If Canada is going to transition to clean energy, we’ve got to involve and engage our Indigenous communities for economic development and reconciliation.

On this episode of Disruptors, an RBC Podcast, host John Stackhouse speaks to two leaders working to make a meaningful partnership happen: Annette Verschuren, CEO of NRStor and Matthew Jamieson, the CEO and President of Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation.

Listen as John and guests dissect the makings behind the recently-announced Oneida Energy Storage project, a 50/50 private and public partnership with Six Nations of the Grand River. The project will help Ontario reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 4.1 million tonnes, the equivalent of taking 40,000 cars off the road every year.


To read RBC Economics & Thought Leadership’s report, “92 to Zero: How economic reconciliation can power Canada’s climate goals”, click here.

Speaker 1 [00:00:02] Hi. Is John here. It’s National Indigenous History Month here in Canada. And while there’s a great range of issues, some of them very difficult for us all to reflect on and learn from. There’s also a lot we can take forward from history to advance society, help our communities and accelerate economic growth. One of those clear opportunities is indigenous ownership in all aspects of the economy, but particularly the resources sector. We’ve done a lot of research on this at RBC, including a report entitled 92 to 0. The 92 is a reference to recommendation number 92 from the Truth and Reconciliation report. And zero refers to net zero. The point being we’re not going to get to net zero without economic reconciliation. The report shows that more than 50% of the critical minerals opportunities in the country sit on Indigenous territory and 40% or more of the best wind and solar developments are going to take place on Indigenous territories. So it’s clear that economic reconciliation is fundamental to our prospects of getting to net zero. I recently spent time in Ottawa with a group of Indigenous leaders making this case to a range of departments, including the need for a National Indigenous loan guarantee to help scale and accelerate the flow of capital to Indigenous owned projects. And it’s not just about money. Canada’s Indigenous communities hold the key to unlocking the country’s national resources in a more sustainable way, which is why they must have a seat at every table. Their unique insights on sustainable practices make them a key partner in accelerating Canada’s new energy economy, as well as helping us achieve reconciliation. One great example of this is the six nations of the Grand River. It’s the most populous first nation in Canada, with about 30,000 members spanning around 180 square kilometers. And the community recently announced something called the Oneida Energy Storage Project, which will help Ontario reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 4.1 million tonnes. That’s the equivalent of taking 40,000 cars off the road every year. But it’s also going to help Ontario better manage peak electricity demand by drawing power from the grid during off peak hours and storing it for later periods of heavier demand. And when it’s operational in 2025, it’s expected to offer enough power to run a city the size of Oshawa. And just as importantly, when completed, it will be amongst the first of its size to be co-developed by private and public partners, including the provincial and federal governments. As you can see, the entire project is a pretty big deal. It promises to make renewables more reliable, advance reconciliation, and perhaps forever change the way our electricity grid works. It’s probably the kind of project we’ll see a lot more of in the years to come. This is Disruptors. An RBC podcast. I’m John Stackhouse. As Canada recognizes National Indigenous History Month, we look at why Canada’s next resource boom must run through Indigenous consent and collaboration. On this episode, we’re going behind the scenes of the Oneida Energy Storage Project to see how indigenous business can accelerate Canada’s net zero transition. My first guest today is Annette Verschuren and she’s a great Canadian trailblazer from a small town dairy farmer to global change maker. Annette has done pretty much everything. She co-founded the craft chain Michael’s and is the former CEO of Home Depot, Canada and Asia. She sits on so many boards, too many to count. She’s the chair of Mars Discovery District and Sustainable Development Technology Canada. She’s also the president of the Ontario Energy Association and a bestselling author. And if that weren’t enough, by day, she’s the chair and CEO of Enter Store Inc. That’s a Toronto based clean tech firm that builds, owns and operates innovative energy storage projects. I’ve known Annette for many years and have engaged on a range of issues. Annette, welcome to Disruptors.

Speaker 2 [00:04:28] Hey John, great to be here.

