On Tuesday, Quebec’s Prime Minister Jean Charest officially launched the Plan Nord, or Northern Plan. It is a grand, 25-year, CAN $88 billion plan for economic and social development in a region rich in natural resources. Northern Quebec comprises the 72% of the province which lies north of the 49th parallel. It’s home to 120,000 people, including 33,000 indigenous people living within four Aboriginal nations. Mining, energy production, and logging are the three main industries which the government is seeking to develop in Northern Quebec. At the launch ceremony in Lévis, Quebec, Charest boldly stated that the plan was “one of the most sustainable development projects in the world.” 50% of the land in the region has been explicitly set aside from industrial development. It is undoubtedly a massive undertaking that will bring investment to the region, and it is one of the most thorough plans for development anywhere in the global North. Reactions have generally been positive, though some Aboriginal leaders are skeptical whether the plan will really benefit their people and nature in the long term.
Nickel, cobalt, gold, platinum, iron, and ilmenite ore are all currently produced in Quebec. Diamond, uranium, and rare earth metals could also be potentially viable commodities, demonstrating the richness of the province’s mineral resources. The Plan Nord pinpoints 11 new mining projects underway, which will bring over $8 billion to the region. One such example is Xstrata’s Raglan mine in Nunavik, which produces nickel and copper and is permanently linked by all-weather roads to an airport in Donaldson and a port in Deception Bay. Xstrata has also partnered with the local Inuit population, prioritizing them in hiring and working with them to carry out environmental impact studies. Last year, the Inuit received $80 million in the form of income, contracts, and profits from Xstrata. Tata Steel and Goldcorp are two other industry giants which are participating in Plan Nord. With new investments in mining, the government foresees that 11,000 new jobs will be created during construction, along with 4,000 permanent mining-related jobs. One caveat, though, is that the provincial government has increased royalties for mining, which could possibly deter new investments.
The Plan Nord envisions that Quebec will become the “leading worldwide producer of clean energy.” Northern Quebec currently produces 75% of the province’s electricity, much of it through hydropower. $50 billion will be invested in the sector, much it for the three major hydroelectric projects in the works. According to the Globe and Mail, they are: the 920-megawatt Eastmain-Sarcelle-Rupert on the North Shore the 1,550-megawatt La Romaine on the North Shore, and the 1,200-megawatt Petit-Mécatina. Also planned is a pilot project to develop an underwater generator with 250-kilowatt capacity, which, if successful, could be used to provide power to small settlements near water. 50-kilowatt capacity generators are also in the works, which could also be useful for Aboriginal communities located far from any major power sources. Finally, wind power will also become a more important source of energy for Quebec under the Plan Nord. There are plans to develop this resource along Nunavik’s Ungava coast and in the Hudson Strait.
A continuous boreal forest stretches across Northern Quebec, most of which is black spruce. These trees can grow very tall and live for up to 200 years. Much of the forest has never been touched and is virgin territory, so plans to log the area have riled environmentalists. But at the same time, 12% of Northern Quebec has now been essentially deemed protected parkland, which is a partial victory for conservationists. But one of the real tests in the region for the Plan Nord’s forestry scheme was whether the Cree would approve. After all, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement between the government of Quebec and the Cree, along with other arrangements, mandate that any plans for development in the region must be first discussed with the Cree. Their population still uses the forest for activities such as hunting. But Matthew Coon Come, grand chief of the Northern Quebec Cree, said of the Plan Nord, “This is new era. We have gone from an era of a policy of exclusion to an era of a policy of inclusion.” In the 1990s, he had led the successful march, or rather canoe trip, against Hydro-Quebec’s Great Whale power project. So for him to give the Plan Nord his seal of approval is a major step forward in terms of the province’s relationship with indigenous peoples.
Aside from economic development, the Plan Nord, which bills itself as a “society-wide project,” will attempt to benefit Aboriginal peoples. The Plan Nord states, “The Plan Nord and its implementation respect and must always respect existing agreements and the gouvernement du Québec’s obligations to the Aboriginal peoples. The Plan Nord may not
replace the existing mechanisms that allow for certain questions to be handled on a Nation-to-Nation basis, such as those that are already subject to negotiation.”
However, some Aboriginal leaders question whether the government will respect the existing agreements. The Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard, announced,
“I refuse to participate in a process which does not yet adequately meet the expectations of all concerned First Nations…The Government of Quebec has not only the obligation to take into account the rights of all First Nations affected by the Plan Nord, but it also has the responsibility to engage in true dialogue with all First Nations in Quebec, including subjects like wealth-sharing, co-management and royalties. I am still waiting for a phone call from Jean Charest.”
Specifically, Picard is protesting on behalf of some Innu communities who are still in the process of working out a land claims agreement with Quebec. There is a split among the Innu, as several communities have essentially signed on to the Plan Nord, while five others boycotted the ceremony on Tuesday. In this news video from the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, the differing reactions of various Aboriginal leaders are made clear in interviews.
Less controversial than natural resource development is labor training, which will also play a role in the Plan Nord. In decades past, many industries flew in workers from the South, but that has been changing recently with the increased emphasis on employing locals. Prime Minister Charest said at the program’s unveiling,
“The North has abundant, varied resources, but its principal asset is its population, noteworthy for its youth and desire to develop its environment. The populations in the territory that the Plan Nord covers are young and make up a substantial labour pool. Our government believes that it is necessary to rely on occupational training to guarantee their social and economic development.”
As such, manpower training will be an important component of the plan’s attempt to ensure that young Northerners become productive members of Northern Quebec’s economy. $80 million will be spent on manpower training, which includes constructing new training facilities and teaching people the skills required to win employment in the large mining industry, which is receiving $1 billion in new investment each year.
Aside from labor training, Plan Nord promises to build 500 new housing units in Nunavik over the next five years. However, Luc Ferland, the Parti Quebecois representative of Ungava and the official opposition critic for Northern Development, countered, “It’s not in five, seven or 10 years – [Nunavik] needs 1,000 housing units now. We have to act on this quickly.” Across northern Canada, housing is in short supply. Many people live in social housing, and in Northern Quebec specifically, only 2% of people are homeowners. A new plan to encourage home ownership also falls under Plan Nord.
The grand plan also allocates $1.2 billion for infrastructure development, including $821 million in road development. Constructing a deep-water port in Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuarapik on the Hudson Bay is also under consideration. These investments in infrastructure could certainly help the Aboriginal peoples if the money goes to the right places instead of to roads to nowhere, or just to roads to mines. But also of note is that the Plan Nord, and all of its investments in infrastructure, resource development, and people, could ultimately dovetail with the Northern Strategy’s plan to defend sovereignty in the North. Charest told the Financial Times,
“With global warming, a northern route is going to open up just on the tip of northern Quebec by 2030 or 2040…[The Plan Nord] is an affirmation of sovereignty, and we are very, very conscious of the fact that we need to occupy our territory.”
Not just occupy the territory, but develop it as well. In the words of Stephen Harper, “Either we use it or we lose it.”
Plan Nord (Official PDF)
“The grand plan for Quebec’s North,” The Globe and Mail
“If Quebec delivers, Plan Nord’s good news, say MNA, MP,” Nunatsiaq Online
“Quebec to spend billions to develop Northern resources,” New York Times
“Plan Nord: ‘Incomplete process for First Nations’ – Chief Ghislain Picard,” APNQL Press Release
“Nunavik to get 500 new homes under Plan Nord,” Nunatsiaq Online
“Quebec seeks investors in energy, mining projects,” Wall Street Journal