Sask. First Nations look to AFN for support in quest for natural gas service

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is considering a resolution at its assembly this week to help a group of Saskatchewan First Nations in their efforts to get federal funding for natural gas infrastructure.

More than 20 First Nations in the province lack full natural gas service, so many homes have to use more expensive forms of heating such as electricity or propane.

Chief Melissa Tavita of Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation is one of the leaders at the AFN 45th general assembly in Montreal, which began Tuesday.

Muscowpetung doesn't have natural gas service to any of the 125 homes on the reserve. Tavita said she pays around $700 a month for her electric heating bill and knows of other members who pay around $1,000 a month.

"If I am struggling to pay my power bill, then what is my community struggling with there? As leaders, we need to figure out a different solution in order to bring a little bit cheaper solutions to our community when it comes to heating homes." said Tavita.

Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation Chief Melissa Tavita hopes the Assembly of First Nations will support her community in its efforts to get funding for natural gas service to its homes.
Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation Chief Melissa Tavita hopes the Assembly of First Nations will support her community in its efforts to get funding for natural gas service to its homes. (Submitted by Solomon Cyr)

Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation had worked with SaskEnergy to put together the costs of getting natural gas into the homes.

The total cost estimate is just under $4.5 million, but Tavita said Indigenous Services Canada will only provide $5,200 per home and facility.

Tavita said Indigenous Services Canada denied the First Nation funding for natural gas because it is considered "archaic" and the federal agency prefers a renewable energy source such as solar or wind.

Myke Agecoutay is the CEO of Muscowpetung Saulteaux Business Developments Ltd., which assists the First Nation with technical support, including infrastructure projects like gasification.

He said renewable energy has benefits but his community is in a valley and the weather could affect those sources so natural gas is key.

"We're trying to bring our communities back up to the same standard that the rest of society enjoys," said Agecoutay.

President and CEO of SaskEnergy Mark Guillet noted SaskEnergy recently signed an MOU with the First Nations Power Authority regarding getting secure energy for their communities.

"A lot of people would think that reserves in southern Saskatchewan are all gasified and they're not," Guillet said on Tuesday.

He said in Saskatchewan, there are some renewable options, but there's still a need for natural gas.

"Natural gas from someone who's thinking out east on where it is, is very different from where we are here in the west, where we have very cool climates," Guillet said. "It's not archaic. It definitely isn't. It's a lot better than home heating fuel in other areas."

Affordability concerns

Chief Edwin Ananas of Beardy's & Okemasis Cree Nation is another leader who hopes to see the AFN support lobbying for natural gas service on reserves that need it.

He said only some homes at Beardy's have natural gas, with around 250 homes still reliant on electric heat and propane.

Beardy's & Okemasis Cree Nation Chief Edwin Ananas is one of the leaders who is lobbying to get natural gas lines into his community.
Beardy's & Okemasis Cree Nation Chief Edwin Ananas is one of the leaders who is lobbying to get natural gas lines into his community. (Travis Reddaway/CBC)

"We have some elders who live on a fixed income who are on electrical heat and that would eat up half their pension check," said Ananas

"I have members who just can't afford to keep up with the propane bills, so they end up running out of propane."

He said his community was also quoted around $4.5 million from SaskEnergy to get the rest of the community piped with natural gas.

The Saskatchewan First Nations are looking for political support from AFN for energy security for First Nations communities in Saskatchewan. The draft resolution being put forward at the assembly identifies natural gas as a critical infrastructure investment for First Nations.

The action items include establishing a working group from the federal and provincial governments to work with First Nations communities.

The communities also want Indigenous Services Canada to adopt a new funding model of at least triple the current $5,200 per household framework.

CBC reached out to Indigenous Services Canada but did not receive a response.