Speaker 1 [00:04:30] It’s wonderful to have you and to be talking about Oneida. It’s a big commercial project for you and our store and a true 5050 partnership with Six Nations of the Grand River. That’s all the more significant because we’re in Indigenous Peoples Month in Canada. And I want to start with asking you, Annette, what Canadians need to understand about the importance of Indigenous equity in the economy and especially in the energy transition.

Speaker 2 [00:04:58] Follow This is such an important topic, John. I think there’s a real opportunity as we make this energy transition that we really truly engage our indigenous peoples. This project started six years ago and we wanted to do it from the beginning with six nations of the Grand River Chief Mark Joe and Matt Jamison, the president of the Development Corporation. We were truly partners from the very beginning. We wanted to partnership. We have a lot to learn from the indigenous peoples in our country. I come from Mi’kmaq territory. I am from Cape Breton. I grew up with Chief Terry Powell. I grew up with Chief Downey. I understand the capacity, the enormous capacity, the long term capacity of how indigenous people think. There’s so much to contribute to us. And so what a way to do this. A 5050 partnership. We set up the rules at the very beginning, we were involved in designing, involved and choosing the equity. We’re involved making the application. We were involved and presenting to governments together. This to me is the way it needs to be done. In order to have that economic reconciliation. They need returns to build their infrastructure and their communities. And so what better way to do it in a project like Oneida?

Speaker 1 [00:06:15] You’ve done projects across the country and around the world. How did that kind of partnership make things different?

Speaker 2 [00:06:21] So I think we have a tendency to want to do things faster and perhaps not as thoughtful as things should be done. We had this outreach with the Six Nations community and we talked to the community about this project, and we just kept coming back to say, Look, we want you to understand what we’re doing. We want you to understand the benefits and the risks of this project. And we were very open in how we dealt with the communication project. It truly, truly was something that was built in partnership.

Speaker 1 [00:06:57] Tell us a bit about the basics of battery storage and how that’s playing into the economy of southern Ontario.

Speaker 2 [00:07:05] I really feel that battery storage is a bridge to the future of other technologies that are being developed. And what’s really needed as we are verify our grid and have a greater demand for electrification. We need capacity, right? So what this facility does, it takes excess energy and it’s not just from renewables. It’s from anything access, whether it’s a nuclear plant, whether it’s hydro, it takes in those electrons when they are not needed and then they distribute that electrons when they are needed. And so it’s a really wonderful tool where electrons go both ways and that two way movement really will provide an amazing opportunity for the electricity operator, the ISO, to manage that grid way more effectively, to not have to curtail wind, to not have to sell our excess electricity, to give back to our friends south of the border. And what’s really cool is this project saves ratepayers money.

Speaker 1 [00:08:11] I suppose you could do this in a lot of different parts of Southern Ontario. Why do it on the territory that you chose? For our listeners who don’t know the territory, it’s just over the Niagara escarpment from Toronto and Hamilton, a beautiful little part of southern Ontario.

Speaker 2 [00:08:27] Yeah, look, the place that we put it had enormous transmission capacity, 4000 megawatts. So we wanted to put it in a place where it could be used very efficiently and effectively, had the capacity to go both ways. So we worked closely with the ISO, Hydro One, etc. to make that all work and close to the Imperial Refinery as well, right next to a transmission station. It’s it’s really the right location for this facility. The other thing that’s important is that Mississauga, because of the credit, are us involved. And it’s one of the first projects where two different first Nations groups are working together. So it’s very cool.

Speaker 1 [00:09:04] What’s the ambition from here?

Speaker 2 [00:09:06] I want to get off call very quickly. I want to help Saskatchewan. I want to help Nova Scotia. I want to help New Brunswick make this transition. We have to reduce greenhouse gases quickly. We’re going to need three times the amount of electricity in the next 15 years. And it’s got to be clean because companies will not be attracted to Canada. They’re really pushing hard to say, Well, can you produce my tire clean? You produce my steel plate, you produce all the things, all the products clean. So we have a big opportunity. 80% of the electricity in Canada is clean. That’s amazing. And so let’s use that to attract industry and manufacturing to Canada.

