You know something big is afoot when a considerable smattering of sharp-dressed young people brave subzero temperatures early on a Saturday morning in the middle of winter. That was the case on the morning of February 11 at McGill University’s Chancellor Day Hall. Everyone was on hand to hear different takes on the Plan Nord, the controversial $80 billion development blueprint drawn up by the Charest government.

The talk, sponsored by an environmental outreach initiative of Hydro-Québec, gathered chiefs, lawyers and academics on a pair of panels. It attracted spectators from many walks of life, all curious to hear hard facts about the Plan beyond its much-touted financial potential.

“I keep hearing a lot about this Plan Nord,” said Pamela Meloni, a warmly-dressed 20-something. She’s Belgian and doing an internship with the Réseau québécois des groupes ecologists (RQGE). “I wanted to learn the Native perspective, which I’ve never heard before.”

She was not disappointed. The talk began with the traditional custom of acknowledging the people of the territory on which a gathering takes place. The Elders say the land we now call Montreal is a place of trade, and trade they did. Quips, points, counterpoints and other forms of occasionally tense but mainly civil discourse followed.

At opposite ends of the spectrum were Harry Tulugak of Puvirnituq, strong detractor of the Plan, and fervent defender John Paul Murdoch, a Wemindji-based lawyer. Tough questions and complex challenges about the future of the north were picked apart, chief among them being who gets what, who wins and who loses.

“If 50% of the land is being preserved, does that mean 50% of the land is being destroyed?” asked Tulugak during his panel discussion, in reference to the Plan’s aim of leaving half the north untouched. “There are always going to be winners and losers when talking about economic development. It’s potentially wonderful but potentially terrible.”

Tulugak, long-time advocate for greater autonomy in his home region of Nunavik, made several references to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). The agreement – “spilled milk” Tulugak said he has cried over for many years now – laid the foundation for the Plan Nord. A fervent believer in the traditional Inuit value of sharing, he claimed to see little of it in the Plan.

“In 1975, the Cree and Inuit surrendered the land,” he said referring to the JBNQA. “Sharing was the principle which made us survive. Who owns the land? Where is the sharing? We’re losing this fantastic principle which made us survive. We are not going to be spectators anymore.”

After a break, the discussion continued with a panel on the Plan Nord in action. Murdoch went to great lengths to tout the potential benefits of the Plan. In the interests of full disclosure, he did admit that Charest wrote the letter of recommendation that got him into law school.

Murdoch spoke at length about his uncle, Billy Diamond, and the positive developments he helped foster. Describing the late chief as “loud and proud – in that order” to appreciative laughter from the audience, he saw the Plan as a continuation of Diamond’s work.

“I’m a fan of the Plan because it puts a value on the north,” Murdoch said. “We [the Cree of Eeyou Istchee] have a right to sit at a table and negotitate with a CEO from Australia or Montana. The expectations on the government are high, and without political will it’ll be like picking water up with your hands.”

Blasting the concept of Native consultation as “naive” and “insulting”, Murdoch called for a more concrete stewardship of the land with greater Aboriginal involvement. Regarding sustainable economic development, he made an analogy to illustrate the harmonized financial concerns with the state of the land.

“It’s a case of Mad Men guys versus LL Bean guys,” said Murdoch, comparing company executives to the characters of the AMC TV series. “I can deal with the Mad Men guys but I’ll always need the LL Bean guys, too.”

Panelist Aurélie Arnaud, the Communications Officer of the Quebec Native Women group, was on hand to discuss the place of women in the Plan Nord. She took issue with Murdoch’s analogy, stating that anyone who watched the show would know it was not good for women. Some in the audience laughed, though the temperature of the room dipped a bit.

After the panel split up, a buffet from a Kahnawake caterer was laid out for all to eat. Tulugak’s words resonated as everyone shared these fruits of Native labour. The Plan Nord has the potential to nourish many in the same way – how it will happen remains to be seen.