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Power shifts: the politics of sustainability transitions in electricity systems and the possibilities for first nations participation



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Many sustainability concerns have led to a push for more sustainable electricity systems. Governments and utilities have responded to these pressures by making changes ranging from minor incremental adjustments to sweeping transformations. This dissertation is focused on determining how we can best understand such transitions of electricity systems and what possibilities exist for First Nations to participate in them. This dissertation involves case studies of three Canadian provinces – Nova Scotia, Ontario and Saskatchewan – based on a review of relevant documents and semi-structured interviews. The theoretical basis of this dissertation is derived from the sustainability transitions field and discourse coalition theory. The conclusion of this research is a helpful and robust integrated sustainability transition framework, which is developed by combining elements of the multi-level perspective (MLP) and technological innovation system (TIS) frameworks from the sustainability transitions field, and supplementing those elements with features from discourse coalition theory. This integrated sustainability transition framework can usefully explain the complex dynamics involved in transitions of electricity systems. The typology of transition pathways – distinguishing between the possibilities of reproduction, transformation, technological substitution, reconfiguration, and de-alignment/re-alignment – provides insights into the direction of the transition. The various TIS functions add a needed element of agency and provide insights into the rate of progress along the particular transition pathway. Discourse coalition theory adds a greater degree of agency by uncovering the political dynamics involved. By considering factors for successful First Nations participation as important TIS functions, the integrated sustainability transition framework presented in this dissertation helps explain the possibilities for First Nations participation. Successful First Nations participation is more likely to occur where governments are proudly engaging in reconciliation efforts and resurgence support and where they embrace distributed, clean energy projects and deliberately open up space for new actors to participate in the electricity sector. In order to achieve the momentum needed to take advantage of a window of opportunity to participate, First Nations need a project champion, stable governance, access to cash, partnerships with the private sector, and must ensure that the focus remains on sustainable development and delivery of benefits to the entire community.



Sustainability, transitions, First Nations, electricity, renewable power, socio-technical systems, multi-level perspective, technological innovation systems, discourse, politics



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy


Public Policy


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