Speaker 1 [00:09:49] Tell us a bit about reliability is also a concern. Affordability. Sustainability are key components, but reliability is also something we actually get to take for granted. But it was only 20 years ago this summer, and Ontarians will remember this well that we had the great blackout of 2003. How do we manage this transition and not risk more episodes like that?

Speaker 2 [00:10:15] Well, battery storage will help that transition, right? You know, you put a battery a next to a manufacturing plant and the electricity goes out and the backup power is battery. You know, I was involved in 23. I was working at Home Depot, and 12 of our stores had generators, which was highly unusual. And so we could continue operating those stores during that time. Resiliency is really cheap. Manufacturing plants wind in the middle of a still run around, middle of a pulp and paper run. You have a problem with the quality of your electricity. You can screw the whole day’s production. Another example is we sell the Tesla power of Yeah, right. And so we did a deal with Hydro One and remember that storm that came through about two years ago. We put those Tesla batteries at the end of the road. Okay. And it saved the utility an enormous amount of money, like 80% of what it normally would cost when you have to take all your trucks and have to reboot the whole system, etc., etc.. So decentralization of energy and electricity is very, very exciting.

Speaker 1 [00:11:23] How are we going to get all this built? I mean, it’s very exciting the way you describe it. But whether it’s big energy storage facilities like the one you’ve built it or Nidaa or the Tesla battery packs at the end of my street, we’re kind of literally flipping a system that has been built over the last century and a half, and we’re going to have to do that in probably 15 years or less.

Speaker 2 [00:11:44] Yeah, you know, it’s not easy, my friend. Not easy. And it’s going to require a lot of creativity. There is an enormous amount of work that has to be done. When you think of growing, all the buildings in the city are all built with a different electricity model. The wiring of these buildings are not built for putting chargers in. There’s a whole bunch of work that has to be done. But businesses are driving this change. You know, there’s not a meeting that I go to that ESG and the e of ESG is not one of the top issues that people are dealing with, but it’s going to require an enormous amount of money. It’s going to require different thinking about how we pay for this. It’s going to require involvement of the business community, involvement of the business community. It’s a lot of work, but the social and economic advantages are enormous. The return on investment are enormous. And so let’s do it this way. Let’s go forward and really make a difference as Canada makes this big transition.

Speaker 1 [00:12:46] That’s a great message to all our listeners as we move towards closing that, I wonder if you can reflect a bit on what we can all learn in terms of reconciliation and Indigenous inclusion. What you’ve learned through the entire project. As I said earlier, it’s Indigenous Peoples Month, which is both a month for reflection and for celebration, but also for commitment. Curious what we should all be thinking about in terms of how we take a business minded approach. To both reconciliation and economic development.

Speaker 2 [00:13:18] We have this amazing upsurge of 1.8 million indigenous people in our country. We need to engage with them. When I go to a conference and I see one or two Indigenous people there, I really worry that we don’t invite Indigenous people to table with us. The way we need to think is how can I develop a relationship with that Indigenous community on this particular project? My team’s filter system is that we are really trying to do every project going forward with an Indigenous partnership like this. So we have to think differently and what you will discover is that these are amazingly smart, capable people. I’m humbled by working with people that have survived what we’ve done to them over the last 200 years. I come from a community where a lot of the indigenous people went to residential homes. I know the history and it’s time we catch up and we do it quickly and we do it with respect. And we don’t have these biases that I see sometimes. And we have to be more patient and we have to be more constructive. And in the end, I’ll tell you this prejudice can be built on budget and on tongue. We have people that want to do this project. We have people that are empowered to do this project. And what is the cost of that? How much would it cost if we were trying to set up this battery operation on land that is the territory of Indigenous people and not having them involved?

Speaker 1 [00:14:54] That’s a great message to wrap up on, Annette. Thanks for all you’ve done for Canada and for being on the podcast.

