Like his Liberal predecessor, Robert Bourassa, Charest clearly hoped to use a vision of northern riches to his political advantage in the election only he knew he would call later that fall. Thus, very little was said until the election was called a month and a half later.

On November 15 he finally announced that part of his plan would include protection for at least 50 per cent of the north from mining, hydroelectric and forestry exploitation, and the creation of five provincial parks – should he be reelected, of course.

Though the full plan will not be released until later this winter, what Patrick Nadeau has seen of it so far concerns him. Nadeau is the forestry coordinator for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and he says government forestry policy is currently undergoing a thorough revision.

For, as much as Nadeau’s group applauds the idea of protecting half the North, he says the policy could be either, “A, globally significant or, B, smoke and mirrors.”

According to the plan, 7 million hectares of the land to be set aside, or 12 per cent of the north, will be protected up to international standards – meaning that even tourism activities would be banned from those areas along with all other industry. As for the other 38 per cent, that land would remain protected from every other industry from hydroelectric development to mining, but tourism-related projects would be permitted. Who would be permitted to exploit those tourism opportunities is still not clear.

“When [Charest] goes and specifies 12 per cent up to international standards and then another 38 per cent where there is not going to be any industrial activities we questioned as to why that was being split into two different categories,” said Nadeau.  “We are really not sure with what is going on with the other 38 per cent.”

Charest’s Plan du Nord also comes hot on the heels of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s announcement this past summer that 50 per cent of Ontario’s Northern Boreal Forest would be protected from any new natural resource

development projects.

“The primary difference between this and the Ontario plan is that when Charest spoke of conservation in respect to the Plan du Nord it was during the election campaign. What he released recently for the first time was numbers. The conservation plan would happen north of the 49th parallel and already there is a big difference because the 49th parallel is quite a bit below the cut line in Quebec,” said Nadeau.

The area that Charest is talking about is a region defined as above the 49th parallel or north of Lac St. Jean.

The Ontario conservation plan is geared solely at land above the cut line in Ontario, leaving the entire southern half of the Ontario Boreal forest open to provincial logging practices. In terms of forestry the Ontario announcement was almost a moot point in the sense that there never were any logging practices in the northern Boreal forest in Ontario anyway. The southern half of the Boreal forest is where the logging occurs and operates under loose standards.

A red flag for the Cree is in the term Charest used: that he planned on “occupying” the North when it came to economic and natural resource development. The comment had many First Nations leaders, including the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Chief Ghislain Picard up in arms.

The Ontario plan at least speaks of involving First Nations communities when it comes to deciding on land uses, something that Charest has yet to even touch upon.

“Certainly, the way Charest has been talking, the vocabulary he is using certainly does not indicate that he is considering that, but I think he is going to be forced into that position quite quickly,” said Nadeau.

According to Nadeau, a large part of what spurred the Ontario announcement was First Nations groups expressing discontent on government land use policies, particularly regarding mining projects. With the Ontario deal, there will be no new forestry or mining projects in the area without the consultation or approval of the First Nations groups in the area.

“All we have heard in Quebec is the opposite and now Charest has just named Pierre Corbeil as Native Affairs head and that does not seem to be floating so well with First Nations because he does not have a very good reputation with them. Pierre Corbeil is also going to be the minister responsible for the Plan du nord. So we are not sure what kind of a signal that sends,” said Nadeau.

Chief Picard has also questioned Charest’s motivations in the promotion of Pierre Corbeil to the position. In a recent press release Picard stated, “As Minister of Natural Resources in a past Charest government, the new Minister Responsible for Aboriginal Affairs, Pierre Corbeil, amply demonstrated his total incapacity to understand and treat adequately matters related to First Nations.”

When it comes to the actual 12 per cent of northern lands that Charest announced would be protected up to international standards, Nadeau mentioned that some of the projected protected parks are actually projects that have already been established.

The Assinica Cree Heritage Park proposal in Ouje Bougoumou was mentioned as a possible area to be protected under the Plan du nord.

“That was back from Paix des Braves and that was promised to the Cree through it. When he is talking about the Plan du Nord he said that he will create this Assinica Park and I am sorry but that is already part of a previous deal,” said Nadeau.

For as much as Charest might be pointing at an old project as a new endeavor, Nadeau does not necessarily see the entire scenario as negative. As Quebec’s Liberal government will most likely have no choice but to consult the Cree Nation when it comes to projects on their land, with this knowledge the Cree may be able to negotiate some new protected areas within the Cree territory.

“Wemindji is working on this really cool marine protected area proposal and Waswanipi is looking at the northern part of their trap lines because there is lots of virgin forest there too. But, at the same time it is going to be a matter now of having more of a regional coordination for these communities so that when the government comes a knocking they will have something to say and put forward,” said Nadeau.

Though Charest’s Plan du Nord might have environmental connotations, it is also, thus far, devoid of any mention of the “carbon warehouse” contained within Quebec and Ontario’s Boreal Forest region and the endangered wildlife that exists within the area.

Carbon was the big buzz word when McGuinty announced the Ontario plan and a major part of it was about not disturbing the intense amount of carbon contained in that soil which would be released by any mining, forestry or road construction project in the area. Charest has yet to touch upon the subject.

“In Ontario when McGuinty made the announcement he specifically said we are going to protect 50 per cent and do it with First Nations and are going to target areas that are known to be carbon warehouses for one and then secondly areas that are habitats for woodland caribou and other endangered species,” said Nadeau.

Though the Quebec government has launched studies on recovering its endangered species, action has yet to be taken. According to Nadeau, in the earlier portion of the decade the government performed a study and drew up a proposal written by experts, academics, government and industry to help the woodland caribou population recover. The plan itself was supposed to stand from 2005-2012.

“The plan explained what to do to recover the species, what kinds of habitats they needed to protect and all of that. So the plan exists but now Charest’s government is sitting on it and they have been sitting on it for the two years. So now, here we are in 2009 and we are half way through this period of supposed caribou recovery and we have not done anything yet,” said Nadeau.

While Nadeau and the rest of the province are still waiting for Charest’s other shoe to drop when it comes to the Plan du Nord, he and his colleagues at CPAWS are still hopeful about the plan.

“If it’s actually well done and if we can somehow manage to protect 50 per cent of Northern Quebec that would be absolutely huge, that would be one of the biggest protected areas in the world!” said Nadeau.