For Quebec Premier Jean Charest, it’s the political equivalent of a Hail Mary. It’s late in the fourth quarter in his lifelong game of political football, and his team is trailing. After 26 years of elected politics and eight years in power, one long pass for a legendary touchdown might guarantee his political legacy and place in history.
For many francophone Quebecers of a certain generation, the “North,” with a capital N, is a romantic notion. A wild, empty place with unimaginable riches waiting to be tapped, if only they could be accessed from the civilized south.
Well, Charest’s vaunted Plan du Nord, announced with great fanfare May 9, proposes to civilize the North in one fell swoop. An expensive swoop at that: he proposes spending $80 billion in the land of the Cree, the Inuit and the Innu to open the North up to huge mining, hydroelectric and forestry projects.
To do this, billions will be spent on access for the proverbial planes, trains, automobiles and other public infrastructure needed to support these industries. The biggest winner, in terms of these huge public subsidies, would be the mining industry. The Charest plan estimates $33 billion would be invested in the mining industry, which contributes next to nothing in comparison – royalties in the tens of millions only – to the public purse.
Politically, however, one can understand its appeal. While much of the rest of the Quebec economy is stagnating or generating slow growth, The North! (imagine flashing lights and a vaudeville performance highlighted by jazz hands) promises a bonanza of gold! Diamonds! Iron! Nickel! Electricity! Lumber!
If it all sounds a bit 19th century to you… well, you’d be right. It’s an updated version of yesterday’s dream, when the North was only something to be exploited. Now, there’s fancier packaging and jargon: nods to sustainable development, renewable energy, housing, training and so on. But the ownership regime of absentee landlords remains the same. The people who occupy those lands might get some trickle-down benefits, but are not seen as legitimate stewards of the resources so coveted by southern suitors with a gleam in their eye.
Which all makes Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come’s apparent enthusiasm for the project a bit unsettling. In great contrast to other First Nations leaders in northern Quebec, and even to the caution expressed by the newly elected NDP MP Romeo Saganash, Coon Come is going all in for the Plan du Nord, calling it a “new era.” And he promised that the Cree will do all they can to develop the territory in partnership with Quebec.
Said Coon Come of the Liberal government’s plan: “The Crees have gone from exclusion to inclusion.” We hope he is right. But we fear the unforeseen consequences of a new northern gold rush and the uncounted costs it may leave behind.
For his part, Quebec Assembly of First Nations Chief Ghislain Picard said Quebec has done little to negotiate with other First Nations and that his organization would refuse to participate until proper talks are undertaken.
The environmental community, meanwhile, is categorical. “It’s a framework for a mining boom,” said Christian Simard of Nature Quebec. Taxpayers will be on the hook for infrastructure investments that the mining industry itself should – and could – pay, given the high prices for natural resources on world markets. Simard called the Plan du Nord a plan for the subsidized “pillage” of public resources: “It’s a fire sale to attract the maximum number of companies.”
The truth probably will come somewhere in between. We know the Charest government has been talking up the Plan du Nord for several years now; Natural Resources Minister Nathalie Normandeau has toured the north several times recently promoting the project. So in many ways, this is just a “re-announcement” of the same vague plan, with a few more dollar signs attached to it. In reality, Charest is only draping pretty sheets over the business-as-usual practice of giving public money away to rich companies so they can become even richer exploiting public resources.
On the other hand, there may be real benefits for the Cree in terms of infrastructure, jobs, training and – let’s hope – royalties (though they won’t call it that because that would imply ownership). At its best, the renewable-energy component would involve significant wind-power development as well as hydroelectricity, giving Cree entities outright ownership of the means of production and a sustainable, green income source.
But let’s see this with clear eyes. The whole Plan du Nord is Charest’s stab at immortality in his last years of power. The clock is ticking down, he’s behind in the polls, and there