Speaker 2 [00:15:00] Great to be with you, Joan. You’re terrific.

Speaker 1 [00:15:03] That was Annette, for sure. CEO of Enter Store. We’ll be joined in a moment by Matt Jamison, the president and CEO of Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation. Please stay with us. Welcome back. Today, we’re talking about the Oneida Energy Storage Project and its significance for the clean energy transition and indigenous economic reconciliation. We’re joined by Matt Jamison, president and CEO of Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation. Six Nations is the only first nation community that includes all 600 national nations. It’s located along the banks of the Grand River in southwestern Ontario and is also the most populous first nation in Canada. Under Matt’s guidance, the Development Corporation has deployed more than $50 million of direct equity into utility scale renewable energy projects and has participated in the construction of more than $2 billion of infrastructure assets. Matt, welcome to Disruptors.

Speaker 3 [00:16:10] Happy to be here, John. Thanks for the time.

Speaker 1 [00:16:12] I want to start with the connection between Indigenous led conservation and economic reconciliation and how that applies to energy production. Probably some people don’t see the immediate link there, so maybe walk us through that.

Speaker 3 [00:16:24] Sure. From an economic development standpoint, six Nations is not unlike other indigenous communities in this country. We went through this cycle of development where the world was effectively built around us. Through that time. That was frustration and a lack of consultation. Finally, the emerging green energy economy came really to our doorstep, and it’s one of those very few sectors that are really closely aligned with the values of indigenous people not just six nations, but generally. And so for us it was really an opportunity to participate in a new paradigm of economic development and ownership of assets that really ultimately strive to achieve our long term values, which is creating a better future for the next seven generations.

Speaker 1 [00:17:07] Tell us a bit more about how battery storage connects with your values as a community.

Speaker 3 [00:17:12] Well, Six Nations, Devco. We’ve been an investor in the renewable space since as far back as 2010. We’ve made some significant investments in and around our region that large wind and large solar farms. And we see firsthand the performance characteristics of these assets. But at the same time, you see the frustration of the rate there. You see energy curtailment that happens. And really what that did for us is it opened up the reality that we are operating within an inefficient system. We don’t have the right tools in the toolkit to really unlock the value of these assets. And so energy storage for us was a way for us to actually bring forward a solution. And and that energy project was really borne through that goal of how do we bring forward a solution that hasn’t been done before at a scale that will be meaningful, that will be grid facing and create value not just for us as equity or as bucks for the ratepayers and for the environment.

Speaker 1 [00:18:02] How did this particular project find you or how did you find the project?

Speaker 3 [00:18:07] It’s been a long time coming, John. It just so happened that through networking and connections, I ended up coming across the net reassuring in our store and she of course had a reputation for getting things done in our store as a company that was really at the forefront of energy storage across Canada. And one of our key tenets of our strategy for economic development is to seek out and partner with the best industry. At the same time was thinking, how do we work with indigenous communities to do something that matters, to do something that’s more than just profit? We really latched onto each other very closely that we struck an economic bargain where we’re in this 5050. And so this thing was born not from Miner Story and not from situations that were born together. And I think that’s really the future of economic reconciliation, the communities to do things together as opposed to trying to have a solution that you then bring in the 11th hour and expect an indigenous community to accept.

Speaker 1 [00:19:01] Lots of businesses across the country. Maybe most businesses now want to partner with Indigenous communities. What do you look for in a partner?

Speaker 3 [00:19:10] Yeah, and I will say that there is a paradigm shift happening in this country. You see from coast to coast, whether it be as Squamish Nation, there they have a $1.4 billion housing project that they’re building. You’ve got the MEMBERTOU and the billion dollar seafood deal. There is this collision of opportunity and economic development. And really the question I get all the time is, well, how do these companies make these connections? How do these companies make these transactions take place? I think it goes back to the key ingredient for the entire project, and that is working together. The early onset of a concept or idea, allowing those indigenous communities to inject their DNA, if you will, their fingerprints on projects to talk about siting, whether or not the location has impact from an archeology perspective or from the plants and wildlife perspective. Those are the principles that really are important to indigenous communities anyway. And energy storage is really the first example. We’ve been able to demonstrate that and has really been a catalyst for us to approach all projects in new and interesting ways.

