Canadian Biomass Magazine

Whitesand First Nation’s vision of sustainability

November 28, 2017
By Tamar Atik

Bio-Economy Centre site preparation at Whitesand First Nation in northern Ontario. Photo: Whitesand First Nation.

It’s a long road to scaling up, but success is possible.

That was a key theme at this year’s Scaling Up conference in Ottawa. While biomass is the only renewable resource that can substitute carbon for fossil fuels, rapid success is far from assured.

David Mackett knows this struggle well. He has led community development initiatives for Whitesand First Nation since 2009. That’s the year that the northern Ontario reserve’s Community Sustainability Initiative (CSI) began moving forward with the goal of eliminating the use of diesel within the community.

But Whitesand’s sustainability vision dates back to 1992. “The community took it on their own to say ‘We want to do something different,’” Mackett said. That first proposal for change was turned down but the community never gave up. “That’s our social capital on this project. Never give up, keep moving forward.”


Whitesand First Nation is located in northern Ontario near Thunder Bay. The on-reserve population is 500 with a small land base of one square-kilometre.

Mackett said there was little value going to the community from past forestry as the trees were harvested and transported for processing elsewhere. There was diesel-generated electricity, high-unemployment. “It’s similar to many First Nations across Canada,” he said. “I’m blunt about it, but we looked at how we could change this and we moved forward.”

The CSI is based on five pillars of sustainability: society, culture, capacity, economy and ecology. “It’s really about improving the livelihoods of people,” Mackett said. “It’s not just an energy project, it’s a sustainability project.” The community-owned project will be the first in Ontario to replace the primary use diesel generators. The project has completed the required Renewable Energy Approval and is also supported by a 20-year renewable Power Purchase Agreement with the Independent Electricity Supply Operator.

As a result of the CSI, Whitesand’s “Bio-Economy Centre” has started site preparation through a joint contribution of $4.2 million from the federal and provincial governments and Whitesand.  The site preparation will enable full construction of a wood merchandising yard, a 5mw biomass combined heat and power plant, and a 90,000-metric wood pellet facility. The project will create approximately 60 full-time jobs generating approximately $3.5 million in wages.

David Mackett

David Mackett has led community development initiatives for Whitesand First Nation since 2009. Photo: Annex Business Media.

It will also reduce and eliminate approximately 1,100,000 litres of diesel fuel used to generate electricity, which is currently provided by Hydro-one Remotes diesel generators. Whitesand is also planning to convert home heating from diesel fuel to a combination of wood pellet stoves and boilers. This will reduce the current use of 300,000 litres of fuel for home heating.

Being conceived in the early ‘90s, the project took many year

s to come to fruition. “It’s very frustrating, and you can expect delays in projects like this in Ontario, but you just have to keep pushing,” Mackett said. “Whitesand took control of its own future, by being the proponent of the project.”

“You have to build a relationship first with the community,” he said. “When you look at a project like ours, carbon reduction translates to poverty reduction. And that’s the same message to First Nations across Canada that are on diesel. People tend to shy away from the issues, and they don’t want to drill down deeper and find the solutions,” Mackett said.

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