MaRS commissioned photographer Jenna Marie Wakani to photograph the thinkers, entrepreneurs and investors behind some of Canada’s most exciting companies. See the full Portraits of Innovation series.
Matt Jamieson wants to create a better future for his people — and it starts with building the biggest battery in Canada. As CEO of the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation, Jamieson is one of the visionaries behind Oneida, an ambitious clean-energy storage project that will start taking shape this summer near Brantford, Ont. Oneida began as a development partnership between the Six Nations corporation and NRStor, a Toronto-based clean technology company. When completed, the project will avert 4.1 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years, create job opportunities for Indigenous people — and mark a step on the road to reconciliation.
“For far too long, Indigenous communities have been the last folks at the table when it comes to finding solutions and a pathway forward,” says Jamieson, who is a member of the Tuscarora Nation. “There’s a paradigm shift happening across the country.”
It has been a true partnership, says Annette Verschuren, CEO of NRStor, who worked closely with Jamieson and the community at every step of the process. “Matt and I have very open discussions,” she says. “We’re not afraid of things that go wrong. We find other solutions.”
Here, Verschuren and Jamieson share their thoughts on building the next-generation energy storage project, how they’ve created a partnership between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities based on trust and respect, and the future of conducting business in Canada.
Matt Jamieson: As a development corporation, one of our strategies is to partner with the best. We absolutely believed that NRStor, although small, has the horsepower and the proven ability to get things done. Oneida is an example of that.
Annette Verschuren: Yes, NRStor is an amazing little company that has been developing energy-storage project pilots. It was ready to do a big commercial project. Our mission is to make money, but to do it with purpose.
Jamieson: And that’s part of the mindset we look for in public and private companies — those that embrace what TRC 92 is all about, a call to action to get the business community working with Indigenous communities. For far too long Indigenous communities have been looked at as a liability. This project shows we are an asset.
Verschuren: It’s a 50/50 partnership. We made all our decisions together. We chose our engineering, procurement and construction contractor together. We chose our battery-storage vendor and investor together, and had an investment committee. We wanted to do this genuinely together. And we suffered together when the supply chain went crazy. COVID really impacted this project and lithium prices went up 600 per cent. We weathered all of that together.
Jamieson: We’re all in this together. We’re trying to create a better future for our people, for our neighbours and for our families. But for far too long Indigenous communities have been the last folks at the table when it comes to finding solutions and a pathway forward.
There’s a paradigm shift happening across the country. Governments and public and private companies are waking up to the reality that Indigenous communities are not going anywhere. And we are not just stakeholders. We are a major influencer in public policy in ways that can shape the pathway forward. Net zero by 2050? We know it’s going to take about $5 trillion of investment. Most of that will take place on lands that are subject to a treaty, land claim or Indigenous land assertion. The days are gone when a developer could come to our door at the last hour and want us to support the project. That just doesn’t happen anymore.
The Oneida project is successful because we both have trust. We co-funded it right from the start, and that enabled us to get our fingerprints on this project and influence where it’s located, why it’s located there, and get involved in advancing the project.
Jamieson: You can’t place Indigenous communities on a reserve for 200 years, completely isolated and uninvolved in development activity and economic decisions, then suddenly come and expect them to have a balance sheet. But every First Nation is at a different level of preparedness. Companies don’t even know how to approach the right person. Do you come with a tobacco offering? Everyone seems to want to come and be viewed as a genuine interested party. We think the most effective strategy is to build a relationship, build an understanding, and then pursue opportunities together — which is what Oneida is.
Annette, you once said this collaboration has made this project go more smoothly.
Verschuren: I’ve been in business for over 40 years. I’ve built 160 Home Depots, built up Michael’s and worked in the coal mining industry. I’ve been around. But if I had a dream of how a perfect business relationship works, it is my experience with Matt Jamieson, Six Nations Development Corporation and the community. This is how it needs to work.
Matt and I have very open discussions. We’re not afraid of things that go wrong. We find other solutions. That also goes for his people and my team. We don’t have to have our lawyers telling us how to talk to each other.
We faced resistance from the IESO [which manages Ontario’s grid] and financial advisors. Plus the capital cost changes were tough. But we were very focused. We encouraged each other and kept our eye on the prize — to build one of the biggest energy-storage facilities in North America with the government of Canada, the province of Ontario and some of the best people in the world. We herded a lot of cats.
Jamieson: It’s through this collaboration you see the Canada Infrastructure Bank step up with subordinate financing to make this project real. Natural Resources Canada came forward with a $50-million grant. Aecon is now a contractor for the project. And through that partnership, we’re going to put our people to work. That to me is real economic development for those communities.
Jamieson: Normally, people who show up to an information session are those who are opposed to a project. Or there’s a negative tone. But in the community outreach for this project, people were generally interested and open to what it was. Some teachers asked good questions about technology, the risks, mitigation, environment and archaeology concerns.
Verschuren: A number of them asked, “How do we get these kids ready for this type of work in the future? What do we teach them? How do we get them to be engineers and accountants and analysts?” It was really cool because they’re playing the long game.
Jamieson: I learned you have to find the right partner. The ways in which we were able to move the football with NRStor’s technical expertise were just incredibly valuable.
Verschuren: I’ve had many accomplishments, but the Oneida project is the most important thing I will have done in my business career. This is a new way of doing business, a new model. And to be part of a footprint of helping the Indigenous community maximize its strength is the most rewarding thing I’ll ever do.
It was the toughest thing, too. It was way easier to build 160 Home Depot stores in Canada. Honestly. The electricity market is tough to enter. We’re the first in Canada — and the first Indigenous partnership in North America — to do this. It’s special.
Verschuren: Without a doubt.
Jamieson: To have a relationship with the Indigenous communities in this country, it’s going to take some time. But we need to get started now because it is 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. And it’s about time.
Photo credit: Jenna Marie Wakani and NRStor