While oil pipeline debates, anti-fracking protests and increasing fossil fuel demands embroil the country from coast to coast, a small Vancouver Island First Nation is leading the way on a different path.
In the past five years, the seaside T’Sou-ke nation has become a world-renowned leader in solar energy. Their projects are the model for others in the capital region and around the province.
They also have a massive wind-energy partnership in the works that could augment power for all of Vancouver Island, on a power grid connected to the mainland.
And then there’s the wasabi plantation, an experiment in cash-crop farming that will help bring financial and food security to the community.
These projects and others all stem from a community vision derived to bring members back together and to plan for future generations.
“When we were all involved in developing a collective vision to provide a safe and healthy community we looked far into the future and said, ‘What do we need to start right now to ensure a secure future for our grandchildren’s children?’ ” said Chief Gordon Planes. The answer came in four parts: Energy security, food security, cultural renaissance and economic self-sufficiency.
While the vision was meant for the T’Sou-ke to prosper, its influence has already spread to communities, academics and governments as close as Colwood and as far away as Sweden.
Planes not only welcomes the interest and outreach, he said it’s crucial.
“Education is the key to moving forward in a sustainable way. We all have to do this together — put aside our differences, get in the same canoe and go — time is running out,” he said.
A tiny Vancouver Island First Nation is emerging as a leader in modern clean energy and an example of traditional sustainable living that its residents have embraced for generations.
“This way of living never had a name. It’s just truly been a lifestyle that my ancestors passed on to my grandparents to my parents and now, hopefully, we will be passing on to my children and so on,” said Linda Bristol, a cultural adviser and former chief of the T’Sou-ke First Nation near Sooke.
In recent years, the aboriginal community has taken advantage of new technology to support traditional lifestyle values and help them thrive in a modern world and economy.
In September of last year, T’Sou-ke was the first aboriginal community in the world to be designated a solar community. Solar programs for Colwood, the Capital Regional District and several First Nations around the province are modelled on what T’Sou-ke has done.
The First Nation is also in the process of developing wind power, an income-generating wasabi plantation and revitalization of the seashore. It has attracted academics from around the world to study its successes, offered mentorship to other aboriginal communities and placed an emphasis on culture.
About five years ago, T’Sou-ke decided to come up with a comprehensive community plan to tackle concerns of its members. The first challenge was getting everyone involved in the process, starting with a meeting.
“It wasn’t just a newsletter that went, calls were made and voicemails left saying: ‘We’d really like to see you there,’ ” Bristol said. As a result, the first meeting was well-attended, and followed up with focus groups and visits to people’s homes over dinner to discuss their concerns.
“It definitely did unite the community because everyone put their thoughts on the table,” Bristol said.
What evolved from the meetings was a community plan meant to serve future generations and honour past traditions.
Chief Gordon Planes called it a back-to-the-future approach.
“We all need to go back to traditional values, respecting mother Earth and treating all life as sacred if we are to be successful in going forward in a sustainable way,” Planes said. “When we were all involved in developing a collective vision to provide a safe and healthy community, we looked far into the future and said: ‘What do we need to start right now to ensure a secure future for our grandchildren’s children?’ ”
“Energy security, food security, cultural renaissance and economic self-sufficiency were identified as priorities,” he said.
These four principles are the anchor to all community planning. Bristol described collecting salmonberries, roots and sprouts in the forest and mussels and clams along the shore when she was a child. When the salmon were running, her dad would spear fish for dinner, she said.
“I remember my granny sitting in the smokehouse. That’s where fish were cleaned, split onto wood racks and cured by slow-smoking. Back then, there was only about 50 of us, just five or six houses.”
Today, there are more than 250 members of the band. The small waterfront reserve is surrounded by development. Houses and boat launches dot the adjacent shore, a major highway, bridge and business border the community.
“When you’re small, you look after each other; everyone has their role,” Bristol said. “When you grow so quickly, people are not familiar with this. So there was a momentary disconnect. It took a few years for everybody to relate to each other, but that’s what happened.”
The massive sheet of 440 photovoltaic solar panels on the T’Sou-ke reservation looks space-age next to an ancient waterfront shell midden and atop a traditional dugout canoe shelter. The panels provide power for several administrative buildings in the community as well as eight houses. The rest goes back to the grid.
On a sunny day, the excess can be up to 90 per cent of the power produced. The profits from selling the power back to B.C. Hydro offset any power bills during the darker months of the year.
