Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The decision by the city of Edmonton to allow EPCOR to build a 23-hectare solar farm on possible First Nation’s ceremonial ground in the North Saskatchewan River valley is the subject of a recently filed judicial review.
However, it is not the Enoch Cree Nation that once lived on that land that has undertaken the legal action, but the Edmonton River Valley Conservation Coalition.
In fact, Enoch chief and council put their support behind the solar project at the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant, then signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with EPCOR, which wants to place solar panels alongside the water treatment plant.
It was a 180 degree turn from June 2019 when Enoch opposed the project.
One Enoch councillor, however, remains concerned. A change in support never should have happened, says Enoch councillor Lyle Morin. He believes the MOU with EPCOR should not have been signed.
“MOUs to me make no sense, because you have the treaty, which is the ultimate agreement. That’s your agreement for everything. Why would you write an MOU to overwrite that? It makes no sense. It serves nothing. It doesn’t give anybody power,” said Morin.
However, Enoch councillor Michelle Wilsdon, speaking on behalf of chief and council, told Edmonton city council at a public hearing this past October that extensive meetings with EPCOR over the months “allowed us to dive deeper into our issues of concern.”
Wilsdon said once the Nation’s own archaeologists had an opportunity to examine artifacts, including a buffalo skull, retrieved from the site and read the report prepared by Stantec consulting company for EPCOR Water Services Inc. and “interpret those findings from an Indigenous lens,” and once Elders and knowledge holders visited the site, council was able to corroborate Stantec’s conclusion that the site was not used for specific ceremonies.
Wilsdon conceded that any evidence of ceremony on the site was probably destroyed when the land was taken away after thousands of years of occupation by the Enoch Cree and became agricultural land in 1908.
“Our Elders also remind us that perhaps the most important question for us is not whether or not ceremony happened on the land, but rather what we can do to bring back ceremony to the land along with our people,” said Wilsdon.
On Sept. 1, Enoch and EPCOR signed the MOU at the water treatment plant site. The MOU allows for such activities as harvesting of plants for traditional medicinal purposes, and formalizing procedures and processes related to archeological work.
Wilsdon pointed out that the Enoch community purchases drinking water from that treatment plant.
“We recognize that development in the river valley isn’t always ideal, but sometimes they’re necessary. If this land had not been taken from us in 1908 we may very well have built our own water treatment plant there to supply water to our community and may very well have also supported a solar project there as well,” she said.
Wilsdon noted that Enoch has a new pump house and reservoir and had also supplied and offset their electricity through solar power development.
Morin appeared after Wilsdon at the public hearing and let the city know that he did not agree with his own council.
“I come here today to speak for the ones who can’t speak for themselves,” he said. “Many people are buried here in the river valley.”
Edmonton Councillor Aaron Paquette, the only Indigenous member of city council, asked Morin if oral history upheld that there were burials on that land.
“The oral history on burials is very difficult,” said Morin, adding that there were no maps of where people had been buried.
Morin told Windspeaker.com last month, “I’m just trying to speak to that piece of land. There’s more to it than that. I just want to talk about Enoch history. How that works. How we fit into Edmonton. How that whole piece works. Nobody really knows. We weren’t just on the four-by-five reserve. That’s not how our history works with Edmonton. It goes beyond that. Maybe I could be right. I could be wrong. I could be whatever. As long as I’m doing what’s right.
“Chief and council made a decision. They have every right to. But does that nullify and marginalize anybody else’s opinion?” he said.
Morin would like the site to be left as a “culturally-sensitive piece of land that we had our ceremonies on for many years.”
Edmonton city council voted seven to six to allow the solar farm development to go ahead after hearing from 55 speakers over two days, more than half in opposition to the project.
Seventy per cent of the power generated by the $26-million solar farm will power the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant directly, while the rest will be exported to the electrical grid.
Installation of the 45,000 panels is set to begin spring 2021 and the farm will begin producing energy early in 2022.
The Edmonton River Valley Conservation Coalition is crowd-sourcing funding for the legal challenge.
“The river valley matters to all of us and so we are counting on Edmontonians to contribute to our campaign. We all need to stand up for what we love, or we are going to lose it,” said ERVCC chair Kristine Kowalchuk in a news release.