My assignment was to cover the Salon Plan Nord, held April 20-21 at Montreal’s Palais de Congrès. A publicity and business event with free entry for the public, the Salon was billed as an opportunity for the curious to “get all of the relevant information about this project that will span a generation”. It boasted a job fair, cocktail party, sets of personalized meetings and a “Strategic Forum” on natural resources in Quebec with an address by Premier Jean Charest.
On the opening Friday, I set out for the Salon with a lot of questions in mind. The Plan Nord is relatively popular in the Eeyou Istchee. Leaders from Grand Chief Dr. Matthew Coon Come on down believe it will help secure prosperity for the Cree people by allowing the Crees to use nation-to-nation negotiation to get rightfully compensated for allowing mining to take place on their land. This compensation will include, among other things, many job opportunities for Cree people in, or close to, their home communities.
The mine operators, meanwhile, are adamant that they do business differently than the mines that devastated Cree communities for much of the 20th century. Modern mine operators claim their pollution management systems are technologically advanced, and, as Nation editor-in-chief Will Nicholls verified in his investigation of Goldcorp Inc. in Nicaragua, in many cases they are telling the truth. While the interest of non-Aboriginal mining companies in Cree lands is still a cause for suspicion, it may not be the nightmare scenario some imagine it to be.
However, for other Aboriginal communities in Quebec, the prospects for the Plan Nord are not so rosy. While 26 of the 33 First Nations whose land would be affected by the Plan Nord have signed on to support it, some, like certain Innu communities, remain wholly opposed. Chief Raphael Picard of the Pessamit Innu Nation likened Quebec’s handling of the Plan Nord to colonialism, complaining that his people were being offered $350-million over 50 years for a project he felt should pay them $5-billion. Last summer, members of the Pessamit Nation blocked Highway 138 in protest over failed talks with the Quebec government; on March 5, Innu protesters again blocked Highway 138 to protest the damming of the Romaine River.
It is not only First Nations who are concerned about the feasibility of the Plan Nord. The Conféderation des syndicats nationaux (CSN) has a series of problems with the Plan, but Nation readers may be most troubled by the CSN’s argument that the 50% of northern land guaranteed protected may not be safe from contamination by the activities taking place on the other 50%.
Meanwhile, in mid-March, le Devoir published an article reporting that two studies had appeared that seemed to undermine the Charest government’s numbers on the Plan Nord. One study, by “strategic management consulting group” SECOR, affiliated with the Liberal government, reported that the Plan Nord would create 37,000 permanent jobs per year for its entire run – a number that le Devoir pointed out would add up to an unbelievable 925,000 permanent jobs in total. SECOR’s figures were hard to take seriously.
At the same time, a study by the Institut de recherche et d’information socio-économiques (IRIS), which le Devoir said was associated with “the young left”, reported that the Liberal party’s figures were faulty. Most surprising was IRIS’s contention that in return for generating $14-billion in tax revenues for the province, Quebec itself would have to spend between $16-billion and $24-billion. Among the strong questions raised by le Devoir was this: why should the province take in so little tax revenue from a project that will cost so much, even if it’s less than IRIS imagines? Last year in Quebec, le Devoir reports, mining firms took $8-billion in ore out of the earth, and paid the province less than 10% of the market price of that ore in taxes. It’s a huge question: why should the people of Quebec pay more – through their taxes, but also through their ancestral lands – to help these companies get richer, if the people footing the bill are seeing so little in return?
Most recently, the Radio-Canada television show Enquète secretly taped Liberal-affiliated organizer Pierre Coulombe (who previously worked for the Mulroney and Harper Conservatives) suggesting to an actor posing as an investor that he could provide insider information on the Plan Nord decision-making process in return for political and financial gifts to a friend who worked in the office of Mining Minister Serge Simard. This, too, has left a dark stain on the Plan Nord discussions.
