Quebec's grand new project, the Plan Nord, brings with it both big expectations and significant challenges. Not only is it presented as the most ambitious project in the history of Quebec, but it is supposed to assure development for all the different communities in the province through the wealth that the natural resources of the north of the Quebec can provide. In other words, it could be a life changing project for the region’s residents.
Plan Nord is a 25 year project that aims to develop the land base of Quebec north of the 49th parallel, St. Lawrence River, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence (72% of the total geographic area of Quebec or 320,000 km2). The area encompasses most of the natural resources in the province and less than 2% of the total population of Quebec. Since it is an area rich in energy, mining, tourism potential the Plan Nord is meant to attract and to promote substantial investments in new developments. At the same time, it has a stated aim to protect 50% of the land covered by the Plan. Premier Jean Charest says that the Plan was developed with committees made up with leaders from the private sector and representatives of First Nations and northern communities. These groups are supposed to continue participating and contribute to the success and sustainability of the project.
In exchange, Plan Nord promises to solve three key problems that northern citizens face: housing, employment and quality of life through an anticipated investment of $80 billion and the creation of 20 000 jobs per year during the life of the project (Plan Nord, p. 6). In order to gain the support of environmental groups, the government has also promised the creation of new protected areas including the Assinica National Park Reserve. Many environmental groups have, however, expressed concern over the definition of protected area that the Plan uses.
The way the government has presented the plan as a non-stoppable project and the responses of Premier Charest to critics of the plan make it seem that accepting Plan Nord will be the only way for northern communities to get the government to deal with their pressing social issues. There should be a space to debate the application of the plan but in general the population has no voice unless the plan is accepted in the first place. As discussed in the Forum Plan Nord, the promise of development is conditional (December 5, 2011). This establishes an unequal arena of interaction between the government and the citizens because it implies that the northern people have rights and only deserve to be considered because of value to the province that comes from the rich lands where they live.
This conditional engagement is feeding distrust and despite the agreements achieved with some nations such as the Cree, the government is facing a lot of scepticism and opposition to the Plan. Innu women recently expressed their opposition to the Plan through a march from their homeland Nistassinan in eastern Quebec to the capital. In Montreal student protestors took to the streets in solidarity with the Innu on Earth Day. The Chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador has also expressed concerns.
The Inuit of Nunavik are concerned about the degree of economic benefit that they will get out of the proposed extractive activities. A concern shared by the Coalition Québec meilleure mine and MiningWatch who have pointed out the low royalty rates in Quebec (among the lowest in the country), cannot assure that the province will get a fair return. Beyond just the amount of money is the issue highlighted by University of Laval sociologist Gerard Duhaime, that is, whether any money will remain in the northern communities (Nunatsiaq Online, Oct 5th, 2011). Northern people want to make sure that the companies will hire locals but also, that the profit will benefit the broader population and not only the private sector. In this regard, many voices such as Martin Ouellet, the Official Opposition critic on mining and shale gas, are saying that even if the economic goals promised by the government are be achieved, most of the wealth will go to private hands.
If the promises of social inclusion and development for the northern communities are based on assumed investments in extractive industries by the private sector, a community could think that the level of development assistance they could anticipate will rely on how much they are willing to give up in terms of the use of their natural resources. The more they consent to industrial developments the more they can aim to be part included in the Plan. This means that we can expect tensions and incongruities regarding the goals of the private sector and the needs of the northern population.
As a result of these facts, Plan Nord has started with many promises, but has created distrust from the people who are supposed to benefit from it. The idea of having ambitious integrated projects has potential and as the promoters of Plan Nord say, could even be life changing. However, this change may not be necessarily positive if it relies heavily on the private sector to decide the future of the communities. In order to be successful such an ambitious plan needs to assure equal participation, social and economic benefits and respect for the decisions and sometimes, the disagreements of the people living there. When facing tensions it must be clear what the priorities and goals are. The project should not left to be shaped by the investments of international extractive corporations but by the social commitment and agreements of Quebec with its citizens.