A solar energy power development tour was one of the highlights of this year’s Northern Ontario First Nations Environment Conference.

 “A few members from other communities have approached me about our project,” said Edwin Collins, economic development manager with Fort William First Nation. “SkyPower graciously allowed us to enter inside the solar site. They shut some of the power down so we could walk in safely and we were able to get almost a couple of inches away from the solar panels.”

The 10 MW SkyPower solar park, which contains about 45,000 solar panels, has been in operation on about 88 acres of Fort William commercial land since this past May.

Collins said the solar park provided about 50 job opportunities for community members during construction.

“We are looking into another solar project,” Collins said. “Right from the ground up, we were involved in this project. It was a learning curve for both SkyPower and Fort William First Nation.”

The conference also featured a workshop on the Musselwhite Mine Environmental Working Committee.

“It doesn’t come easy,” said Eleazor McKay, Musselwhite coordinator for Shibogama First Nations Council and a MMEWC committee member. “The important part is understanding each other, where the industry is coming from and the industry in turn listens to the First Nation concerns.”

McKay said the committee’s results have been satisfactory to date even though there are ongoing concerns.

“In a way, it has been a success story because we had many challenges,” McKay said. “For our side, it’s the lack of understanding of the scientific terminology being used and (being) able to translate it to our language.”

Although a number of workshop participants raised concerns about potential pollution, McKay said no problems have been identified in two nearby communities on the same river system as the Musselwhite Mine.

“We are waiting for results from our sturgeon study,” McKay said. “Everything looks fine and I am sure that people will catch anything unusual in species that we consume on a daily basis.”

McKay said there are concerns about the mine closure, which is currently estimated for 2029.

“Our First Nations are going to be there for thousands of years to come after the mine closes,” McKay said. “So what happens then. We are not there yet, but we are slowly getting the understanding of it.”

The conference was held Oct. 1-4 at the Fort William Historical Park and the Victoria Inn in Thunder Bay, with a wide variety of workshops on community development and protection, energy usage, environmental studies, fuel management, land use planning, mining, waste management and water/wastewater.

Wawakapwewin’s Simon Frogg would like to see more background information and discussion time at future conferences.

“We are affected by a lot of the things that are under discussion,” Frogg said.

The conference was hosted by Bimose Tribal Council, Independent First Nations Alliance, Matawa First Nations Management Inc., Nokiiwin Tribal Council, North Shore Tribal Council, Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation, Shibogama First Nations Council and Windigo First Nations Council in partnership with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines.

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