Speaker 1 [00:20:06] How did you convince your own community and communities, since there are six nations involved here, that this was the right project at the right time?

Speaker 3 [00:20:14] Well, I mean, Six Nations is not unlike other indigenous communities in this country, not unlike other societies. We do have folks in our. Community who we know may not necessarily understand the technology or expressed concern. And it really is an exercise of patience job. We have a fairly methodical process that we go through to speak with our community. We went through ten sessions with this particular project. We were on the radio. We exercised efforts to all channels to reach our community members. We were looking for qualitative feedback, the kind of feedback that can help us put that DNA that I talked about on these projects. That qualitative type of feedback would enable us to make the project that much more attractive to the community members. And at the same time, we have to talk about other things economic benefits like revenue, profits, employment, capacity building training. Carry on a good conversation with the community and have them have a better appreciation for what we’re trying to accomplish.

Speaker 1 [00:21:06] How do you know when you have the support of your community or even consent?

Speaker 3 [00:21:11] Well, consent is a very, very challenging thing to achieve. Consent is something that has been a sort of a blurry goal line, not just for six nations, but for businesses in general in this country. And so for us in our community, we do the best we can. And really, the development corporation was founded on the principle of transparency and accountability so people can come here and ask questions all day long about anything they want. And we have those answers. If we don’t, we’ll find them. We don’t seek to quantify community content because if you have 80% that still does 20% of the people who don’t support the project. And so what we’re really trying to achieve is an environment where community members can quietly support projects. There will be folks who don’t support it. Sometimes they can be loud, but they don’t necessarily care the voice of the people. And so we act amongst the silent majority within the best interests of our community in a way that’s transparent, accountable.

Speaker 1 [00:22:00] You talked about your private sector partners and our store being the lead one. You also had to negotiate with the provincial government as well as the electricity authorities, including the ISO, the independent electricity system operator, which for people outside of Ontario runs essentially the grid for the province. What did you learn not through that journey?

Speaker 3 [00:22:22] Well, I mean, it’s been a learning process for us, but also for the province of Ontario and the ISO, this curtailment issue, there was a lot of political pressure on renewables, and for us it was how do we unlock the inefficiency used to open up the opportunity for more renewables? And so, yeah, I mean, it was a challenge. It took a lot more time than I would have expected. But now you see new active procurements sent to the ISO, which is going to lead to a much more accelerated future of energy storage. I must say though, John, the energy storage project I think is a classic example of call it an MBA course for Emerging Bright Minds, where you assess the relationship or the opportunities that can be created through collaboration with the federal government, through the Canada Infrastructure Bank, who’ve played a big role in this project through the province, through the ISO to an indigenous community, six nations, two public companies like our new partner Northland, and through private companies like Interstellar. I think that that really is an example of what the future of Canada is, and that’s a collaborative future that definitely includes Indigenous participation.

Speaker 1 [00:23:26] When other Indigenous leaders call you up to ask you for guidance on how they should approach deals like this, what’s your advice to them?

Speaker 3 [00:23:34] Well, I get that a lot, John. And the one thing that my board of directors does encourage me to do is share our story as much as possible with those indigenous communities. So I would say my number one message to those leaders are our responsibility as Indigenous people is to be organized and prepared to do business when those opportunities present themselves. There’s this collision of reconciliation. There’s the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people. You’ve got to RC, you’ve got Supreme Court rulings. All of this is driving this conversation with indigenous communities. And if they’re not prepared, they’re doing a disservice for future generations. So I always advocate for communities to create a separate legal structure like what we have that Stations Development Corporation, so you can separate business from politics. So that would be my key word of advice.

