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A question of trust: How shared values are helping to build Canada’s largest energy-storage project

Cleantech venture NRStor and the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation built a partnership based on deep respect — and, in the process, presented a new model for how to do business in this country. Here, they share some secrets of their success.

The largest project of its kind in Canada, the 250-megawatt Oneida Energy Storage project is set to offer clean, reliable power capacity in Ontario. Developed through a partnership between the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation and cleantech firm NRStor, the project is anticipated to avert 4.1 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years by using massive lithium-ion batteries to store surplus energy — which will allow the province to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

In the coming decades, Oneida will also provide revenue and jobs to Six Nations of the Grand River people, a stipulation that fulfills key goals for both halves of the partnership. This commitment dovetails nicely with NRStor’s mission to be a profit-with-purpose energy-storage developer and aligns with Matt Jamieson’s determination to create a better future for his people. Jamieson, the CEO of the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation, is one of the visionaries behind the ambitious project. For the past five years, he and Annette Verschuren, NRStor’s chair and CEO, have been working closely together, supporting one another through rounds of negotiation with industry and government representatives.

Earlier this year, Jamieson and Verschuren jumped on a call to discuss the lessons they’ve learned from this experience. While Zoom logistics helped maintain decorum, it’s easy to imagine they’d be finishing each other’s sentences if they were in the same room. Both admit they’re no longer simply business partners, but good friends. They’ve hung out. There’s trust. But that trust certainly didn’t exist right away — nor should it.

“In order to have a relationship with the Indigenous communities in this country, it’s going to take some time,” says Jamieson. “And we need to get started now because it’s the way of the future. I don’t envision any large infrastructure project being built in this country without some form of Indigenous participation — that’s just the bottom line.”

Verschuren agrees; the two are already discussing other potential projects — a clear illustration of how putting in effort up front to forge meaningful ties with community partners can result in successful relationships that will continue to flourish over time.

“I’ve been in business for over 40 years,” says Verschuren. “If I had a dream of a perfect business relationship, it is my experience with Matt Jamieson, Six Nations Development Corporation and the community. This is how it needs to work.”

Here’s what you can learn from their example.

Build a foundation as early as possible

Being there from the start may not be good enough when you are working with a community partner — try to lay groundwork before a project gets rolling. Jamieson actually knew NRStor’s chief development officer several years prior to the advent of Oneida. Talking about a project, he says, can start over a casual cup of coffee.

“The most effective strategy is to develop a relationship built on understanding — and then pursue opportunities together,”

Find synergies

The best partnerships are based on a solid, shared vision. Jamieson says that when assessing prospective collaborators, the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation prioritizes those with similar values — such as protecting the planet and considering how any decision might affect the community. He also notes that it’s important for potential partners to offer knowledge and expertise that he and his community members might not already have. NRStor ticked both boxes.

Do your homework

Traditionally, developers have approached Indigenous communities treating them as liabilities, or with a legal lens, rather than coming to the relationship with a sincere wish to find opportunities together, explains Jamieson.

“Governments and public and private companies are waking up to the reality that Indigenous communities are not going anywhere. We are not just stakeholders, but major influencers in public policy who can shape the path forward,” he says.

So make sure to conduct extensive research before approaching a community. Review and consider key historical facts and contingencies. Familiarize yourself with the social and cultural nuances unique to the people you are approaching. Train your employees so they have a better understanding of what is important (and not important) to the people within that community. Build the relationship slowly to create trust over time.

Approach each other as equals

Every partnership involves give and take. Those that fail are the ones that feel lopsided. Maybe there’s a disparity in commitment, or work is duplicated because each side doesn’t trust the other to complete the tasks at hand. Or perhaps the business partner acts as though they’re there to “fix” things for the community partner, without actually asking what is best or most desirable. To avoid these pitfalls, accept differences and be patient.

“You can’t place Indigenous communities on a reserve for 200 years, completely isolated and uninvolved in development activity economic decisions, then suddenly expect them to have a balance sheet,” says Jamieson, who adds that every First Nation is at a different level of business preparedness.

And just because you might want to partner with a community does not necessarily mean members of that community want to partner with you, particularly if they already receive grants and do not need outside funding. Figure out what you bring to the table that can make a project a success. For Oneida, NRStor had technical experience as well as Verschuren’s decades of corporate acumen to offer.

Be open to hard questions

While grassroots outreach is extremely important for any project, this approach is particularly vital when working with Indigenous communities. For the Oneida project, the partners hosted 10 web-based sessions and responded to community members whose questions ranged from safety concerns to wondering how they might encourage their children to become engineers and analysts in the hopes of sustaining future involvement with this project (or others of this nature). “They were playing the long game,” says Verschuren. Jamieson was struck by the overall attitude of participants. “Normally, people who show up to an information session are those who are opposed to a project,” he says. “But in the outreach for this project, people were generally interested and open to what it was.”

That willingness to ask questions, hash things out and be authentic also reflects the tone of the partnership between NRStor and the Six Nations of the Grand River Corporation. “Matt and I have very open discussions,” says Verschuren. “We’re not afraid of things that go wrong. We find other solutions. We don’t have to have our lawyers telling us how to talk to each other.”


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