Although the Plan Nord has the potential to bring millions of dollars of investment into northern Quebec, and specifically Native communities, it seems as though some have come to see it as a way of making a quick buck.
In a statement released by the Chibougamau Chamber of Commerce on May 16, at least two local businesses have been approached by outside businesses asking them to produce fraudulent receipts for the contracts awarded in the construction of Route 167. These receipts would give the impression that contractors were buying much of their merchandise from Northern companies, one of the stipulations in the Route 167 contracts.
“There are incentives for companies working on Route 167 to buy merchandise from northern Quebec,” said Jo-Ann Toulouse, president of the Chibougamau Chamber of Commerce. “Contractors must get 40% of their materials from the North.”
According to Toulouse, these types of attempted fraudulent practices directly contradict many of the objectives and potential benefits that come with the $80 billion plan. She argues that these types of practices, in which businesses were offered a few thousand dollars to produce the receipts, bring significantly less money into the region than if companies would comply with the stipulations in the contracts being awarded.
“When you get these people coming in, and making these offers, it becomes an irritant,” she said. “Think of the investments that would come into the region if every company was forced to spend at least 40% of their budget in the North. It’s to everyone’s interest to cooperate and report these incidents.”
Geoffrey Kelley, Quebec’s Minister responsible for Native Affairs, although not familiar with this exact case, commented on the important role for Native communities in the development of northern Quebec and the partnership he envisions between First Nations peoples and the rest of Quebec.
“We want Native communities to profit from the economic engine that is the Plan Nord,” said Kelley. “What we want is for strong First Nations businesses to profit alongside other Quebec businesses.”
Kelley cited the recent Route 167 contract awarded to the Cree of Mistissini, in which the Cree were given responsibility of roughly a quarter of the road, in a contract worth over $70 million.
Kelley also urges businesses that are approached with these types of offers to reach out to the authorities.
“Fraud is fraud,” he said. “You can’t fraud the government, you can’t fraud the taxpayer. In the last few years, the government has adopted many ways of avoiding fraud. The government is determined to stamp out corruption at all levels of the industry.”
Toulouse applauds the businesses that came forward with information about these attempted bribes, but she says it would be naive to think that these fraudulent practices are not more widespread. Local businesses often find themselves afraid to miss out on the short-term money that comes with these types of deals.
“It’s been happening for years,” said Toulouse. “It’s difficult doing business in the North. You don’t want the money to run out. You don’t want the well to dry up. [For many businesses in the North], a little money on the side is better than nothing at all.
“This is happening,” she said. “This is illegal.”
Although these types of allegations are serious, and could lead to possible jail time for those offering bribes as well as the nullification of contracts, Toulouse says that there is not yet any hard evidence that this is happening.
“It is not a police issue at this time,” she said. “There is no burden of proof yet. We have approached the ministry of transport and have given them the information.”
Toulouse encourages anyone who is approached in this manner to come forward.
“I’m proud of those that are coming out,” she said. “I truly believe we can do extraordinary things if we cooperate.”