Cowessess unveils new solar project, aiming to become greenest First Nation in Canada

·3 min read
New solar panels stand in front of the education center at Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan. Energy from these and other panels will offset the consumption of five buildings in the community.  (Mickey Djuric/CBC - image credit)
New solar panels stand in front of the education center at Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan. Energy from these and other panels will offset the consumption of five buildings in the community. (Mickey Djuric/CBC - image credit)

Driving by solar fields on your way to the store or to school has become the new normal on Cowessess First Nation.

Chief Cadmus Delorme says he hopes the solar fields will inspire the Saskatchewan community's children and youth.

"It's going to have ripple effects into our education," Delorme said. "Now that our kids get to see this, we're now looking to prepare them for science and engineering. This is our contribution to getting them excited about what they're going to do in university."

The solar arrays are part of the Community Building Solar Project, which has been years in the making and was mostly funded by the federal government. It's also a step toward the Cowessess's goal of becoming the greenest First Nation in Canada.

More than 800 panels were installed on five community buildings: the school, seniors centre, mall, water treatment plant and band office.

Richard Agecoutay/CBC
Richard Agecoutay/CBC

On Tuesday, the community gathered to see the panels officially switched on.

"I feel proud today. It feels good that we actually managed to turn on all our hard work over the last almost year. All that work is finally coming to fruition," said Ashleigh Dawn, a Cowessess member who helped install the solar panels.

WATCH | Solar energy project turned on:

Locals spent more than 2,000 hours constructing the panels, with Calgary-based SkyFire Energy leading the installation process.

The solar array systems have a combined capacity of 321 kilowatts — enough to power more than 60 homes — and will generate 390 megawatt-hours annually.

In Cowessess's case, the power will be used to offset consumption within the community's five facilities.

Cowessess estimates this will save around $20,000 annually. That money will be funnelled into underfunded youth and senior programs.

But it's not just about the savings.

Richard Agecoutay/CBC
Richard Agecoutay/CBC

Delorme says the sun has always played an important role in Indigenous culture, and the solar project is a way to honour their ancestors and land.

"This is Cowessess's contribution to our children and our children yet unborn, that we will preserve and protect Mother Earth," Delorme said.

"The sun — the pîsim in our language, Cree — is there for the spiritual side, for the energy. But it's here now to make a little business off of it."

Dawn, who got accredited to install the solar panels on Cowessess, now does it as a full-time job.

Richard Agecoutay/CBC
Richard Agecoutay/CBC

"We're here to make sure we keep the Earth clean. You want to leave it cleaner than you found it, and renewable energy is really the most obvious path for us to continue on," Dawn said.

David Kelly, CEO of SkyFire Energy, has worked with First Nations across Western Canada on installing solar panels as a way to build economic growth and jobs through renewable energy.

"First Nations have really adopted renewable energy as a good thing for the future, and a good thing for their people. So providing employment, providing good jobs, and making it a better place for everyone," Kelly said.

Cadmus also says the project will also help the community heal, following the recent discovery of 751 unmarked graves on the former site of the Marieval Indian Residential School.

Prior to Tuesday's event, the Canadian Forces Snowbirds performed a flyover of the community. Cadmus thanked them in his opening remarks for supporting the healing process.

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