Three Fires Group, an Indigenous-owned investment and business development organization, is prioritizing not just clean energy and infrastructure for a greener future, but also promoting economic self-sufficiency for First Nations.
Headquartered in Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, its trading territory is the Three Fires Confederacy, comprised of groups that make up the Anishinabek Nation including the Ojibway, Potawatomi and Algonquins.
Phil Lee, Three Fires Group’s CEO, told SustainableBiz of the difficulties Indigenous peoples face accumulating wealth, hobbled by the legacy of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. The hope is investment into clean energy and affordable housing will create careers and assets which allow Canada's First Nations to catch up.
“This is where we the First Nations are catching up to make sure that the next generation . . . that there’s consistent transfer of wealth that is being built and stewarded by the previous generations,” Lee said.
Reggie George, executive director of special projects and partnerships at Three Fires Group, said the organization sees a chance for First Nations to prosper from the clean energy boom and elevate their economic status, while staying true to First Nations principles as the keepers of the land.
Clean energy and infrastructure investments
Lee said a series of legal decisions across Canada outlined a duty to consult with First Nations for major developments. This opened an “organic opportunity” in Southwest Ontario, where clean energy investments are taking place, he said.
The abundant land creates an ideal location for wind turbines and solar farms, offering an opportunity to manufacture economic gains from land scarce in other natural resources.
On clean energy infrastructure, Three Fires Group has partnered with energy producer Envest Corp. on renewable distributed energy, bioenergy projects and grid-connected and off-grid energy and battery storage projects.
Three Fires Group is negotiating a strategic investment of up to $20 million into battery recycling company Electra. George called it an opportunity “within our borders here in terms of fulfilling this whole supply chain for getting the minerals – whether it be out of the ground or out of the battery, and back into a battery that works or into a car.”
“When it comes to batteries and EVs (electric vehicles) in general, we are viewing it as, ‘Where are the economic opportunities for growth?’” George said. The battery supply chain is a burgeoning industry that can involve the First Nations, he added.
With more electric vehicles on the road, more battery waste will be created. Lee said the investment is a way of minimizing the impact on pristine First Nations lands in Northern Ontario that might otherwise be impacted by increased mining activity.
Three Fires Group is part of a 50 per cent equity partnership deal between Hydro One and First Nations in September 2022, where equity will be split for five transmission lines in Southwest Ontario.
“Hydro One is one of the few regulated investment opportunities available for First Nations,” Lee said. “And the regulated aspect, the guaranteed return on investment aspect of Hydro One’s transmission line investment, that is the key foundation which upon First Nations can build other business investments.”
The guaranteed baseline equity returns for projects with decades-long life-cycles allow for more “aggressive investments,” which means social justice-oriented investments like affordable, sustainable housing.
A $490M bet on affordable housing
Three Fires Group is in negotiations to provide a $490 million affordable housing package with the Ontario government, eight municipalities and mayors in cities such as London, Kent, Windsor, St. Thomas and Stratford.
The proposal is for 1,200 homes in partnership with non-profit Indwell that specializes in affordable housing.
Three Fires Group’s industry partners specialize in Passive House and near-net-zero builds and energy efficiency, Lee added. He also said large global companies, which can't be identified at this juncture, are interested in being involved.
Economic justice is key to this package, Lee pointed.
“A disproportionate amount of people who are marginalized, people who need housing, are First Nations in Canada. We want this to be the blueprint of that growth. A regulated returning asset provides the platform we need to be able to leverage social economic opportunities, such as housing.”
Potential for offshore wind
Looking into the future, George said Three Fires Group has a unique position to open the door to offshore wind projects in the Great Lakes.
A moratorium on offshore wind projects in Ontario collides with First Nations water rights, which George said could lead to a legal argument for their water rights superceding the ban.
This could mean Three Fires Group could invest in offshore wind farms to generate clean electricity in Lake Erie, he said.