Blog Entry

Plan Nord: The North challenges Charest government

By Frédéric Dubois

The month of May is almost over. In Quebec it's been a month marked by massive student demonstrations, mass arrests and tens of thousands of kids in pajamas and septuagenarians on their balconies hitting wooden spoons on pots and pans. May 2012 will be remembered in Québec as a month where a strong 3-month student strike turned into a general social movement.

The month of May may also prove to be a game-changer for the mining industry in Québec. Underreported in the mainstream media, one event should be looked at to understand why opposition to Charest’s aggressive resource extraction agenda has shifted in Québec. The Forum Plan Nord 2012 – The North Matters took place in Québec City at the beginning of May. The event brought together about 300 people from distinct sectors - environmental groups, women groups, First Nations communities, universities, unions, and many more. Even a few civil servants and company representatives attended. But unlike most conferences about mining, this one was organized by a First Nations group. The Sustainable Development Institute of the First Nations of Québec and Labrador timed the conference to underline the first anniversary of Jean Charest's unilateral announcement of the Plan Nord.

The Plan Nord is a mega-development project initiated by the government of Québec for the northern regions of the province. Public investment-wise, it comes only second to Alberta's tar sands.  It is essentially a marketing and political plan to fast-track global mining corporations interested in extracting iron ore, gold, uranium, diamonds and other natural resources from the territory of Québec, north of the 49th parallel. It is the "project of a generation", as Jean Charest put it to the people of Québec in May 2011, forecasting investments of $ 80 billion over the next 25 years. Most of those investments will come from infrastructure such as power lines by the province's public utility Hydro-Québec, roads by its Ministry of transportation, but also train tracks and ports by a special Plan Nord Fund under the responsibility of Investissement Québec (iQ). The Plan Nord is a legacy project that, according to Ghislain Picard, Québec regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, " will probably just profit the Québec Liberal Party's next election campaign."  

The Forum Plan Nord, whose subtitle was "Towards a sustainable development of our communities – Aboriginal and Québécois perspectives", managed to connect the dots between the North and the South. When the respected accountant Jacques Fortier of Montréal's HEC business school said, "We don't need to develop projects at the speed they are proposed under the Plan Nord", the audience in the packed hotel room started clapping. The French word for speed, “precipitation” became the most frequently mentioned word at the Forum. It is also the key word in the economic study Who profits from the Plan Nord?, released on March 14, that Fortier mentioned over and over. Interestingly, beyond a critique of how the Plan Nord is being handled, the study concludes that the mega-development will essentially profit the corporate sector and create a net loss in the books of the government of Québec.

The belief that the Plan Nord will fail to benefit Québec society is  widespread. Its failure is emphasized by the Québec Auditor General who in 2009 showed  that many mining corporations have not paid a cent in royalties. While the rate was 12% it is applied to profits so the average return to Quebec was 1.5% of gross production values. Since the report came out, Jean Charest's Liberals have augmented the rate to16% of profits. "Yes, we improved the royalty regime," recognized Ugo Lapointe of the progressive mining coalition Québec Meilleure Mine, "but more than 50% of companies have again not paid royalties in 2010." There is nothing to create confidence in the economic model of the Plan Nord. Putting it more bluntly, environmentalist Christian Simard of Nature-Québec  believes that the Québecois and First Nations are taken hostage by the Plan Nord. "The Plan Nord follows  decisions that have been called by others, without evaluations, without harmonious planning." He argued that the only thing that’s going to be sustainable is the negative impact. Along the same lines, Lapointe insisted that "we should be the ones deciding what sector and what resources we want to exploit."

From a rational economic discourse - well represented at the Forum, the discourse progressively made way to more people-centered, real-life narratives and perspectives of the North, those of First Nations and Inuit in particular. An eye-opener for many, this switch in discourse became one of those rare collective emotional experiences where people started talking to each other with passion and respect for the inhabitants of the North.

"When we're talking Plan Nord, we fail to talk about the developmental time-lag of the region. Canada's rank on human rights is number eight. The First Nations of Canada would rank 76th if they formed a country," Michèle Audette commented. Audette, the President of Femmes autochtones du Québec, a group which has not yet taken a definite position on the Plan Nord, says that she remains very critical and is monitoring the social impacts of the "fly-in-fly-out" mining phenomenon. Workers are transported by the thousands to northern communities to work 12-hour shifts, two weeks in a row. Lacking time, many look for instant leisure activities. One of them, prostitution, is developing fast, pulling women into violence, poverty and racism, among other problems. "Where do women fit in to this project?" Audette asked.

For Salomé MacKenzie, Anishnabe Chief from the Simon Lake Algonquin Nation, close to the Temiscaming region, "the question is to know how we can reconcile mining development while preserving our heritage." Although not covered by the Plan Nord, her community's designated territory is surrounded by six probable mining projects. "In the fall of 2011, the Minister of Natural resources said that since we're south of the 49th parallel, there is no need to consult with us," she recounted. In fact, four of her communities will be affected by mining projects supported by the Plan Nord. "We're not against development. But it has to be done with respect towards our rights and territory," she concluded. "The notions of indigenous territory, rights and resources have not progressed by on inch under the Charest government," Chief Picard added.

Maggie Emudluk, Chairperson of the Inuit Kativik Regional Government, explained that 42% of Nunavik – the northern tip of Québec – falls into Plan Nord territory. But since the Inuit of Nunavik communities do not feel they had been heard, they decided to create a plan of their own, the Plan Nunavik. "It is simply ensuring that what we do and the way we do it, improves on the social, cultural, economic and environmental conditions of the people who live in Nunavik,” the plan reads. "The Inuit are going through a social crisis," Lisa Qiluqqi Koperqualuk of the Saturviit Inuit Women's Association of Nunavik told the audience. "The Québec government says that the North is ready. But economic development can't happen to the expense of social and cultural well-being," she said, before concluding that there is a "lack of women Inuit voices on the Plan Nord."

When Réal MacKenzie, Chief of the Innu Nation of Matimekush-John Lake reached the microphone it was like a storm was brewing with thunder rolling. Representing the Innu in the region of mining town Shefferville, MacKenzie began with the story of his ancestors and stated that "we have become very mistrustful of promoters, of government policy, because we read our history." Calm but firm, his voice progressively took hold of the audience "They [the government] have continuously missed opportunities to honour their responsibility as a trustee, in education, in housing."

"It's funny how two years ago, I didn't exist. Since then, the phone doesn't stop ringing," said MacKenzie, hinting at the government's attempts to get his community to agree to a new railway track on its territory — which is part of the 95,000 sq. km Innu territory. "Now five mining companies have come knocking. This story with Mister Charest is not over yet. I will contest the Plan Nord because the people ask me to."

MacKenzie insisted that development plans must address social problems such as drug addiction and discrimination in the workplace - issues that disproportionately affect the Innu compared to the Québécois population, particularly in the context of rapid mining development. As the Forum participants were hanging on his every word, he dropped a phrase that resonated far and wide: "Without the consent of the nations of Québec, the Plan Nord is a Plan Mort." It is a dead plan.

The question now is whether the analyses, perspectives and proposals from the North will make it into the Québec public discourse and public policy. If we are to develop in a sustainable, democratic and collective manner, these Northern perspectives must be at the plans heart.

Frédéric Dubois is a Montreal-based reporter and producer. His attendance to the Forum Plan Nord 2012 has been made possible with the support of MiningWatch Canada.