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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

An Army of Problem Solvers (a book review)

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an_army_of_problem_solvers_coverA friend loaned me a book called “An Army of Problem Solvers”, by Shaun Loney.  She didn’t push – “You may find it interesting, I dunno”.   Usually I’m weary of books with that kind of titles;  they tend to cause the eyes to glaze with a mix of dry-as-dust policy discussion and naïve, feel-good stories.  So I started the book in the middle, chapter five, because this is where some community energy projects were described.  I figured there’d be some meat there, at least.

Indeed.  Loney starts with a description of the Rainy River $160 million, 25 MW solar farm.  This is an Ontario installation of 130,000 solar panels that covers about 120 ha.  All of it is community power.  The band makes money form it; most of the income goes towards paying back the financing, but that still leaves about one million in annual profits, which are plowed back into the community.  This project has given the band more independence and clout in self-governing, as do all community power projects.  This one, incidentally, was made possible by the much decried Feed-in-Tariff (FiT) created by the government of Ontario.

Manitoba Hydro has a Pay As You Save (PAYS) system.  This is used for financing energy efficiency retrofits and insulation for some first nations projects, such as the Fisher River first nation, which has led to the creation of a self-supporting company, Fisher River Builders, who are providing energy retrofit services to a variety of clients.

But the federal government gets in the way; the financing fee on the utility bill is considered an ineligible expense for people in social assistance.  An $8 million partnership between Aki Energy and the Waywaysecappo First nation in northern Manitoba was turned down by Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC).  INAC ruled that the social assistance money can’t be used to pay such projects.  The case hit the media; this embarrassed the government into backing down and offering to “restore the funding”.  They were then doubly embarrassed to learn that there was no funding to be restored; this is an independent contract, driven by the bottom line, and not some kind of subsidy.  They offered to pay the $8 million themselves; the partners declined.  Why? Because this would not only be unfair to others who have paid earlier, but mostly because it reinforces the vision of bands as immature wards of the state.  Argues Loney:

The reason they offered the money is because this way they can maintain control.  We often hear that INAC is a colonial department.  This is a good example.  Force the high-cost, low-impact so that they can maintain control.  Apparently, this is preferable to the low-cost, high-impact approach that gives communities the tools they need to be successful.

There are no food stores in the Garden Hill First Nations community.  Food is brought in from away, distributed periodically.  17% of the community members suffer from diabetes.  Yet Garden Hills used to be self-sufficient: country food (the product of hunting, fishing and gathering) was available, but also locally grown vegetables, as well as meat and dairy produced by members of the community.  What happened?  The Indian Act.  One case illustrates the situation.

Stan McKay told me that his parents sold one of their five cows so Stan would have pocket money when he was away [in school].  But this was done only with permission from the Indian Agent and at a cut-rate price.  They had to go through him because it was illegal for Indigenous people to sell anything off-reserve without permission of the Great White Mother’s agent [this was only repealed in 2014].

The historical overview is full of depressing stories like this.  Thankfully, the bulk of the bulk is just the opposite: examples of effective solutions (Garden Hill is now home to the Meechim community farm and orchard).  I was aware of some of the issues, but many of the petty rules and frustrations described were completely new to me.  A bit of a shock, one that shook me out of my complacency that, as a non-aboriginal person, this is not my issue, but a mere historical wrong that “others” should fix.

This is where the book is particularly important and salutary.  Loney asks what the role of a non-aboriginal – a settler, in other words  – should be:

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports reminds us that a key part of the reconciliation process involves those of us who are not Aboriginal becoming aware of our own personal stories and how they connect to the past and present lives of Aboriginal people.  Through this we gain a better understanding of the broken spirits among us and the role we must all play on the road to reconciliation.  The Indigenous reality is not an Indigenous problem.  It is a Canadian problem.  Or, more accurately, it is a Canadian opportunity.  As Stan McKay says, reconciliation is a path we must all walk together.  One of the most important steps we can collectively take is to create the conditions to allow local economies to re-emerge.

Wow.  That is true for First Nations, but it is also true for the whole country: community projects, be it food or energy, create jobs and reinvest money in the local economy.  What is true for a community like Garden Hills First Nation is also true for Prince George or a Vancouver downtown eastside.

Need I specify?  I read the whole book, and my eyes never glazed.


Loney, Shaun 2016An army of problem solvers: reconciliation and the solutions economy.  Available from

Shaun Loney is a former Manitoba civil servant turned social entrepreneur; he is an Ashoka fellow (look up the association up here).


Written by enviropaul

March 5, 2017 at 6:45 pm

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  1. […] recently posted a review of one of these books, Shaun Loney’s An Army of Problem Solvers.  He describes the situation in the first nations […]

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