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How Would a Smart Energy Communities Benchmark Differ for Indigenous Communities?

Every community has a unique energy profile shaped by local challenges, opportunities, and capacity. That is why community energy planning is so important – it helps communities assess their context and develop a shared vision of their energy future. But community energy planning, both the development and execution of a plan, can be a daunting task. To help communities manage this complexity, QUEST developed the Smart Energy Communities Benchmark. The Benchmark, released in early 2020, provides a tool that helps communities set, track progress towards, and achieve smart-energy goals. 

Although it was designed to be flexible and adaptable to local contexts, creating the Benchmark required making some assumptions about what constitutes a Smart Energy Community and the pathways to become one. Early on, it became clear that these assumptions, while broadly applicable in municipal-based communities across Canada, were misaligned with community energy initiatives in many Indigenous communities. Before the Benchmark was even released, QUEST had already turned its attention to an important question:

How would a Smart Energy Communities Benchmark differ for Indigenous communities?

To answer this question, QUEST partnered with the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER) to conduct a proof of concept study. This study is looking at the feasibility of creating a separate Smart Energy Communities Benchmark tool specifically for Indigenous communities. Several broad questions are driving this project. Would such a tool be both relevant and useful for Indigenous communities? If so, what are the key components that distinguish it from the existing Benchmark? Most importantly, how can we make a tool as useful as possible for Indigenous communities and organizations engaging in community energy planning?

What are Some Differences Between Municipalities and Indigenous Communities?

There is, of course, no singular Indigenous experience in Canada. There are well over 600 Indigenous communities across the country, an endless range of cultural, social, and economic diversity. But many Indigenous communities do share important commonalities, and there are fundamental differences between Indigenous communities and municipalities. In our study, we have begun to explore these similarities and differences in the context of community energy planning. Notable examples include:

Governance

Municipalities are all creatures of provincial or territorial governments and are governed similarly across Canada. Indigenous governments, while often similarly structured at a departmental level, are shaped by diverse and unique traditional governance structures that are layered beneath colonial complexities. These complexities include the presence or absence of treaties and federal legislation such as the Indian Act and the more recent First Nations Land Management Act. Therefore, both how Indigenous communities govern themselves and the nature of their relationship with other levels of government varies depending on the community.

Finance

Chronic underfunding mixed with variable and complicated funding programs often makes it difficult for Indigenous communities to simply pay for ongoing infrastructure maintenance costs. Revenue generation opportunities are also more limited in many Indigenous communities relative to municipalities. For instance, while Indigenous governments may theoretically levy property taxes, several factors — small populations, taxation exemptions for members, a lack of commercial property, etc. — limit the revenue generation potential of Indigenous taxation regimes. 

What are Some of the Key Drivers of Indigenous Community Energy Planning?

We need to do more work to answer this question, including, most importantly, undertaking robust engagement with Indigenous communities and organizations (this is just getting underway). But we can talk a bit about what we have learned so far based on preliminary research and some limited engagement. Many drivers are similar to those of municipalities, such as economic development, reducing energy costs, and environmental sustainability. There are, however, common drivers in Indigenous communities that are generally less prominent in municipal communities. These include: 

Self-Determination

The idea of self-determination — defined by the mantra, “nothing about us, without us” — is redefining Indigenous relations in Canada. Energy planning is one way that Indigenous peoples can exercise their unique rights as self-determining, sovereign Nations. Self-determination is often explicitly identified as a goal of energy planning and projects in Indigenous communities. Community energy planning can help a community to define their energy future and take concrete steps towards its realization.

Cultural Vitality

Cultural values often play an essential role in Indigenous economic development initiatives, and the energy sector is no exception. Community energy planning can allow Indigenous communities to integrate their cultural norms and traditions into the planning process. It can also help ensure that energy developments are consistent with and contribute to the community’s cultural vitality.

What Does Indigenous Community Energy Planning Look Like in Canada? 

Our initial results indicate that Indigenous community energy planning is dramatically uneven across the country. Community energy plans are relatively prevalent in Indigenous communities in British Columbia, Ontario, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories. While at the same time,  in the rest of the country, they appear to be relatively sparse. The reason? We can’t be sure just yet, but it is likely not a coincidence that these four provinces and territories have hosted programs targeted at developing community energy plans in recent years. Results follow resources, and in most places in Canada, there are few, if any, resources dedicated to Indigenous community energy planning.

Moving Forward

The most important and exciting part of this project is now kicking into high gear. So far, most of our work has focused on desktop research and informal discussions. But now it is time to speak to the experts — representatives from Indigenous communities and organizations. Moving forward, we will conduct robust engagement to validate (or refute), build on, and enrich what we have learned to date. At the end of this project, we will have a better idea of whether an Indigenous Smart Energy Communities Benchmark is needed and, if it is, we will be well-situated to take the first steps toward creating one. To get involved with this research or learn more contact Richard Farthing-Nichol or Michael Lee.

Get Involved

Are you a representative from an Indigenous community or organization? Contact us to get involved or learn more about this project.

Richard Farthing-Nichol

Richard Farthing-Nichol

Research Associate, Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources.

Richard Farthing-Nichol is a Research Associate at the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources. He also serves as the Coordinator of the Forum for Leadership on Water. Richard is based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Michael Lee

Michael Lee

Senior Lead, Analytics & Services, QUEST

As Senior Lead of Analytics and Services, Michael leads cross-sectoral, collaborative research related to community energy planning. Michael is based in Toronto, Ontario.

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