There is no doubt that the political shift from the Liberals under Jean Charest to a Parti Québécois led by Pauline Mariois has created a different economic environment within Quebec.
In the PQ’s first week in office the former Liberal government’s much-prided “Plan Nord” for natural resource development in the north was being redubbed the “Plan Mort” by critics who think the sweeping changes of the new regime may scare off foreign investors and developers that had been previously gung-ho.
But is this really the case? Is the Plan Nord really “mort” or simply on hold?
The Nation spoke with Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come to see what is happening within the economic machine of the north in order to separate fact from fiction.
The Nation: Has the shift from Jean Charest’s government to a new PQ cabinet under Pauline Marois made for any changes for the plan for development in Eeyou Istchee in regards to the Plan Nord?
Grand Chief: That is yet to be seen. We will watch carefully to see how things unfold. The new government, and in particular the new Minister of Natural Resources, Martine Ouellet, has made some very disparaging comments about the Plan Nord as articulated by Jean Charest and the former Liberal government. For example, she has said that the Plan Nord was simply a marketing trick, that it was too favourable to the mining companies and it was too light on the social component of the plan as well as the infrastructure component.
Ouellet, however, has also said very clearly that her government intends to continue northern development, and she has specifically talked about having something like the “Société du Plan Nord”, the entity which the Liberal government created to coordinate northern development and which is already in the pipeline.
She has also talked about the PQ platform promise of increasing the royalties to the government coming from mining companies. To me, it seems that the new government intends to continue with the same general direction, but they may feel the need to put their own branding on it.
It is also very noteworthy that recently the media reported that Marois, in her discussions with leading French entrepreneurs, reaffirmed her government’s commitment to continue to develop the North while respecting the Indigenous and First Nations peoples who occupy the territory. And in fact, while in France, Marois and her entourage began using the phrase “Plan Nord” again in describing their government’s objectives. I fully expect that the new government will maintain a substantial initiative for the development of the North.
TN: The Plan Nord now keeps being referred to as the “Plan Mort”. From your perspective is this project really dead? Or is this just talk?
GC: It may be that the name, the slogan, “Plan Nord” is finished, but I cannot imagine that the new Quebec government will put a halt on the resource-development projects, which are proven to be feasible. Proponents of development projects will continue to work on their projects whether or not the provincial government tries to frame it as part of their own overall strategy and their own plan for the North. The development of the resources in the North, including in Eeyou Istchee, is driven by important factors in the global economy and the demand for raw materials particularly in emerging economies of the world, like China, India and Brazil. Resource development projects within Eeyou Istchee become possible not because a provincial government, of any political stripe, decides to have a plan. These projects are driven by primary business considerations.
TN: Is the Cree world still seeing as much economic activity and interest in the North as they did prior to the last election?
GC: There will always be ups and downs in an economy that relies on the development of natural resources. Right now, there appears to be a bit of a downturn in the scale of some of the mineral exploration occurring within Eeyou Istchee. This is primarily a result of a downturn in the economy of China, and the resulting decrease in the production of goods by that country. However, resource development is continuing, and there are new companies almost every day exploring for minerals within our territory. For the reasons which I mentioned before having to do with conditions of the global economy the general trend will likely see an increase in the global search for raw materials, and this will continue to have important ramifications for Quebec and for Eeyou Istchee for some time into the future.
TN: Was the Governance Agreement in any way contingent on the Plan Nord?
GC: When I came into office in 2009, there were two things that struck me. First, Premier Charest had just recently announced the Plan Nord, which would see an investment of some $80 billion over a 25-year period to support and facilitate the development of natural resources largely taking place within Eeyou Istchee. I also saw that there were problems with the governance regime within our territory, particularly with the MBJ (Municipalité de Baie James). I found that Quebec had transferred very important planning powers to this entity without consulting the Cree Nation. In effect, major levers for controlling what happens in the territory were transferred to the non-Native municipalities in the region and excluded the Crees. This happened in spite of the fact that the Crees form the majority of the region’s population and even though we occupy the entire territory. This was clearly not a situation that we could tolerate. I said at the time that this was a form of “apartheid” and that I would work hard to abolish the MBJ.
Early on, I met with Charest to discuss both issues – governance of the territory and the Plan Nord. I told him that the governance of the North needed to be fixed. I told him that economic development and governance are closely tied together. If the governance regime is not aligned with demographic realities, and the realities of Cree land use, then there was a danger that the Cree people would be excluded from accessing the benefits associated with economic development. Without the inclusion of the Cree Nation in the governance of the territory, we would not be able to support the Plan Nord. This is what I told Charest. He understood this, and it was on the basis of this understanding that we were able to successfully conclude our Governance Agreement. And yes, MBJ will be abolished.
