Culture of Sustainability: James Harper’s Perspecive on Renewable Energy & Indigeneity
“This vision of always considering seven generations is so moving to me because it's the true definition of sustainability.” James Harper is a Cree man making waves in renewable energy, inspired by his ancestors and thinking of the youth of tomorrow.
James Harper’s Cree name, Mihskakwan, means “red cloud”, and was gifted to him by his mom who raised him with his two sisters. She graduated from law school while raising her kids, instilling in them strength, discipline and inspiration.
Like his mom, Harper pursued post-secondary education, completing a Bachelor Of Science In Mechanical Engineering at the University of Manitoba in 2017. He’s currently working on a Masters degree in renewable energy. In studying sustainability, he’s been able to travel to places like Stockholm, Barcelona, and Paris. His vision is one of integrating renewable energy and clean tech into our energy systems of tomorrow.
Harper is a proud citizen of Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation on Treaty 8 territory; he was born in Edmonton and grew up in Winnipeg, which he now calls home. "My whole experience as a Cree man has been mostly pretty much urban. I don't necessarily have the experience of growing up within a community or learning so much about the traditional relationship with the land," he explained. Despite being urban-raised, he notes that he maintains a strong relationship with his family, especially his kookum or grandmother, who has gifted him many teachings on what it means to be Niheyaw (Cree).
While navigating the challenges of intergenerational colonization, Harper looks to empower Indigenous communities across Canada. So far, that’s looked like SevenGen, the First Indigenous Student Energy Summit which he developed and organized to include over 300 Canadian students.
We wanted to bring awareness into the ability for youth to understand their inner strength and empower them to believe that you can make a difference even in your own communities and even at a much bigger scale. And all it takes is one person.
The conference included energy speakers, Indigenous leaders, clean tech experts, and entrepreneurs, all with a goal to share the urgency, importance and goals of renewable energy and how it impacts global climate.
For Harper, what he does has been intrinsically tied to who he is as an Indigenous person and his family values. That’s the perspective he brought to SevenGen participants and that he brings to work every day.
I understood more about my fundamental roots as a Cree man and where I come from and understanding what my ancestors wanted me or envisioned their children to be doing and as a reflection too, of what they strived very hard to do as well, which was to protect our earth for the children of tomorrow.
Striving towards the targets laid out in the Paris agreement make sense to Harper, he explains, “I grew up with these Cree principles of caring for the land and loving our children, those unborn generations ahead tied in with the current climate crisis that we're in with all these initiatives, all these reports and all these findings that urge everybody to act now.”
While formally educated, Harper values informal education, mentorship and relationships with established leaders and elders. He draws wisdom from formal and informal education, but also from the land, saying, “As much as I can, I will get myself out onto the land because it is the best classroom. It is the best teacher.”
He's had many opportunities to learn, but Harper still struggles against imposter syndrome, feeling like he doesn’t fit in and isn’t smart enough. He tries to focus on what he brings to the table, explaining, “The world would be a much better place if everybody was there and present and had their voices heard.”
When he thinks about youth leaving home to start their own journeys, he wants them to hear this advice, “Just breathe, just relax. It is very overwhelming and it's totally okay to feel overwhelmed and anxious. It's totally okay to reach out to your support system.” He also encourages youth to stay present in the moment and connected to each other.
Harper’s grandmother taught him, “As long as you're somewhere on this earth, you are connected to all of us.” For Harper, that’s translated to more than just relationships to people but also to the earth, “No matter where you are, you're connected to the land.”
His own advice to youth is to take risks and stop worrying about failure, leaving behind the “what if”’s. He says, “In the end, it's not a failure at all. It's just another stepping stone for you to grow into a well-rounded human being.”
He’s no stranger to risk and the innovation it can bring. He helped build an experimental vehicle to compete against other teams, placing 17th out of 22. While they didn’t win, him and his team gained an unforgettable experience, lasting relationships, and important skills that would be very important in his career.
To keep his mental health on track, Harper challenges himself creatively, meditates, stays active, engages in continual self-directed learning, connecting with people and finding joy, all with a goal to spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental balance.
While focussed on the future of renewable energy, Harper is inspired by the past. He thinks about the adversity and sacrifice of his ancestors, pushes forward to honour them by excelling in his field and pursuing his dreams.
Through the life he builds researching and developing renewable energy, Harper wants a lifestyle where he can not only have fun but also preserve the joy of future generations by protecting the earth.
Ultimately, Harper encourages people to be proud of where they come from, and he reflected on his own journey in that respect. “It took going really, really far away to realize what's really important, which is where I come from and home and my family that brought me there in the first place.”
James Harper’s work deals with the the renewable energy of science but in reaching out and connecting across Canada, he’s also leveraging the renewable energy of Indigenous youth. The passion and awareness that comes from those interactions bring another kind of power that gives hope for the future and for Indigenous people everywhere.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for writing this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.