Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a Lubicon Cree and founder of Sacred Earth Solar. PHOTO: Supplied by the University of Victoria

In April 2011 , the Rainbow Pipeline in northwest Alberta ruptured, leaking 28,000 barrels of oil into the forest and muskeg.

It was the largest spill in Alberta in more than three decades and located just 30 kilometres outside of the Lubicon Cree community of Little Buffalo.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo says the spill contaminated the air, leaving her family and community “feeling extremely sick and …very nauseous.”

The school closed for more than a week as a precaution and people were not able to hunt and gather on their traditional lands.

After witnessing the detrimental impact the oil spill had on her home community, Laboucan-Massimo knew she had to do something. The land within the community of Little Buffalo had always been dependent on oil and gas. But she and a team of changemakers wrote history in the summer of 2015, turning toward solar energy. 

“Indigenous communities have always borne the brunt of environmental degradation, climate change and it’s because our communities are more remote.” 

Melina Laboucan-Massimo

That year, 80 solar panels were hoisted up on pillars and pointed toward the sun. As the light glistened off the blue and silver bricks in the sky, Laboucan-Massimo cried “tears of joy for the first time.” 

A paper on pipeline infrastructure and spills by Ranjan Datta and Margot A. Hurlbert reports more than half of Indigenous communities in Canada are at “high risk” of being heavily impacted by pipeline spills compared to the national average. In addition, they write, these spills cause a greater impact on those communities than non-Indigenous, urban ones, affecting “drinking water, agriculture, and traditional cultural practice with land.”

Laboucan-Massimo, a Lubicon Cree and founder of Sacred Earth Solar, experienced first hand the impact the oil industry has on isolated communities.

“Indigenous communities have always borne the brunt of environmental degradation, climate change and it’s because our communities are more remote.” 

Laboucan-Massimo is focused on openly opposing fossil fuel projects and protecting Indigneous homelands through solar energy, installing solar panels in her home community of Little Buffalo. The 20.8 KW project is connected to the community’s health and wellness centre and powers the entire community. 

She believes in “utilizing solar as a transition technology to help communities know that there’s other ways of producing energy.”

Many other Alberta Indigenous communities are participating in the transition to solar energy, including Louis Bull Tribe, Fort McKay First Nation and Beaver Lake Cree Nation, according to Kuby Renewable Energy Ltd., an Edmonton-based installer of solar panels. 

Multiple other nations that are currently developing their solar energy projects are Cold Lake First Nation and Montana First Nation. According to Kuby Renewable Energy Ltd., these communities are “drastically reducing their energy bills and carbon footprint.” 

Solar energy is “decentralized,” making it the most readily available source of sustainable energy, easily accessible for individuals on every end of the scale, said owner and CEO Jake Kubiski. 

After working in the oil and gas industry, Kubiski had his eyes opened to sustainable energy. Wanting to make a change and have a positive impact on the environment, he started his own renewable energy company.

“By producing clean solar energy, you’re saving GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions,” he said.

The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is vital because they are the cause of global temperature rising. By turning toward renewable energies, such as solar, which is so readily available, the chances of saving the planet are heightened. 

Angela Hocken, band council member of Kwadacha First Nation and language teacher at Aatse Davie School in Fort Ware, B.C., understands the significance of solar energy and the importance of teaching it. 

The B.C. government granted the school nearly $500,000 to fund a solar project to reduce fuel dependency. Hocken said students will monitor energy levels being produced and used by the school, as well as how solar energy limits the amount of CO2 pollution. 

“Having this solar power installed at school will allow the students to further their knowledge in energy efficiency,” said Hocken. 

Indigneous voices are essential to a healthy planet because sustainability is “embedded in our ways of living,” said Hocken. 

“Our ancestors took off the land and everything that was provided for them came off the land, water [and] air.” 

Hocken said educating the next generation will ultimately raise climate-literate people who can continue the good work that has begun. 

Laboucan-Massimo understands that numerous Indigenous communities within Alberta depend on diesel and propane in their daily lives, but she finds hope in solar energy.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo. PHOTO: NIkki Sanchez

She also feels a weight of responsibility to continue moving forward with climate justice. 

“I think that’s a part of why we are facing climate change is because there’s such a lack of energy and climate literacy in our communities,” said Laboucan-Massimo. 

She believes in training the next generation in order to equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to fight the battle against climate change. 

“The time has come for communities to reintegrate the wisdom of our ancestors, by implementing renewable energy transition technologies,” she said. “And inspire the world over to join us in our call to create a healthy planet which will sustain all generations to come.”

Correction: The top of this story has been changed from its original version to better explain the events around the Rainbow Pipeline Spill.

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Isabella West is a fourth-year Journalism student at MRU. She completed her work term over the summer of 2023 at LiveWire Calgary in partnership with the Calgary Journal.