Speaker 1 [00:24:20] That sounds like a pretty logical approach, but communities are always complicated and this is what politics are. People are pushing for different benefits or different outcomes. How does the community find that balance between the political and the commercial imperatives for the community?

Speaker 3 [00:24:36] I think it’s important for us to think about the history that has gone on. Right, And that history for Six Nations for indigenous people is very much an oral history of this country. So we went through this exercise to understand what are the barriers that we face as a community. We wanted to list them. And one is how does a community suddenly enter into the corporate world and do large commercial transactions and borrow money and trust development partners sort of in a hope and a prayer on someone else’s capabilities. And the reality of it is that it is communities, not just six nations, but others, lack understanding in the corporate world and never done due diligence deals before. They don’t have many people on staff. They don’t understand the risk and how debt structures and tax implications work. When things take place, folks volunteer. When your grandparents and great grandparents tell you that they were harmed by somebody that resonates with you. That’s amplified over the course of time. And that’s something that we as a community do go through this healing process to recognize that what was in the past isn’t in the future. We need to do things on our terms, and we’re looking for partners that see it that way and believe in that and will buy into working together. That’s the way we’re going to overcome these barriers. That’s where we’re going to get our community onside. And the social license is something you earn, you’re not entitled to, and it’s something that you can lose very quickly if you one poor decision. So we’re always cognizant of that and we’re always keeping those fears and distrust and those other barriers that mildly transact business.

Speaker 1 [00:26:04] Those are powerful messages, especially for Indigenous Peoples History Month, including your line, that we don’t need to be beholden by history, but we certainly need to learn from it and need to carry those lessons into the future. What are the key messages that you’d like Canadians to carry forward?

Speaker 3 [00:26:19] Well, I think that Indigenous history in Canada, believe it or not, in the Stone Age, is not well understood. Less than 40% of Canadians have ever stepped foot on Indigenous communities, but yet 100% have an opinion. And I think that part of the responsibility of Canadians is to take the time to learn and to go on that discovery. The future is bright. The future is possible. There’s nothing that’s going to be built in this country from a large scale perspective unless there’s an indigenous ownership. Almost 100% of Canada is subject to a land claim, a treaty writer asserted. Land interest and indigenous people make up 5% of the population. So you have a very small group of folks who have a very vast interest in land. And you know what? We’ve been here for thousands and thousands of years. We’re not going anywhere. So let’s work together in ways that are innovative and creative. One of our goals by 2030 is to have $1,000,000,000 asset valuation for our company. That’s our goal. And whether we achieve it or not, I’m not sure, but nobody’s ever accused me of thinking it’s all junk.

Speaker 1 [00:27:18] That’s what we love. On disrupters. People who don’t think small not. It’s been great to have you on the podcast. Thank you.

Speaker 3 [00:27:24] John. Thanks for having me.

Speaker 1 [00:27:28] That was Mark Jamison, president and CEO of Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation. I’d also like to thank Annette for Sharon, the CEO of our store, who joined us in the first half. The Oneida Energy Storage Project is something you may be hearing a lot more about in the years ahead because it’s being talked about all over the country as a model of what’s possible. It also reflects how much Canada has changed, of course, how much we still need to change. But it shows what’s possible. Not far from where the project sits is a big hulk of an industrial structure, which used to be the world’s biggest coal burning power facility that was shut down just a decade ago. And now the province of Ontario has one of the continent’s cleanest grids. With this new battery project, we’re also seeing the power of indigenous ownership, which will only increase across the energy sector and frankly, across the economy in the years and decades to come. It’s not a bad way to end a discussion about Indigenous People’s History Month by casting an eye to the future with a sense of where we’ve been and the pain that that’s caused, but also to see the possibilities of Indigenous communities from coast to coast to coast. That’s real disruption. Join us next time for our season finale. When I sit down with the leader of one of Canada’s most significant and global enterprises, Olivier Desmarais is the CEO of Power Sustainable. Join us to hear his insights on how Canada can win the global clean tech race. Until then, I’m John Stackhouse and this is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. Talk to you soon.

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