Company formed by 22 first nations seeks ownership role in transmission line project

Bill Curry
Globe and Mail
From the Tuesday, February 16 edition

A collective of aboriginal communities across Ontario is angling to build and manage new electrical transmission lines as part of a major expansion of the power grid.

A group of 22 first nations recently formed the Lake Huron Anishinabek Transmission Co. and named veteran Ontario native leader John Beaucage as chief executive officer. The company is aiming to take an ownership stake in part of Hydro One’s three-year, $2.3-billion plan for 20 new transmission projects. The project is expected to create about 20,000 jobs.

The ownership initiative is one example of a growing push by native leaders across the country to work more closely with Canada’s business community. For decades, native politics has been dominated by disputes with governments over unfulfilled promises going back to the original treaties crafted by European settlers.

Many of those issues remain, but the focus is shifting. “We’re very determined,” said Serpent River First Nation Chief Isadore Day, chair of the company’s board. “We are going to seek to obtain the full benefit of all the major transmission lines in the treaty territory.”

The McGuinty government announced the plan last September, releasing a map showing proposed transmission arteries that would run east from Sault Ste. Marie to Sudbury with a link to Manitoulin Island; south from Sudbury to the GTA; and a link in the northwest between Nipigon and Wawa.

Smaller lines will also be built as part of the expansion, which aims to bring remote renewable power to the province’s urban centres.

At the time, the announcement promised opportunities for aboriginal participation, but no specifics. Mr. Day said native communities have plenty of people who can do the work, but they’re also talking with non-aboriginal firms to help manage the projects.

A spokesperson for Hydro One confirmed “preliminary” talks are under way with the company and said Hydro One is interested in working with aboriginals on the transmission projects.

Development projects in Ontario, from mining in the north to housing in the south, have been abandoned in recent years due to native protests, but in this case, communities are hoping to secure an ownership role at the outset.

There’s also a new tone coming from the top. After a quiet start, Shawn Atleo, the Assembly of First Nations’ rookie National Chief, is addressing more national events this year – often on economic issues.

Last month, he was the first AFN leader to address the Toronto Board of Trade, where he told a packed room: “We’re open for business.” He’s since delivered this message to similar audiences in Vancouver and Ottawa.

Mr. Atleo’s predecessor, Phil Fontaine, started to make some of these connections during the end of his term and is now running an advisory firm that includes working with the Royal Bank of Canada.

In an interview, Mr. Atleo said the Lake Huron proposal is just the type of approach he’s encouraging: using treaties as the foundation for securing aboriginal co-ownership of development projects.

“It’s that notion that we’re in this together,” he said, citing similar examples happening across the country. “Lurching along from conflict to conflict is a pattern we all agree we need to break.”

Clint Davis, president and CEO of the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business, a 25-year-old organization that includes Canadian branches of large multinationals like PepsiCo. Inc. and Xerox Corp., said several factors are behind the rise in deal making, including: court rulings requiring consultation with aboriginals; an increased focus by companies on corporate social responsibility; the increased settlement of land claims and the fact that aboriginals and immigrants are the only sources of Canadian population growth.

The Ontario government’s transmission and energy plans will ultimately involve several arrangements with aboriginals, Mr. Davis predicted.

“I think this is just the start,” he said.