Summary: There has been a recent uptick in renewable energy development in Canada over the past number of years. Companies and governments across the country are stepping up to meet our carbon reduction goals by creating more renewable energy projects. We at Natural Forces, a private independent power producer based in Halifax, NS, have been in this game for the past 20 years. In this article, we explain the partnership model that Natural Forces favours, and the success that this model has brought both the company and our partners by examining two projects that we have undertaken with one of our partners, Wolastoqiyik Neqotkuk. Additionally, we look at the importance of Indigenous sovereignty and leadership in the renewable energy industry, and the necessity for true collaboration and partnership as we continue to tackle climate change in the coming years.
Transitioning to a clean energy economy is a pressing matter. The impacts of our rapidly changing climate are becoming increasingly present – I’m sure you’ve had those conversations in recent months that either go, “how nice is this 17-degree weather in October,” or conversely, “isn’t it wild how we’re getting a cold snap and flurries at the end of September?” We know that imminent action is needed, and it’s beginning to show in the ways that provinces are responding. In particular, many provincial governments in Canada have released carbon emissions reduction goals for 2030, resulting in an increase in procurement opportunities for renewable energy projects.
We feel this sense of urgency at Natural Forces as well. We have been active in this industry for over 20 years, with operational projects across the country. With this recent increase in opportunities, we have expanded our development project portfolio in an effort to contribute as much as possible given the time sensitive nature of the climate crisis. Despite the increase in work, we do everything we can to remain true to our mission and values – we develop to own, and we operate in equity partnerships. In recent years, these equity partnerships are mostly with Indigenous communities. We are working towards moving this industry forward in a sustainable manner, a large part of which requires collaborating with and lifting up Indigenous communities.
In the past 8 years, Natural Forces has operated exclusively under an equity partnership model. This model ensures that all owners in the project receive the same share structure and the same profit. Every partner has a voice at the table, and all project decisions are made together. We have operated under this model with municipalities, universities, community economic development commissions (CEDCs), and Indigenous communities; all of our most recent partnerships have been with Indigenous communities.
In an effort to shed light on how we operate and do business, I’m going to talk about one of our partners, Wolastoqiyik Neqotkuk (Neqotkuk), or Tobique First Nation. We have been working with Neqotkuk for many years, well before the Locally Owned Renewable Energy Projects that are Small Scale (LORESS) program in New Brunswick (NB) was announced. When we heard about this program, we discussed creating an equity partnership with Neqotkuk, who had previously expressed interest in developing and owning a wind energy project. With Neqotkuk, we developed, constructed, and now own and operate the Wocawson Energy Project (Wocawson), a 5-turbine wind farm northeast of Sussex, NB that reached commercial operation in 2020. Since then, we have expanded on the relationship with Neqotkuk to develop the Burchill Wind Project, a 10-turbine wind farm near Saint John, NB, which is now under construction.
The partnership with Neqotkuk came out of a strong relationship built with NF over many years. Prior to any specific procurement opportunities, initial meetings took place between Chief Ross and CEO Tanna Pirie-Wilson of Neqotkuk, and representatives from Natural Forces. At the time, Chief Ross and Pirie-Wilson were having discussions with other developers about forming partnerships, but they ultimately decided the values and beliefs that Natural Forces brought to the table aligned with those that she and Chief Ross embedded into the daily operations at Neqotkuk. This fundamental compatibility set Natural Forces apart from other developers and allowed Neqotkuk to envisage a lasting partnership with NF – by the time “2016 rolled around… we’d pretty much given NF a promise ring,” Pirie-Wilson said, laughing. After building a relationship of trust and mutual respect over 2015, Pirie-Wilson and Chief Ross discussed the partnership and said: “This is going to change our community for the rest of our lives.”
This partnership marked the beginning of a series of economic developments achieved by Neqotkuk. Around the time LORESS was announced, Neqotkuk was in the process of deciding how to invest the land claims settlements they had received in 2012 and 2013. Pirie-Wilson explained the importance of this decision, and why community trust and support was so imperative. “There had been failed ventures before, so there was a lot of hesitancy [from the community] in 2015.”