“We call it a net-zero program. Basically, B.C. Hydro acts like a big battery for us, and the extra power gets used elsewhere in the province,” said Andrew Moore, a former architect from London who was hired by the T’Sou-ke First Nation to do communications work but ended up in the core group planning the solar program. He estimates the exchange saves more than $1,000 a year in power bills.
In 2009, T’Sou-ke began the journey to become the largest solar energy-producing community in B.C. A $400,000 grant from the Clean Energy Fund of B.C. was the initial boost, and $500,000 more from various government sources followed.
In addition to the solar panels, solar hot water heating systems were installed on more than 40 homes. Conservation and education programs were started in the community and then opened up to visitors. In 2013 alone, 32 schools toured the solar projects. Students pledged their commitments to the environment on paper leaves posted on the band-hall wall.
There’s an electric-car charging station outside the main office and Moore had his electric bike charging at another one around back.
“The only way we know the power is out in the area is when people from town arrive at the front door with computers and phones to be charged,” Moore said.
These solar projects nabbed T’Sou-ke an official solar-city designation from the Canadian Solar Cities Project, making it the first designated aboriginal solar community and third designated city in Canada. In a September ceremony, Solar Cities executive director Bob Haugen presented Chief Planes with a brass sundial forged at a solar-powered foundry in Nova Scotia.
“T’Sou-ke is so interesting because they often produce more energy than they use and they have solar on so many households,” said Haugen, who operates the non-profit organization from Victoria. “Globally, this shows what so many cities can do with solar power and other clean energy sources. The implications for aboriginal communities that are remote or in the north are huge.”
The provincial government noted the potential in T’Sou-ke’s solar program and invited it to join a mentorship program for remote and First Nations communities in 2010 and 2011.
“The T’Sou-ke First Nation was selected as a mentor community because of their extensive experience in developing and implementing an energy efficiency program — including youth activities around energy efficiency,” said Matt Gordon, spokesman for the Ministry of Energy and Mines. “Peers have the ability to share lessons learned in a more candid and open format.”
Communities receiving mentorship said this type of peer mentorship has saved them money and time, and helped improve the quality of their projects.
The next big energy project for T’Sou-ke moves from the sun to the wind. In October last year, they announced a partnership with TimberWest Forest Corp. and EDP Renewables Canada to develop large-scale wind projects. The $750-million project could generate power for up to 30,000 homes — significant for the Island which gets two-thirds of its electricity from the mainland.
T’Sou-ke will provide some of its traditional territory to house the projects and have partial ownership. The turbines will be far away from any residential areas.
Last February, T’Sou-ke was one of five Coast Salish nations to sign an incremental treaty agreement with the province. This included the return of 120 hectares of Crown land in the Juan de Fuca electoral area, providing for land and development opportunities under their own for the First Nation’s private company, subject to government laws and regulations.
For Chief Planes, these various energy projects are legacy as well as business.
“Power is power. To have control over your own electrical power through the elements, the sun and wind, puts you in a very powerful position in society,” Planes said. “We have developed a strategy that not only makes all our nation’s administration autonomous in power but we are able to support other First Nations and municipalities to go in the same direction.”
Four-year-old Tessa Routhier carefully hoists a water nozzle over potted marigolds while her grandmother, Denise Routhier, meanders through plant beds pruning dry bits. The toddler clearly knows her way around a greenhouse.
“She was gathering seeds at school the other day,” says her grandmother.
The T’Sou-ke First Nation’s Ladybug Garden and Greenhouse was started in 2008 to harvest fresh produce and herbs for the community but also as a means to preserve native plants and how to find them.
“I remember my aunt would send us out to find things like mint or nettles and make us tea,” said Christine George. She started the garden with a $70,000 aboriginal health grant from the Vancouver Island Health Authority — now called Island Health.
“Now we take youth out on hikes to find things like camas, knotty onions, rosehips and chocolate lilies,” she said. A recent hike went to a cob oven found near the Sooke Potholes.
Community gardeners — young and old — gather all their own seeds and explore secret spots for things like labrador tea and cotton grass. Seasonal workshops include making essential oils and holiday wreaths from local holly.
“We also create booklets for children to identify and name plants in Sencoten, to practise the language,” said George, who is also the band secretary. “I come to the greenhouse on lunch breaks, as much as possible. It’s my passion.”
The garden produces food and herbs that go to weekly community luncheons, meals- on-wheels programs and markets — seven of which took first-place ribbons at the Saanich fair last fall.
