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Farmland Legacies
By Donald Sutherland

Geothermal and solar as heat sources

For thousands of years First Nations and Inuit people have been innovative learners and compassionate teachers. These gifts were prerequisites to prosperity and survival on Turtle Island. In 1812 the half-starved and often ill Selkirk settlers, former highlanders, would have been decimated by the extreme cold and lack of food if not for the leadership, generosity and teaching skills of Chief Peguis and his people who resided at that time near the Forks in what is now Winnipeg.

Peguis, the largest First Nation community in Manitoba, now located 145 km north of Winnipeg, is once again emerging with members who are leaders and teachers equipping home after home with geothermal heat. Another important development is the installation of solar water heating panels on houses, often crowded for living space, with resulting heavy demand for hot water to shower.

Recently I had the opportunity to accompany three Winnipeg-based creative leaders, Shaun Loney, Darcy Wood, and Kate Taylor of Aki Energy, on one of their periodic northern trips designed to stay in personal touch with geothermal, solar, and other projects now rapidly emerging with First Nation initiatives.

Manitoba Hydro provides the upfront financing, but each householder gradually retires the loan by paying monthly at a rate less than the bill savings resulting from the retrofit. The Fisher River Cree Nation, situated close to Peguis, is also up and running with geothermal installations. Both First Nations have developed a cadre of skilled and certified leaders ready to undertake a training and leadership role with other First Nations who want to dramatically reduce their household heating costs.

The high cost of food, particularly nutritious food such as meat and milk, is a serious financial and health issue in “fly-in” communities such as Garden Hill First Nation. AKI staff is supporting the development of local produce supply sources with the assistance of agriculture faculty members at the University of Manitoba. Work done in Germany shows considerable promise for communities with shrubs and trees but little soil. The technique is called hugelkultur — composting with shrubs and long and short logs used as a base with soil added. The wood gradually decays, gives off heat, and supplies plant nutrients. Chickens and bees are on the “let’s investigate” list.

I asked if I could interview someone currently working on site in geothermal installations. Tyrone Choken of the Fisher River First Nation stepped forward. Tyrone is a father of five children. After high school graduation he worked at seasonal jobs such as trucking and snow removal. He was proud to point out that he was on welfare for only nine months. He is now a certified geothermal installer. He says he and his family like the reliability of a regular paycheque and he says he looks forward to opportunities to go to other First Nations to teach and lead. Geothermal, solar, composting, and local supply all fit well with First Nation philosophy centred on reverence for the earth.

Sutherland, MBA, is a personal coach and relationship builder in Winnipeg.