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Immigrant helps northern indigenous communities become energy efficient

Kwadacha Nation Chief Donny Van Somer and Areef Abraham

Born in Pakistan and raised in Tanzania, Areef Abraham moved to the United Kingdom at 16 and studied mechanical engineering at the University of London. He worked in the UK’s energy sector before coming to Canada in 1993 with his wife and three children, confident that he would find new opportunities.

Within a month of arriving, Areef found work with BC Hydro’s Power Smart Inc., helping residential and commercial consumers be more energy efficient. After several years in a leadership position at a BC Gas energy efficiency subsidiary, he then went on to work with Simon Fraser University’s Learning Strategies Group, visiting Indigenous communities and witnessing, firsthand, the poor housing conditions and heating problems. In remote regions such as northern BC, harsh winters can lead to heating costs as high as $5,000 a year.

Seeing an opportunity to help these communities make their homes more energy efficient, Areef and his late business partner, Tom Smith, launched Community Power in 2008. Under Areef’s leadership, Community Power has grown to employ a team of 35 people. It works in partnership with communities to develop, finance and follow an individualized plan to better manage their energy consumption. Such plans can include building local capacity to make upgrades and retrofits to their buildings and energy systems.

“Areef recognizes that each Indigenous community has unique energy and housing needs and is able to rally people together toward a common purpose,” says Dr. Michelle Corfield, former Vice President of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. “He has helped just about every community he’s worked with save money by transitioning off diesel power for their generators. It’s also a major benefit for the environment.”

So far, thanks to Areef’s guidance, more than 60 Indigenous communities in Alberta and BC are on a path to energy self-sufficiency. One of these, the Kwadacha Nation, received the BC Clean Energy Award for Environmental Stewardship and Community Improvement in 2014 for their energy leadership.

“Kwadacha Nation started our energy efficiency journey with Community Power seven years ago, and we’ve reduced our energy use by 40 per cent,” says Kwadacha Nation Chief Donny Van Somer. “We had a strong vision of self-sustainability and worked together to make it happen.”

Calling on his own experience as an immigrant, Areef also launched Empower Me in 2012 to educate newcomers, seniors, low-income families and Indigenous people about ways to use energy more efficiently. Typically community members see a reduction of between 30 to 50% on their utility bills after upgrades.

But just as notable as what Areef has accomplished is how he does it. By emphasizing skills development and local training opportunities, he leaves communities equipped with the knowledge and tools to continuously improve their energy use.

“Areef empowers communities,” says Dr. Corfield. “His efforts lead to a more viable and sustainable future for these populations.”

Quick facts:

  • Immigrants make up more than eight per cent of the Peace River region’s population.
  • The Philippines is the largest source country of immigrants in the region, followed by the United States and Germany.
  • About two-thirds (64 per cent) of all immigrants who came to the Peace River region between 1980 and 2016 were economic immigrants, while 29% were sponsored by family and nearly six per cent were refugees.

Did you know?

  • Between 2006 and 2010, only 650 people in BC’s Peace River region were immigrants. The number of immigrants to the region more than doubled between 2011 and 2016 to 1570 people.

-Submitted by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada

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