With the spectre of provincial elections looming large on the horizon in Québec and with September 4th promising to introduce a possible reconfiguration of the political pieces at the National Assembly of Québec (the provincial legislature), there are any number of topics on the political agenda that may sway voters towards one party or another. The Plan Nord is one of these crucial electoral issues that may just see Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal Party fall from grace.
Fasken Martineau – which is a major litigation firm dealing closely with mining projects – reports that the Plan Nord, launched by Premier Charest in May 2011, “provides for the development of territory of Québec located north of the 49th parallel over the next 25 years.” According to this report, the project is an ambitious and wide-ranging foray into developing Québec’s rich natural resources potential in its expansive northern regions, and is set to cover 72% of the province’s territory (roughly 1.2 million km²). Following the philosophy of responsible investing 101 which has taken a firm foothold in Québec’s economic capital, Montréal, in recent years, Plan Nord calls for “a development project that is integrated socially, economically, and environmentally that will be implemented over a long period of time.”
While the Plan Nord is a progressive project which is being called the ‘Project of a Generation’, it is certainly not without its detractors. Given the immense area that the project is slated to cover, environmental groups along with aboriginal communities are concerned that Plan Nord “will lead to severe environmental degradation.” The Charest government, easing to stem environmental concerns and opposition to the project, immediately earmarked 12% of the Plan Nord territory as a ‘protected zone’, and further stated that 50% of the affected land will be accorded ‘protected status’ by 2035. A spokesman representing an environmental research network in the province – the Réseau québécois des groupes écologists – stated for instance that the promise to protect 50% of the Plan Nord territory simply “validates basically [sic] doing the exploitation of the other half.”
Innu communities are similarly up-in-arms about this large scale development project, which is seen by many community leaders as an elaborate smoke-screen which will open up the North to unchecked extraction of resources by big conglomerates and corporations, while threatening the aboriginal way of life as well as the ecological character of many indigenous communities. While 26 of 33 aboriginal groups in the province have signed memoranda of agreement with the Charest government regarding the planned developments on their territories, a few vocal voices of dissent remain amongst the outstanding seven non-signatories. The Innu nation of Pessamit is one of the few remaining aboriginal groups which stands in opposition to the project, but it appears that the disagreement revolves around financial compensation rather than environmental, social, or governance concerns.
Even with most aboriginal groups on board and in sync with the blueprints for Plan Nord, the project is still a potential political minefield for Premier Charest. One dissenting group, Québec Solidaire, noted that its opposition to the project stems from its belief that that the Plan Nord “swallows billions of dollars in public funds to service large foreign companies here to siphon off [our] natural resources.” The regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Québec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard, agrees with that conclusion and believes (according to a French-language interview with Radio Canada) that Plan Nord ‘violates the territorial rights of some aboriginal communities.’
Frederic Dubois’s article quotes Lisa Qiluqqi Koperqualak of the Saturviit Inuit Women’s Association of Nunavik at a recent panel discussion arguing that “the Québec government says the North is ready…but economic development can’t happen [at] the expense of social and cultural well-being.” Dubois further points out that “the belief that the Plan Nord will fail to benefit Québec society is widespread…it’s failure is emphasized by the Québec Auditor General who in 2009 showed that many mining corporations have not paid a cent in royalties.”
The battle lines are clearly drawn, and the provincial election will be decided largely on the issues surrounding Plan Nord, which will not only be Charest’s legacy to Québec, but a legacy for many future generations. Not wanting to fall behind on its feel-good campaign of characterizing the project as an “extraordinary opportunity” for Québecers, the Charest government on July 18 released a whopping $200 million in Fermont as part of an infrastructural program designed to offset negative consequences for northern municipalities affected by Plan Nord.
On the other hand, a report from the Institut de recherché et d’informations socio-économiques (IRIS) concluded that the Plan Nord neither guarantees regional economic development which is “closely subject to the market value of minerals,” but that “increased spending and environmental factors may result in an additional $6.5 billion cost over 25 years” will be footed by taxpayers, exposing Québec citizens to unfair risks while providing mining and development corporations with favourable returns. According to this analysis, which is a potential political hot-potato for the Charest Liberals, the IRIS found that “between what the government will invest over 25 years versus the royalties it will receive, the deficit for Plan Nord will equal some $8.45 billion in losses for Québec taxpayers.”
In sum, profitability is but one key concern for the province’s citizens, as well as prospective and current investors. What remains to be seen in the immediate future is whether the Charest government can survive long enough to forge agreements with the remaining aboriginal groups opposed to this project, and whether he and his cabinet can convince Québecers that the Plan Nord will really benefit their province in social, economic, and governance areas as they have been so adamantly promising voters. Without all communities on board, a foray into beginning development on Plan Nord will either be uncertain, incomplete, or in danger of infringing aboriginal rights. My hope is that Plan Nord will be dealt with as a socio-economic issue first, and a political issue last, to responsibly address the issues of affected communities first and put political aspirations on the back burner in a show of good faith.