‘Economic reconciliation’: Mi’kmaw communities invest in Nova Scotia battery plants

A corporation co-owned by 13 Mi'kmaw communities is investing in new battery plants with Nova Scotia Power, in what both parties are calling a step toward reconciliation. An artist's rendering of a Nova Scotia Power electricity storage and distribution facility is seen in an undated handout image. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-N.S. Power, *MANDATORY CREDIT*. GAC

A corporation co-owned by 13 Mi’kmaw communities is investing in new battery plants with Nova Scotia Power in what both parties are calling a step toward reconciliation.

The project, announced Thursday by Wskijinu’k Mtmo’taqnuow Agency Ltd., is expected to draw and store electricity during off-peak periods and release it back to the grid when needed.

The company is getting up to $18 million for an equity loan from the Canada Infrastructure Bank to help facilitate the partnership.

Crystal Nicholas, its president, said creating a greener future is a priority for the Mi’kmaw Nation, and the investment in the storage facility marks “true economic reconciliation.”

“I’m very optimistic that this will continue to open doors for the WMA to partner with a lot of other companies,” said Nicholas.

Construction of what will be the largest energy storage project in Atlantic Canada is set to begin this year in White Rock, Bridgewater and Waverly and continue through 2026.

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The first site is expected to be operational next year.

Peter Gregg, the president and CEO of Nova Scotia Power, said the partnership will help mitigate project costs and allow the utility to conduct meaningful work with Mi’kmaw communities.

The equity loans are part of the Canada Infrastructure Bank’s goal to invest at least $1 billion in Indigenous infrastructure by accelerating projects and providing access to capital.

Ehren Cory, CEO of the Canada Infrastructure Bank, said infrastructure is but one element in the effort to help build a more equitable future with Indigenous partners and move closer to economic reconciliation.

Economic reconciliation is a recently popularized term to describe fostering positive relationships between Indigenous Peoples, industry and government to ensure they can meaningfully participate in the economy.

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“The social licence to operate is really important,” Cory said of infrastructure projects.

“And it requires full and informed consent and engagement with communities, obviously. But I think, increasingly, it’s also going to potentially include having seats at the table.”

Nicholas agreed, saying that as the titleholders to the land, anything Mi’kmaw can do to help Nova Scotia move away from fossil fuels is a step forward in protecting their territories.

“We think we should be part of that,” she said.

“I see it as leading by example. At the end of the day, it’s a win-win scenario — making a difference in the lives of Indigenous communities, but benefiting all.”

Politicians have been trying to capitalize on the idea of economic reconciliation, with Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu holding a roundtable on that topic last week featuring cabinet colleagues, Indigenous leaders and bankers.

Participants agreed that in order to make meaningful progress on economic reconciliation, more needs to be done to lessen government involvement and urge the financial sector to remove barriers, Hajdu’s office said.

The Canadian Infrastructure Bank sees its Indigenous equity loan as reaching toward that.

The Liberals committed to lending affordable capital to Indigenous communities through the bank in its 2023 budget.

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The program allows communities to purchase equity stakes in infrastructure projects in which the bank is also investing, but the bank is only mandated to invest in the likes of clean power, green infrastructure, broadband technology and transportation.

An Indigenous loan guarantee program is another long-awaited policy plank from the Liberal government. It promised in its fall economic statement that this year’s federal budget would include more detail.

A loan guarantee would protect lenders from potential defaults by including language that a third party — in this case, the federal government — would pay the bill should the borrower default.

The Indian Act, through which First Nations peoples are goverened, does not allow communities to use their land or other assets as collateral, making such programs vital for economic development.

It is still unclear whether the prospective loan guarantees would facilitate equity ownership in oil and gas projects or whether the Liberals would exclude such ventures from the program.

At the time of its announcement, Indigenous leaders worried the exclusion of oil and gas would put communities at a significant disadvantage.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who has also touted the idea of economic reconciliation, recently announced his support for a plan that would allow First Nations to collect tax from resource projects on their lands, with industry receiving a tax credit in return.

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The policy was developed by the First Nations Tax Commission, an arm’s-length body that works to support First Nations taxation.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2024.

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