"The Project of a Generation," said the official Plan Nord website [In French here and in English here]. Indeed it is going to be a project that will determine the fate of the next generation of Quebecers. It is a 25-year-long development plan, but its implication on Quebec's economy and environment will extend for decades, if not centuries, after the project wraps up. It is safe to say that the very people who are eager to see this plan materialize will never live to see its devastating impact on the environment.
Premier Jean Charest announced that the Plan Nord would bring in $80 billion in public and private money over the next 25 years. A project of this magnitude will make it the second largest mining development in the history of Canada, the first one being the tar sands development in Alberta. The Plan Nord ambitious plan to open up the largely untouched northern Quebec for mining, forestry, and energy developments brings to mind the image of Northern Alberta and its notorious Fort McMurray. However, we are told that this time the government has had years of study, consultation, debate, and discussion from all different parties. This time everything will be just fine. The government even paraded the fact that they have got the endorsement from the grand chief of the northern Quebec Cree, Matthew Coon Come, who 20 years ago led a successful struggle to stop the construction of Great Whale hydroelectric dams.
The government has also thrown in a few crumbs to gain the support of many environmental groups. It promises to set aside 50 per cent of the Plan Nord territory for non-industrial purpose and set up the creation of Assinica National Park Reserve. Upon learning these environmental concessions, many environmental groups, like the Canadian Boreal Initiative and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Protection Society, had praise for the project. However, protection of Quebec forest should have been the task of the government regardless of the Plan Nord. Thus, the Reserve is not a concession, but a trick to get people to accept the destruction of the other 50 per cent unprotected territory.
Behind all the rhetoric put forward by the Quebec government on how they will protect the environment, we can get a more honest assessment on the environmental impact of the Plan Nord from the recent survey done by The Economist. The survey asks The Economist readers "Will Quebec's Plan Nord help or hurt the province's environment?" 61 per cent says that it will hurt the province's environment. But who are the readers of The Economist? They are not your average Joes and Janes, or tree-hugging environmentalists. Influential executives and policymakers, who earn an average of $175,000 and have an average net worth of nearly $1.7 million, make up the readers of this magazine. High-ranking business people and politicians understand full well that the Plan Nord will destroy Quebec's environment, and nice words about environmental sustainability are only to lull the general masses.
Furthermore, for Jean Charest, the Plan Nord is more than just an investment plan to open up the North for mining and forestry industries. It is a plan to win back popular support after being crowned as the most unpopular government in the history of Quebec, with an approval rating of 30 per cent. Job, more jobs, and even more jobs. These are the mantras of the Plan Nord. In a province with a forecasted anemic growth of 1.8 per cent this year, compared to the nation average of 2.7 per cent, and an unemployment rate of 7.7 per cent coupled with heavy tax hikes that began last year, these mantras could resonate well amongst Quebecers.
Aside from environmental concerns, we ought to ask who will benefit most from the Plan Nord. With a meager 1.5 per cent effective royalty, mining companies are projected to rake in enormous profit from stripping the northern region. The government also has to use public money to the tune of $2.1 billion to build the necessary infrastructures that will allow private-sector mining and forestry companies to reap the wealth of Quebec's North. It is moving heaven and earth to bring in private investors. In the next few months, Premier Jean Charest will be touring the world to woo financiers and businessmen for his ambitious Plan Nord. This is another blatant case of a government working not for the people's welfare but for the bottom line of big corporations.
The wealth of Quebec needs to be developed by the people of Quebec. Only in this manner, we can have a more responsible development that will respect the environment and the indigenous communities, and ensure that the wealth of Quebec is not siphoned off to big corporations -- foreign or domestic -- but used for social investments: education, health care, childcare, pension, etc. Amir Khadir of Quebec solidaire is proposing to have the public sector develop Quebec's mineral wealth and stretch out the resource extraction over 75 or 100 years. These are definitely correct proposals. A publicly run Plan Nord, with direct representation and participation of Quebec working people, will be a genuine "Project of a Generation" that can ensure the future of Quebec economy and environment for decades or even centuries to come.
Ted Sprague is an independent journalist based in Montreal. He is also the editor of La Riposte, the journal of La Tendance Marxiste Internationale, a collective within the Quebec solidaire. He can be reached at .