These days I live in Nepal, where every once in a while a celebratory report appears in the news that a remote village has just been connected to the energy grid or road system. But it’s fairly rare to see such a headline in the media about Canada.
Well, here’s one — from 21 Dec. 2018!: Pikangikum, Ont., 1st remote community connected to provincial power grid.
Pikangikum is a place I’ve written about a few times in this blog. Unfortunately, the stories have almost always been negative. The village in the north of the province of Ontario counts about 2,400 indigenous (also known as First Nations) residents. It is 1,400 km from Toronto by plane or via a road that’s open only in winter, when the ground freezes.
I first heard about Pikangikum after media reported in 2000 that it was the place with the highest rate of youth suicide in the western world. I wrote about a 2011 report by the Chief Coroner of Ontario that made 101 recommendations to address the deaths.
New school, now full-time power
Progress on those recommendations has been slow while, tragically, the youth suicide epidemic seems to have migrated to other remote indigenous communities in Canada. However, in 2016 Pikangikum opened a new school and last month it finally connected to the power grid, after decades of unreliable electricity provided by diesel generators.
“It means a lot of things to us,” Chief Dan Owen told CBC News. “Each person would have to have lived on this reserve to know the importance and the significance of having an inadequate supply of electricity for our infrastructure needs.”
For example said Owen, the community has a shortfall of about 400 homes to house its growing population. Yet till now it has been unable to build more without a reliable power supply.
Why has it taken so long for Pikangikum to be ‘electrified’? A simple answer would be that the cost of building a power line to the isolated community was too high. A better response would be that the First Nation, which was one of those that signed Treaty 5 with representatives of the UK’s Queen Victoria in 1875, has been neglected. At the heart of the suicide crisis is the ongoing, inter-generational trauma caused by the residential school system initiated by the Canadian government in the 19th century, which existed until late in the 20th century.
It is telling that the initiative (the Wataynikaneyap Power Transmission Line Project) which plans to connect 16 other remote indigenous communities to the Ontario grid by 2023, is being built by a consortium of 24 First Nations.