TN: Will the Crees be seeing any political changes as a result of the provincial election?
GC: Internally, within the Cree Nation, I do not see any changes either politically or administratively as a result of the outcome of the recent Quebec election. We have our priorities, we have our vision, we have our objectives. These will not change. It may be that our strategies to move forward on our priorities will need to be looked at and adapted to the new political realities in Quebec, but we are essentially moving forward with Cree priorities. We have a Nation to continue to build and that will remain our focus.
TN: Have you spoken with Marois’ new government since the election? If so, what were the results of your discussions?
GC: As of the time of this interview, there has not yet been a date fixed for my first meeting with Pauline Marois. Just after the election results were announced I wrote to Marois to congratulate her as the first woman premier of Quebec. I told her that I look forward to working with her government, and that I also look forward to our first meeting.
In reply, Marois sent me a kind invitation to the inauguration of her cabinet, which I accepted. At this event, I had a chance to greet her personally and she told me that her government’s relationship with the Cree would be on a nation-to-nation basis. Further, she said she was looking forward to our first meeting and to continue to build upon past agreements.
The inauguration was also an opportunity to meet other ministers, including the minister of natural resources, minister of education, minister of health and minister of justice. I took that opportunity to inform them of the various Cree files and our expectations for partnership and continuing to build a good working relationship with the government.
I am confident that this first meeting will take place very soon, and I am expecting it to be positive.
TN: If you haven’t spoken to the new government, what issues will you be looking to address with them upon meeting?
GC: When that first meeting with Marois takes place, I will express the Cree view that we are willing and ready to work with any government that shares our vision of development within Eeyou Istchee, and that is prepared to work for the collective benefit of the Cree Nation, Jamésiens and all Quebecers.
In particular, I will emphasize the importance of having an effective process in place to ensure proper implementation of our Governance Agreement. Our communities are waiting for this, and the Jamésien municipalities are waiting for this as well. This must be a priority and it must be done well. Additionally, when we developed our “Cree Vision of Plan Nord”, we set out a list of projects which we expect to be implemented as part of any northern development thrust, regardless of what slogan or banner it takes place under. These projects include housing, transportation infrastructure and energy projects. I will bring these projects to Marois’ attention.
I will also mention to Marois that our vision of northern development requires that any development within Eeyou Istchee meet our standards of social acceptability and that projects must have our prior consent and result in benefits for our communities. I will reiterate that the Cree Nation must be involved as full partners in any development plan for Eeyou Istchee.
TN: The Cree Nation has been focused on education and training to ensure that Crees will be able to have full participation in the work place. Will there be any changes made to the programs now that certain projects may not go through?
GC: As stated, it is my view that regardless of the ups and downs of the global economy, the general trend will be for a greater demand for resources within Eeyou Istchee. We must prepare ourselves to take full advantage of this future. It is my intention to increase our focus on the enhancement of skills, training and professional development of our Cree people. We must not, as a Nation, allow the opportunity to be truly the “masters of our own destiny” slip through our fingers. We are now, as a Nation, at a moment of historic opportunity to become the major economic and political force within our territory. To realize this opportunity we must rise to the challenge.
I will be spending considerable time in the coming months bringing this message to our people, and in particular, our youth. It will be up to our youth to take our Cree Nation to the next level and it will be up to our youth to learn what it means to genuinely be in control of Eeyou Istchee. I will be challenging our youth to be in the forefront of Indigenous governance and to take full advantage of the opportunities inherent in all of our major agreements with Quebec and Canada. This is really the next and most important challenge for the Cree Nation as a whole. We will all need to be on board with this initiative and we will all need to develop strategies and approaches to support our youth in achieving the opportunities presently before us as a young Aboriginal nation.
TN: If the current plan for mining development that was under the Plan Nord fizzles out, what would be your plan of action to stimulate the economy for the people of the Cree Nation?
GC: First of all, the Plan Nord was not just about mining development. It was a more comprehensive plan involving other economic sectors as well including tourism, forestry, energy, bio-food production, transportation, wildlife and protected areas. These are all sectors that we are interested in as well, and we will continue to explore opportunities in all of them. We are also very interested in the different kinds of infrastructure projects that will be needed to promote these sectors.
So there is a great deal of activity that we foresee and many sectors, some old and some new, that we anticipate being a part of. We will be supportive of projects in a wide range of sectors and which are in keeping with our approach to the rational and sustainable development of the region and which are in keeping with our approach to the requirement of social acceptability.