Being an oceanside community, the loss of shellfish and salmon has been a huge gap maintaining traditional food practices. There are issues with sewage outfall, and Moore said Sooke doesn’t have the money to redirect drainage away from the river and basin.
He said T’Sou-ke is looking at developing its own treatment plant on-reserve that neighbouring streets could tap into to reduce seepage from old septic fields that finds its way into Sooke Harbour.
They have also entered into a joint project with the Chinese Canadian Aboriginal Development Enterprise to research feasibility of farming oysters and sea cucumbers on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Food is the source of the band’s new and ambitious income-generating project. It plans to produce wasabi commercially as a franchise for Vancouver company Pacific Coast Wasabi. The company already has a greenhouse project in Nanoose Bay.
T’Sou-ke was recently awarded $175,000 from Nuu-chah-nulth Economic Development Corp. for the project, which will include building three large greenhouses — likely next to the Ladybug Garden — with the goal of producing half an acre of wasabi a year. The root grows year-round, harvested every 12 to 15 months.
The project comes on the heels of having to let another one go. Last year, T’Sou-ke was offered $1 million from the provincial government to develop energy-saving technology for hothouse greenhouses. A feasibility study revealed that their plan for four acres of greenhouses to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers to sell would not even come close to competing with products from California and Mexico.
“Although it was disappointing to give the money back, we find we have a more sustainable product in wasabi, a cash crop which thrives in our West Coast climate without artificial heating or lighting and attracts a high price from an international market,” said Moore.
Worldwide demand for wasabi is at a premium. Fears over radiation levels in Japanese soils after the 2011 earthquake and reactor breach have marred the market. The nasal-clearing stuff served with sushi in restaurants is often a cheaper horseradish paste dyed green. But pure wasabi goes for $70 to $100 a kilogram, a delicacy Islanders might soon be able to find at local farmer’s markets if the project succeeds. There’s also the pharmaceutical exploration of the plant’s anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory affects, something that’s gaining ground in science and popular health fields. Television celebrity Dr. Oz is a big wasabi fan.
“This will not only generate income; it will create new jobs,” Moore said.
Jobs have been proven to be one of the best byproducts of the First Nation’s ventures. Just ask Larry Underwood. He spent 17 years as a mill worker, travelling home to T’Sou-ke from Gibsons and Port Alberni on weekends to be with his family — which includes five kids.
When the solar project began, he found his opportunity to work closer to home and gain expertise in a different field. Now the band councillor is a certified installer and part of the greenhouse project.
“The opportunity for work and training was fantastic. I was commuting back and forth wondering what I was going to do,” he said. “But to be a minute away from work and be part of that big a project was something amazing. It was the biggest thing on our reserve.”
Renaissance of traditional values
While the new technology and income-generating projects will help future generations prosper, the foundation of the community plan is the legacy of culture.
Elder and spiritual leader Shirley Alphonse has a ritual she leads for T’Sou-ke children and youth. They are given a cedar branch to dip into the sea with a blessing for the ocean and everyone it touches around the world.
“They know the routine now; it comes naturally. There’s a respect for our teachings and it connects us to the rest of the world,” said Alphonse, who has shared the exercise with visitors and children from other communities.
Both Alphonse and Bristol are dedicated to preserving cultural knowledge, but see it as something that should be accessible and integrated in everyday life.
Alphonse’s guidance in cultural traditions extends from working with young people at the Ladybug Garden and art projects, such as basket-weaving, to leading youth in smudge ceremonies in traditional territories and even providing spiritual services for the community.
“I realized the power of healing circles after attending one for residential school survivors many years ago,” she said. This led to her calling as a unique spiritual healer. She offers traditional blessings but also serves as a liaison with the Catholic church, at the request of a Victoria bishop several years ago.
Being able to care and help alleviate suffering of others has been a gift, she said.
Bristol helps lead the T’Sou-ke Arts Group, which hosts a weekly crafting night and special workshops on knitting, weaving, carving, drum-making and more.
She also organizes the annual Ista Ya Conenet event, an Amazing Race of sorts where participants go on a scavenger hunt around the Sooke region with clues promoting cultural knowledge.
“We share and offer these things but do not impose them,” Bristol said.
“When they come to us, there is a genuine interest and they are welcomed.”
To learn more about T’Sou-ke, visit tsoukenation.com
You can also attend an informative film night about renewable energy in T’Sou-ke with Andrew Moore on Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. Edward Milne Community School in Sooke.