Deal for ‘line that brings light’ was more than a decade in the making

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Margaret Kennequansh held her breath when in October 2019, when Waternikneap Power announced that it had closed in funding to begin construction of an 1,800-kilometre transmission line connecting 17 First Nation communities to the Ontario power grid. Had a chance to catch.

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A member of the North Caribou Lake First Nation, Ms. Kennequanash has been leading the transmission project for more than a decade, first as a community leader and, since 2017, as Chief Executive Officer of Watayanikneap.

But as construction resumed in early 2020, the pandemic broke out, forcing Ms Kennequansh to launch a new round of activity.

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“I never imagined I would be sitting at my kitchen table last year, or most of it, working on a project worth up to $1.9 billion to energize the community,” Ms Kennequanash said last week.

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“It never crossed my mind. But we are.”

First proposed in 2008, the project will provide electricity to communities that currently rely on diesel-powered generators. Vatayniknep – “the line that brings light” in Anishinabemovin – is majority-owned by the 24 First Nations, and is being built under the guiding principles developed by them. They include a requirement that the project does not interfere with seasonal activities such as hunting and trapping, and that no herding is used along the line.

Fortis Inc., a St. Johns-based utilities company. and other private investors own 49 per cent of Vatayniknep Power LP, the transmission company licensed for the project. The 24 First Nations hold a 51 percent stake, with the option to increase that stake to 100 percent over the next few decades.

Till this month, about 60 per cent of the route for the project has been cleared and about 13 per cent of the towers have been tied with transmission wires. Around 600 people are working in 12 camps on the way. In September, the Ontario Energy Board approved rates for the line, which is expected to be completed in 2023.

hope to stop vatyniknep Greenhouse gas emissions of more than 6.6 million tons over 40 years by replacing about 25 million liters of diesel fuel per year. For communities, the project represents employment and training opportunities, As well as reliable electricity that will open the doors to new homes, schools and businesses. And that means a steady stream of revenue from providing electricity services to communities, in partnership with Fortis and others, and with rates regulated by the Ontario Energy Board.

For Fortis, Vatayniknep was a departure from his usual practice.

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“Usually, we don’t get into a project where we are not the majority owner. In fact, most of the time, we keep it from tip to tail,” said David Hutchence, chief executive officer of Fortis, Ms. Kennequanash and executive vice president of Fortis said during a joint video-call interview with Gary Smith.

But Fortis saw a strong business case and saw ESG (environmental, social and governance) characteristics, ranging from improved air quality in local communities to a governance model that reflected indigenous priorities.

Mr Smith said the governance model helped partners tackle the pandemic and wildfires, which halted construction for nearly four weeks last summer.

First Nation’s owners “balance the health of the communities with what the contractor can do to protect everyone, and the need to get out and build the project,” Mr. Smith said.

“Because if we had to put the project on hold for only three months in construction, it could have been a huge problem,” he said.

Both the federal and Ontario governments have supported the project. In 2018 the federal government announced in a budget document that $1.6 billion in funding for Vatayniknep would offset its contribution by not paying for diesel fuel for communities connected to the line.

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Federal funding went to an independent trust, where it would either be used to help pay for construction or be held in reserve to reduce potential future costs for Ontario ratepayers. According to Vaatayniknep, the amount to be lived in the trust will depend on the overall construction cost.

In 2019 the Ontario government announced a construction loan for the project worth up to $1.3 billion, and a group of five Canadian banks provided $680 million, bringing construction funding to just over $2-billion.

Ms. Kennequansh was key in the project negotiations, Mr. Smith said.

“On more than one occasion, Margaret will always go back to the principles – that if we don’t have a viable First Nations project that can improve the lives of people on the ground, then there is no project,” said Mr. Smith. said.

When Ms. Kennequansh talks about the project, she emphasizes future generations, including her grandchildren. Speaking about a week after the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, he said that the day It was an important time to acknowledge the trauma, grief and loss, but it also opened the door to talking about how to change the future.

“What are we going to do to make a difference? What actions need to be taken as an individual, as a company, as an institution or as a corporation, to change history?” he said.

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“So in thinking about this project, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, is to make that change. To bring those opportunities and change in the community, in terms of bringing in reliable infrastructure so that we can develop that vision … In doing so, we will protect all of our children in the future.

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