Towards Energy Sovereignty: A Conversation with Melina Laboucan-Massimo

Towards Energy Sovereignty: A Conversation with Melina Laboucan-Massimo

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Jun 10, 2020

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CSI’s monthly Climate Ventures Mornings are a chance to hear from climate solutions innovators and leaders.

We were honoured to sit down with climate justice powerhouse Melina Laboucan-Massimo. Founder of Sacred Earth Solar, co-founder of Indigenous Climate Action, and host of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s (APTN) series Power to the People, it’s difficult to sum up the extent of her impact.

On this sunny May afternoon, Melina joined us online from the Gulf Islands in unceded Coast Salish territory in B.C. She spoke about the experiences that motivated her to become an advocate for clean energy, how we need to rethink the way we teach energy systems to our children, the importance of truth-telling in a time of reconciliation, and the energy revolution happening in Indigenous communities across the country.

It was a powerful, eye-opening discussion. If you missed it, you can watch the recording here or read our recap below.

“People can’t breathe”

Melina was born in Lubicon Cree territory, and grew up in the Peace Country in Northwestern Alberta. She is the first generation on her father’s side that was raised outside of the residential or day school system, where she spent her childhood connected to nature and her family’s teachings.

“I have such good memories because I wasn’t taken from the community,” Melina told us. ”From a young age, I fell in love with the North and the Boreal forest and Mother Earth.”

Growing up in the heart of Alberta’s Tar Sands, Melina also learned from a young age about the devastating impacts of oil and gas production in her homelands. As Melina grew older, she began speaking up and campaigning against oil and gas development. Her work took her internationally, and as she travelled, she saw the same impact of oppressive colonial policies she had seen in Canada reflected in Indigenous communities worldwide.

In 2011, she reached a turning point. There had been a massive oil spill in Little Buffalo that devastated her home community. As Melina recalled the aftermath, she spoke steadily, choosing her words carefully.

“My auntie texted me and said ‘we can’t breathe, our eyes are burning.’ […] It was a traumatizing experience, when you know your family can’t breathe […] You know deep down in your heart that people should be told by the government or by the company that pregnant women, people with autoimmune issues, elders, small children should leave the area for their health and safety, but they were just left.”

The experience changed the way Melina approached her work, and she realized she wanted to start building the future her community wanted and needed, now.

“I felt very disempowered at the time. It made me realize I can’t stop the fact that people can’t breathe. It made me want to start building things that were safer for my family and community to be around.”

Putting energy back into the hands of the people

Melina: “When you own your energy system, when you’re a part of it, when young people see solar panels and know it's producing energy for home or school, there’s an involvement, a participation. Having community involved in community energy: that is energy sovereignty.”

Our conversation addressed the fact that our energy systems are highly carbonized, in that they depend on the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, which contributes to the climate crisis. They’re also highly centralized, in that ownership and control is usually held by governments and big corporations. Decision-making is typically removed from individual people and communities.

Melina’s work with Indigenous Climate Action and Sacred Earth Solar seeks to shift how we produce energy, and put control back into the hands of the people. Alongside her colleagues, she advocates for energy sovereignty: the right for communities to own and operate their energy systems, using renewable sources like wind and solar.

“When you own your energy system, when you’re a part of it, when young people see solar panels and know it’s producing energy for home or school, there’s an involvement, a participation. Having community involved in community energy: that is energy sovereignty.”

Thankfully, we need not look far for examples of climate solutions that put energy back into the hands of people. Power to the People, a 13-episode television series on APTN, hosted by Melina, profiles Indigenous-led renewable energy projects in communities across the country.

And as Melina told us, with over 2500 Indigenous-led renewable energy projects across the country, they had a hard time picking which stories to tell!

Our conversation also highlighted how energy literacy is key. In a solar project Melina led in her home community, they deliberately placed their solar panels in a top-of-pole mount configuration which lifts the panels high into the air. This allowed for unobstructed sun exposure and for the system to be unfenced, so that local people could see and approach the solar panels. hey also trained community members to help build the installation, and integrated learning for energy literacy into the classroom.

“The students wanted to know because it’s right there. They walk by it every day. […] So they asked questions: ‘what happens when the sun doesn’t shine?’ They were thinking about the energy.”

For people who aren’t engineers or scientists, the topic of clean tech and clean energy can be intimidating. That means conversations about climate change and energy systems are often held between experts and specialists, not the communities most impacted by their decisions.

Bringing energy systems physically closer to communities sparks curiosity and involvement, and is a step toward returning agency to the people.

Moving forward with truth-telling

Melina: “For so long, our voices have been silenced, marginalized, and not uplifted. But to be able to do healing and what we would call true reconciliation, is to be able to be real about this history. If somebody’s wronged you and wants to continue to live like it hasn’t happened, it makes it hard for people to move on.”

As we look to the future – and at a time when governments are poised to spend trillions on a recovery to COVID-19 – we must ensure Indigenous voices are heard and amplified.

“For so long, our voices have been silenced, marginalized, and not uplifted,” said Melina. “Sometimes Canadians are conflict-averse, so they don’t want to get into this intense history. But to be able to do healing and what we would call true reconciliation, is to be able to be real about this history. If somebody’s wronged you and wants to continue to live like it hasn’t happened, it makes it hard for people to move on.”

Indigenous communities know what the problems are, Melina explained, so they know how to solve them. Yet, for so long, Indigenous communities weren’t allowed to make decisions for themselves – it was actually illegal in the Indian Act.

Reconciliation in action is more than an apology. It’s recognizing that Indigenous communities have solutions that work. And it is critical that communities are active participants and owners in a just transition. All this is essential for creating healthy partnerships for implementation. Of course, meaningful partnerships must begin with truth-telling about the history and lasting impacts of colonization for Indigenous peoples.

The Gull Bay First Nation and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) set an excellent example.

In the early 1900s, the OPG flooded the Gull Bay community to build dams without the consent of the communities that would be impacted (let alone first informing the people who lived there). It was traumatizing for local people: bodies were rising out of graveyards and floating down the river.

In 2014, the OPG apologized to the community and paid them $12.5 million in damages. It was a form of reconciliation that led to the construction of a micro-grid that runs on solar and offsets the community’s diesel usage.

This is just one story of many: one that will hopefully inspire hundreds of partnerships for clean energy to come.

Our conversation with Melina covered so many topics, it was difficult to pick out a few to highlight in this recap! You can watch the full recording here, and do some further reading at the links below. If you want to hear more from our country’s climate solutions leaders, you can register for our next Climate Ventures Mornings with Laura Witt on June 24, 2020.