Quebec will soon be facing a crucial provincial election, likely sooner than later, and probably early this autumn. As in any election campaign, a well-organized party will deploy a two-fold strategy of negative attacks against its opponents combined with a positive message of optimism that it hopes to sell on voters.
For Premier Jean Charest and the governing Liberals, the strategy was plain enough even before a big part of their campaign strategy was recently leaked to the media. According to the document, Charest will run against “la rue et le referendum” – against the student street protests and the separatism of the Parti québécois.
That’s not a big surprise for almost anyone in Quebec who isn’t in a coma. Charest has done everything possible to draw out this spring’s epic student strike and to goad protesters into actions that prove the need for a strong government – his, of course – to enforce social order. He hopes to draw a vivid contrast between his Liberals and the PQ’s support for those “violent and intimidating” protesters. And the Liberals, of course, have campaigned against separatism in every single election since the 1960s. Nothing new there.
What will be new, or newer, at least, is the positive message: the glowing economic promise of the Charest government’s Plan Nord. That’s the pitch the government is hoping will help the electorate forget the Liberal economic record of waste, scandal and corruption over the past nine years.
This is where the Cree can expect to play a supporting role in the political suspense drama now being written and rehearsed. The Liberals will expect a backdrop of smiling, cooperative extras for the tale they hope to spin this fall. We all know the Cree have been promised the moon, or at least some sizeable crumbs, from the mining frenzy that has a starring role in the Plan Nord. What worries them is that some folks might not play their parts as scripted in this modern-day Klondike.
We had a glimpse of that a couple weeks ago, when the community of Mistissini staged a remarkable display of solidarity against Strateco’s Matoush uranium mine project. The community spoke with a single voice in rejecting the project. This will become the major test of Quebec’s good faith toward the Cree and its willingness to accept Cree influence over development projects.
As the Canadian Boreal Initiative noted, the issue is whether this northern Quebec development plan will respect the principle of free, prior and informed consent, nation to nation, between Quebec and Aboriginal nations, as stated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Under Matthew Coon Come and previous Grand Chiefs going back to, well, the first incarnation of Grand Chief Coon Come, the Cree have agreed to cooperate in opening the territory to natural resource extraction projects. But, we are told, not at any price. What is clear is that uranium is off the table.
So Charest is in a bit of a bind. The federal government of Stephen Harper, of course, has adopted a bulldozer approach to environmental policy. Expect the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to give a green light to Matoush. The only thing standing in the way of Strateco’s shovels will be a person named Jean Charest.
In the current context, Charest is playing high-stakes poker with the future of many nations in a desperate attempt to maintain power. After three election victories and almost a decade in government, however, Charest’s Liberals are tired and used up, willing to employ any tactic or dirty trick to distract people from its sorry record.
So don’t expect a decision on the Matoush mine before the election. Should the Liberals be returned with a majority government, however, my feeling is that the Cree should start investing in household Geiger counters.
This is all a chapter in the epic saga of Quebec’s romantic vision of the North. As prominent Quebec thinker Louis-Edmond Hamelin said during a conference on sustainable northern development last week, the key to realizing the Plan Nord will be Quebec’s relationship with the First Nations who live there.
Hamelin called his concept the “total Quebec”, meaning that Quebec must develop the North before it can realize its potential and fully consolidate its sovereignty over the vast territory. But, because of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and other such treaties, Quebec will have to learn listen to and even to “love” Aboriginals if it expects to fully exploit the natural riches of the North.
It’s a bit of a contradiction. But we will find out how much love there is when a final decision comes down on the Matoush project. For the Cree, it could eventually mean that there will be a lot more than the economy that is glowing.