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Reflections on a Benchmark for Indigenous Community Energy Planning

Over the past year, QUEST and the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER) investigated whether the Smart Energy Communities Benchmark — an initiative to help municipalities, utilities, and community partners assess their energy practices and processes relative to Canadian best practices —   could be adapted to suit the diversity of Indigenous communities across Canada.¹

Indigenous communities are becoming leaders in the energy economy — particularly as the low-carbon energy transition accelerates in Canada² — and early into our research, we noticed some key distinctions between Indigenous and municipal energy planning contexts and drivers.

Indigenous communities are driving renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in alignment with their environmental, social, economic, and cultural values. However, support programs specifically for Indigenous community energy planning³ are largely absent in most places across Canada.⁴ With support from our partners, Natural Resources Canada and Imperial, we decided to take a look at what programs are available to support Indigenous communities with energy planning, and have since published them on the QUEST website. We also spoke with representatives from Indigenous communities and organizations across Canada, and ultimately concluded that a Benchmark is not the best way to support energy planning and projects in these communities. 

Reflections on an Indigenous Smart Energy Communities Benchmark

A couple of key takeaways from our research led to this conclusion. First, the tremendous diversity of Indigenous communities likely limits the usefulness of a Benchmark tool. From the outset, we knew that a Benchmark for Indigenous communities would need to be extremely adaptable to meet the needs of the hundreds of unique First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities across the country. However, we found that even if an adaptable Benchmark were created, it might still be too rigid and unable to meet communities where they are at.

Indigenous communities of course each have their own unique histories, experiences, values, and needs, but they also have more complex and varied governance structures than municipalities. In the end, the baseline assumptions that built the existing, municipally-focused Benchmark simply did not have parallels amongst Indigenous communities.

Second, we heard from many communities that they are facing fundamental capacity challenges that prevent them from meaningfully engaging with a Benchmark tool. Financial capacity — most notably as a result of ongoing colonial structures — is a significant barrier when it comes to implementing projects. There was also a desire amongst the representatives to build community-wide capacity to engage in energy planning, something that would not be directly reflected by a Benchmark initiative. Perhaps most central is the lack of staff capacity which limits communities’ ability to take on community engagement, energy planning, and project implementation, including initiatives such as a Benchmark.

Key Principles for an Indigenous Community Program or Tool

While reactions to a Benchmark tool were mixed amongst representatives, there was general agreement that additional programs or tools are needed to support Indigenous community energy planning — particularly those related to capacity building. Three general principles emerged from our work that we believe should guide any future efforts to support Indigenous community energy planning. These are:

Community-Oriented icon

Principle 1. Community-Oriented

Meeting communities where they are at (i.e. being non-prescriptive about communities’ objectives) and prioritizing in-depth, accessible community engagement.

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Principle 2. Social Connections & Relationship Building

Recognizing that “the social bond is the basis for the action bond” (i.e. strong relationships underlie action) and the importance of learning from one another within and between communities. Additionally, it is important to respectfully bring together different types of knowledge and perspectives from across the energy sector.

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Principle 3. Indigenous Leadership

Highlighting Indigenous community leadership, particularly empowering youth to be involved in community energy today and into the future.

This work helped us to validate a key notion that we suspected at the outset of the project: Indigenous communities, although playing an increasingly important role in the energy economy, lack adequate support for broader community energy planning. It also brought to light a realization that, while there is a high level of interest within Indigenous communities to build capacity around community energy planning, a Benchmark initiative is not the type of support that communities need. Rather, we found that a tailored approach that takes into account the three principles — community-oriented engagement, relationship and social connection building, and integrating indigenous leadership and youth — are more useful frameworks to inform initiatives aiming to support community energy planning in Indigenous communities.


¹ Funding support for this research was received from Natural Resources Canada and through Imperial’s community investment.

² Indigenous Clean Energy. (2020). Accelerating Transition: Economic Impacts of Indigenous Leadership in Catalyzing the Transition to a Clean Energy Future Across Canada.

³ We focused primarily on community energy planning support programs. More comprehensive lists related to energy project funding programs can be found at:

⁴ Notable exceptions include programming in Ontario, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories

Richard Farthing-Nichol

Richard Farthing-Nichol

Project Manager, Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources.

Richard Farthing-Nichol is a Project Manager 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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