When Pirie-Wilson first became CEO of Neqotkuk, her first assignment was the energy file. When she realized how little community support and trust there was for the proposed project that would later be called Wocawson, she created a strategic engagement plan for the community with Chief Ross. So began a series of open houses, meetings with the community, and in-depth consultation with the youth and elders in the community. They knew that speaking to the next generation (those who would directly benefit from the project) and the wisdom keepers (those who had the perspective of previous lessons learned) was essential if this project and partnership was going to work.
Throughout development, we garnered the support of the community through these engagement activities, carried out by both Neqotkuk leadership and by NF staff. “There’s a lot of heavy lifting that has to happen on each of the equity partners’ side,” Pirie-Wilson said. “When NF realized that at the community level the capacity wasn’t there, I really feel like they stepped in and nurtured myself, Chief Ross, and several members of Council to really step into the role of equity partner.” Many things led us to success on Wocawson, but the main foundation has always been the strong relationship between all members of the partnership.
The success of the partnership and Wocawson extended far beyond an operational wind project that helps to offset the electricity demands of the community. The revenue from Wocawson went directly back into the community to build more houses and upgrade existing infrastructure. “We hadn’t built homes in over 12 years, we had no infrastructure – what investment in this project meant was investment in actual community,” said Pirie-Wilson. “When we knew what the economic spin-off was going to be, it was a no brainer.”
Neqotkuk later mobilized the surety of long-term economic spin-off from Wocawson and their now extensive wind development know-how into a new wind project. The strong relationship with Natural Forces was a jumping off point to form a new partnership for the Burchill Wind Project shortly after Wocawson was completed. Once operational, Burchill will be an additional source of revenue for Neqotkuk to invest in future projects and community needs.
Not only did participating in these projects benefit Neqotkuk in an economic sense; it has also made them industry leaders. Having Indigenous leaders like Neqotkuk within this industry is paramount to the success of the entire climate action movement. Indigenous leaders and communities have an understanding and perspective of the lands and natural environment that is rich and unique. Both Neqotkuk and Natural Forces bring different and valuable perspectives and wisdom to the partnership, which Pirie-Wilson described as an excellent example of two eyed seeing in practice. “Being able to operate in both settings, but in a collective way that is mutually beneficial for both equity partners – nothing’s more beautiful than to walk that road together with that two eyed seeing approach.” In order to solve a problem as seemingly insurmountable as climate change, we need to come together to pool our resources, knowledge, and experiences.
Pirie-Wilson is a champion of Indigenous-led clean energy. After participating in both of these projects, she has shifted her work to a more national scale, sharing her wisdom and knowledge with the other 634 Indigenous communities in the country. She dreams of all the other communities accessing the same equity partnership structure that Neqotkuk has with Natural Forces, and of a future where Indigenous people everywhere are able to once again be stewards of the land. “We are doing our share to protect the next generation – it was a spiritual feeling when we realized this would change the course of direction for community,” Pirie-Wilson said.
We at Natural Forces consider ourselves lucky to have the opportunity and privilege to work with such phenomenal partners on these projects as well as the other partnerships we are part of on our other projects. As governments ramp up in the coming years to meet energy goals, we will continue to work, collaborate, listen, and learn. One thing is for certain – we’re in for a busy few years.
Natural Forces is a private, independent power producer based in Halifax, NS, with regional offices in New Brunswick, BC, New York State, France, and Ireland. We develop, construct, own, and operate utility scale wind, solar, hydro and battery projects in partnership with local communities. Partnering with local communities for these projects not only generates clean and renewable energy, but delivers local economic prosperity and raises awareness of the challenges of climate change.
Wolastoqiyik Neqotkuk (Tobique First Nation) is one of the six Wolastoqiyik or Maliseet Nation reserves in New Brunswick. Beautifully nestled along the northern shore of the Tobique river where it meets the Wolastoq river, Neqotkuk is the largest rural Wolastoqiyik community. Wolastoqiyik means people of the beautiful river. People have occupied this traditional territory since time immemorial.