first time.

The Wataynikaneyap (Watay) Power project has been described as 'life changing' infrastructure in size and scope to improve the health and well-being of northern First Nation communities.

When complete in 2023, the massive transmission line will plug homes and businesses in 17 remote northwestern Ontario reserves into the provincial electricity grid for the first time.

The $1.9-billion project involves building and stringing 1,800 kilometres of transmission line and related infrastructure to bring electric power to 15,000 people who've relied on expensive and unreliable diesel-generated power for their local residential and business needs.

What's especially unique about this ambitious project is that it's majority owned, led and controlled by 24 First Nations in the region.

Wataynikaneyap – translating to 'the line that brings light' in Anishinaabemowin – is 51 per cent owned by this project coalition of First Nation communities. Fortis, a utility company, owns the remaining 49 per cent with private investors. Valard Construction was awarded the contract the build the project.

The power project ultimately fulfills a close to 30-year dream of the communities owning major infrastructure on their homeland that will immensely improve socio-economic conditions on Northern reserves and deliver clean, reliable energy to many households and facilities.

For Watay CEO Margaret Kenequanash, who's spent 14 years of her life devoted to the project, she views this pan-Northern transmission project as a sustainable, long-term and foundational solution that will deliver the basic amenities rather than the piecemeal, temporary fixes of the past.

She hopes one of Watay's legacies, going forward, is to demonstrate to all that a coalition of communities can accomplish great things.

"I always tell people that we must become visionairies if we're going to change the landscape of how we do business with the rest of the country and the world."

Petitioning the provincial government for reliable power had been a key regional priority by a persistent First Nation leadership group for 27 years, she remembers.

What finally triggered the formal discussions, and got the project momentum going, was Goldcorp's desire to upgrade its power transmission line from Ear Falls to its isolated Musselwhite Mine, north of Pickle Lake.

A message from the sponsor:

Chiefs from the area communities who were consulted; notably North Caribou, Cat Lake, Kingfisher and Wunnuwin Lake; kindly reminded the mining company and Queen's Park that energy issues impacted everyone in the region, not just the viability of a mining operation.

The two-phase project involves upgrading a transmission line to Pickle Lake from 115 kv to 230 kv followed by the most important stage of extending transmission north of Pickle Lake to connect the remote communities to the grid.

Construction of the utility corridor began in 2018. Pikangikum First Nation, north of Red Lake, was the first community connected in December of that year. 

As of early December this year, progress has been measured in the completion of 834 tower foundations and  the assembly of 1,087 towers, with 368 of those erected. About 5,000 towers remain to be put up.

The project has proved to a boon in creating area employment for Indigenous people. Of the construction workforce of 700, 157 are from the participating First Nation communities with 120 Indigenous individuals coming from communities outside the partnership.

"The current situation is in dire straits," said Kenequanash, a member of North Caribou First Nation, in describing the struggle of daily life in the remote communities reliant on diesel fuelled-power generation.

The frequent, year-round, power outages from unreliable diesel generators compromise healthcare centres, local schools, and water and sewer systems.

Then, there's the expense of flying in or trucking in diesel fuel over the winter road network. 

In 2013, the estimated cost for diesel fuel for 16 of Watay's remote communities was $43 million and estimated to grow with load expansion, fuel price, and other costs.  

With the Indigenous population growing, the diesel generators powering the local distribution grids are usually running at, or near, maximum capacity. Load restrictions hinder any effort to upgrade or expand much-needed basic infrastructure, much less develop a vibrant local economy.

Then there's the backlog of housing needs and overcrowding issues.

In an assessment of one community, Kenequanash said, 42 young families were in need of homes that couldn't be built due to power load restrictions.

"Even if you build them and provided housing in the community ,you couldn't connect them to the existing infrastructure," she said. "That's the harsh reality of the communities.

"There's a limitation on what our communities can do today without bringing in this reliable energy."

Many communities are trying to align their construction schedules to build local capital projects with the arrival of the transmission lines.

Despite the daily challenge of keeping power line workers safe and socially distanced, and protect people in the isolated communities, Kenequanash remains resolute they will meet the targeted project  goal of 2023.

The goal of connecting these communities might finally unleash their economic potential.

"A lot of people are pursuing various economic and business opportunities, but I think right now we're always in a crisis mode in terms of managing the affairs in our communities.

"If we have reliable energy in our communities we would shift our focus to start looking at what are some of those economic and business opportunities that may exist and build a solid foundation for our future generations."

Since launching in 1986, the Northern Ontario Business Awards has become the largest annual gathering of its kind in Northern Ontario. These awards serve to heighten the visibility and influence of business in the North and bring peer recognition to the business leaders who create prosperity and economic growth.