For millennia the Tetl'it Gwich'in, who live north of the Arctic Circle in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., burned wood to heat their dwellings. That changed in the 1960s and 1970s when many moved to government-built houses heated with oil. Recently, though, the Gwich'in have been rediscovering their traditional use of wood — employing modern biomass technology to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, while at the same time creating long-term jobs and building self-reliance in their community.
Lawrence Keyte studied the factors behind the success of the Fort McPherson project for his master’s degree in sustainability studies at Trent University. “In northern Canada,” says Keyte, “communities depend largely upon diesel generators for electricity, and upon oil for heat. It’s expensive: prices fluctuate, it has to be shipped or trucked in and governments subsidize it heavily. From the community perspective, depending on imported fuel does little for self-reliance, and brings little economic benefit. Energy dollars flow south rather than staying at home.”
In Fort McPherson that began to change in 2009, when community members Johnny Kay and Richard Wilson attended a conference on biomass heat technology. Heating with biomass — cordwood, wood-pellets made from sawmill waste and wood-chips — is cheaper, cleaner and safer than oil. They returned home inspired by its potential, but reasoned that instead of buying pellets (the main fuel used in northern biomass boilers) from British Columbia or Alberta, why not use chips made from the abundant and fast-growing willows that thrive around Fort McPherson? Local people could be paid to harvest them and the economic benefit would stay at home. Kay brought the idea to the community and the Northwest Territories government, and it caught on: by December 2013, with support from the territorial government, the community had its own 85-kilowatt biomass boiler.
The boiler supplies heat to the band office and community health centre (selling heat to the health centre is a source of revenue for the community) and both buildings now use far less oil. So far, the boiler has provided part-time work for more than 50 local people.
“The key to the project’s success is its direct link with Gwich'in values,” says Keyte. “The harvesters take pride in working out on the land. The elders feel good when they see the wood smoke coming from the stack.” Gwich'in men, women, and children once spent a great deal of time and energy gathering wood for heating, shelter, and tools — harvesting and working with wood is part of their culture. And, like other northern Indigenous peoples, they are working to achieve more self-reliance, inspired by their elders and ancestors who lived well using local resources and their own ingenuity. “With self-reliance comes pride and resilience, the ability to cope with change,” adds Keyte. That resonates with a people whose society has been shaken by the legacy of residential schools, and who are now observing changes in the land and wildlife they depend on as the climate warms. “What’s more,” he says, “they see that this project will grow and bring benefits far into the future, to their great-grandchildren and beyond. It’s an example of [the traditional] ‘seven generations’ way of thinking.”
Mary Taya, a Fort McPherson elder, sums it up this way: “Anything that can be connected to our way of life, our culture, our tradition, would be really good because people will go back to having that pride, get back their self-esteem. Our people were so happy, so strong … so when I see these projects that mean connection with our way of life, it makes me feel happy, it makes me feel that things can just go on.”