All of these issues were firmly in my mind as I got on the métro for the Palais de Congrès, though also on my mind were the media reports that there had been battles earlier that morning between police and student protestors who wished to face Charest. Before the Salon had even opened, student strikers, along with environmental protestors, had arrived to picket the event, and at some point they became more aggressive, throwing rocks and paint-bombs at the Palais de Congrès’ windows. According to most reports police responded in kind, clubbing, gassing and generally attacking anyone in the vicinity, regardless of whether or not they had been involved in vandalism. Charest, meanwhile, joked about the protestors from his podium, saying that “we should give them a job in the North, as far north as possible”. It was the beginning of a weekend of protest and unrest, in which students were joined by environmentalists, union groups and Aboriginal opponents to the Plan Nord.
So as I stepped off the métro at Place d’Armes station, I was expecting the atmosphere to be tense. What I wasn’t expecting was to be immediately ordered by a line of police to get back on the métro car. I showed them my press card and they weren’t impressed; back on the train I went. At the next stop, I followed the sprinting young students with red felt squares attached to their lapels and was soon outside the Palais de Congrès.
There were a huge number of police: uniform cops from Montreal, riot cops from Montreal and riot cops from the SQ who wearing gasmasks and holding tear-gas grenade guns. Overhead, two police helicopters were keeping track of the action. My press card got me through the line of police, but when I approached the door of the Palais de Congrès, showed them my identification and said I was there to cover the event, they sent me packing, claiming that although the event was free for the public, I needed to have secured special permission for media before I could come in. No one else was being let in.
I walked around for a while checking doors, but those that weren’t locked tight were guarded by lines of police who were less sympathetic to my press card than their colleagues had been earlier. At the corner of Viger and St. Urbain, there was a large crowd, which I wandered around trying to find any sign of the 40 Innu representatives who had begun a 900-kilometre protest march to Montreal from their Nation a week earlier. They didn’t seem to be there, and I wondered if they had even made it.
There wasn’t much time to think that over, however, because though we were a crowd of a few hundred people standing around doing nothing in the chilly spring air, the police began to advance upon us and push us back. First they separated our crowd into two groups with a flying-wedge formation, and then they pushed us further and further up St. Urbain for no reason that anyone could see. Certainly nobody in the crowd had been doing anything wrong: a handful of people were shouting slogans, but from where I stood the bulk of people seemed to be bystanders, conference attendees who hadn’t been allowed in, and lost reporters like myself. That didn’t matter, however: they ordered us back 10 metres, stopped, then ordered us back again, holding the line with helmets and long batons at the ready. The crowd was pissed off – and why wouldn’t they be? They were standing on the street doing nothing. Some, like me, had a reason to be inside that had nothing to do with the protests and were incredulous that they weren’t allowed in. Others were trying to protest peacefully and didn’t see why they should be forced up the street by people with sticks.
Again, they pressed us back up the street. Then there was a moment of confusion, and they announced that they were retreating. They retreated 10 metres back the way they came; the crowd followed them. Ten more metres, and along we went. Finally, we were back where we started, having been marched backward up the street for no reason at all. Over the shoulders of the line of cops blocking the intersection, we could see the full might of the Montreal riot squad marching toward us, though, and this didn’t comfort anyone. Many of us turned and headed up the way we’d been forced, only to find two more squads of riot cops hemming us in.
I made it onto de la Gauchetière Street, which they seemed to be sealing off. It’s a narrow pedestrian street and even as I was hoping they wouldn’t tear-gas us, causing a panic in such narrow confines, I was also wondering if there was any way I would be able to write my story now. After a minute or so of walking away from the lines of cops, I returned to try to figure out what my next move should be. To my surprise, they were gone: all of them, the SQ riot police and the Montreal riot police alike. Within minutes, the whole crowd was standing on the corner where it had been before they forced us up the street, and virtually all the police who had been there had disappeared like smoke.
I headed to the door of the Palais de Congrès, figuring now I might get to do my interviews, but there were still helmeted police blocking the door, and they weren’t moved by my press credentials. In reverse order, I tried the various doors I’d checked on my arrival: still all blocked by police, none of them allowing me in.
At the end, two hours after my arrival, I was right where I had started, only that area was sealed off with police tape, so I couldn’t even get near the door to ask. None of my questions had answers, and I hadn’t even found the Innu representatives to hear them explain their positions in their own words. I walked back to the métro and wondered whether those who had gotten into the conference before the doors were sealed off were left with as many questions as I was.