NorSask Forest Products’ sawmill has long been a source of pride – not to mention revenue – for the nine First Nations of the Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC). After all, it’s the only First Nation sawmill in Canada owned by First Nations and a good example of effective resource management. But there’s always been an issue that takes a bit of the shine off MLTC’s success: waste.
“All the waste from the sawmill is incinerated in our old beehive burner,’’ says MLTC Cree Vice-Chief Richard Derocher. “It’s a waste of energy and not friendly to the environment.’’ 
Derocher says MLTC leaders identified the problem years ago and began searching for an affordable fix. In 2009, the Tribal Council began working with the Government of Saskatchewan to find a green solution to replace the old burner but plans didn’t materialize. Several years ago, the stars aligned in the form of federal and provincial infrastructure initiatives including funding for green energy projects. 
The result is MLTC’s Bioenergy Centre, a carbon-neutral facility that will generate 6.6 megawatts of baseload electricity fueled primarily by the sawmill’s waste. SaskPower will purchase electricity produced by the centre through a 25-year agreement that’s expected to provide electrical power to approximately 5,000 Saskatchewan homes, thereby reducing the Crown Corporation’s reliance on fossil fuels. It’s estimated the centre will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than a million tonnes over 25 years and improve air quality for residents of the area. 
Total cost of the project is likely to be just north of $80 million, a little higher than projected due to issues arising from the pandemic and project adjustments, according to Tina Rasmussen, project coordinator. The Government of Canada is contributing $52.5 million through the Green Infrastructure Stream of the Canada-Saskatchewan Integrated Bilateral Agreement under the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program. The Tribal Council is covering the remainder through debt financing. Rasmussen says the project created about 50 construction jobs and generated approximately $30 million in contracts to Indigenous construction companies. The plant will employ about a dozen people once it’s commissioned early this year.
Derocher says revenues from electricity sales will be distributed equally among MLTC’s nine member First Nations: Canoe Lake Cree Nation, Ministikwan Cree Nation, Makwa Sahgaiehcan Cree First Nation, English River First Nation, Waterhen Lake First Nation, Flying Dust First Nation, Birch Narrow Dene Nation, Buffalo River Dene Nation, and Clearwater River Dene Nation. Each member nation controls how it spends its revenues but Derocher anticipates most of the profit will go toward programs and services for youth, healthcare and mental wellness, education, and housing. At least some member nations will use a portion of their revenues for economic development, he adds.
MLTC’s sawmill produces two-by-four and two-by-six lumber. The waste includes bark, as well as wood chips too small to be used in paper or particleboard. Rasmussen says the mill currently uses about 40 per cent of each tree for lumber, 35 per cent for chips sold to a pulp mill and the remaining 25 per cent is the “waste’’ that will now fuel the bioenergy centre. 
The new centre will burn this material – or biomass – to heat pipes containing thermal oil, says Rasmussen. These pipes heat others containing an environmentally friendly liquid that’s converted by heat into gas, which drives a turbine. 
“In simple terms, once the generator starts spinning it’s creating electricity that’s fed into a transfer station and then into the grid,’’ she says. The plant employs an emissions cleaning system while the relatively small amount of ash it generates is sold to a local farmer who uses it to control soil acidity.
The centre, expected to open in 2022, is the first biomass energy project in Saskatchewan and positions MLTC as a leader in renewable, sustainable energy technologies. Derocher says the project is only the first renewable energy venture in MLTC’s investment portfolio – the council recently partnered with a solar energy company in southern Saskatchewan. Together, he says, these projects serve to stake a claim in Saskatchewan’s economy and illustrate that the province’s First Nations are ready and able to do business, alone or in partnerships.
“Reconciliation must include giving Canada’s First Nations an opportunity for fair participation in the economy,’’ says Derocher. “While the majority of our focus right now is on renewable resources, we’ll be open to considering all opportunities. We’ll look at the numbers, do our due diligence and make a decision.’’
Derocher says he also looks to the centre to help youth in MLTC’s communities see career opportunities they’ve never seen before, opportunities that will encourage them to become engineers and technicians with all the skills required to work in MLTC’s industries. 
“This biomass project is exactly what I mean about giving us the opportunity,’’ he says. “Now that we have it, we will be successful.’’