The Lubicon Lake Band in Little Buffalo, Alberta, is surrounded by fossil fuel extraction, and the province is lighting up with increasingly intense forest fires. A few years ago, the community experienced one of the largest oil spills in the province's history when 28,000 barrels of crude leaked onto their territory. A month ago, another pipeline burst, spurting 31,500 barrels of bitumen onto a nearby First Nation.
Now, a community leader is making a pointed statement: building a 20.8 kilowatt Piitapan Solar Project to show that they don't have to rely on electricity generated from fossil fuels.
This week, ahead of Friday's launch, Lubicon Cree First Nation and Greenpeace member Melina Laboucan-Massimo took a break from the project's construction to talk on the phone with VICE News, pausing briefly to coordinate with the team erecting the 80 solar panels.
"It's a big system," she explained. "It will probably be one of the biggest solar installations in northern Alberta, especially in the tar sands."
Lubicon Lake Band sets up the solar project/photo by Melina Laboucan-Massimo
The solar panels will supply electricity to the First Nation's brand new health centre, with excess feeding into the grid. "It's right in the community, so young people can see that we don't just have to generate power and electricity from fossil fuels, that we can power it from the sun."
Along with the solar project, the team plans to hold workshops for elementary and high school kids to educate them on the benefits of renewable energy.
Indigenous communities in northern Alberta used to be self-sufficient, living off the land, Laboucan-Massimo said, but now they rely on social services, and outside sources of food, water and fuel.
Lubicon Cree First Nation estimates that oil companies have extracted $14 billion in resources from their traditional territory, but royalties go to the Alberta government — not to their community.
Melina Laboucan-Massimo/photo courtesy of Melina Laboucan-Massimo
Laboucan-Massimo wants to create green jobs and less reliance on fossil fuels, and for her that starts with the community-owned and operated solar project.
Last summer, she began planning the solar project: "We introduced the idea of solar panels coming into the community, and people were interested in having them," she told VICE News. "You know, this is basically a demonstration of the type of technology that exists in the world now, and that we should be utilizing, instead of solely relying on extractive industries like the tar sands."
She fundraised with help from her partner's company, W Dusk Energy, a grant from BullFrog Power, and generous donations from Honor the Earth Foundation and Jane Fonda, who attended the Toronto climate march earlier this summer with Laboucan-Massimo.
"When I told her about the project, I didn't even ask her, she offered," Laboucan-Massimo said.
There was no government funding whatsoever for the project.
"There's very, very limited funding for renewables in Alberta and in Canada," she said. "There's some, but it's very limited."
The solar project organizer said there needs to be more funding for renewables projects like this one.
"I hope that by having projects like this, in the northern part of Alberta, that the Alberta government will take note of it, seeing that communities are going ahead without them, that communities really want to see this, and that they're willing to put their support and money into this."
The youngsters of Lubicon Lake Band/photo by Melina Laboucan-Massimo
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumount