Ooh la la: is Plan Nord becoming Plan Non? – Northern Miner Editorial (August 20 – 26, 2012)

The Northern Miner, first published in 1915, during the Cobalt Silver Rush, is considered Canada’s leading authority on the mining industry.

In the world of mine development and its outsized scales of size, time and money, there’s always this thought in the back of the mind while listening to any promoter’s pitch: “Well, it may never happen.”

This was the case with Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s $80-billion, multi-decade pro-mining Plan Nord northern development program, which went way beyond the mandate of a parliamentary government and its typical four- to five-year lifespan.

On the other hand, the Quebec government’s track record in realizing the vast James Bay hydro-power development over several decades and changes in governing party shows there can be the will to get big things done in Quebec’s Far North, regardless of who holds the reins in Quebec’s National Assembly.

However, the increasing likelihood that the provincial government in Quebec will change in September has cast new doubt on whether the premier’s ambitious plan will ever be made real.

Charest, who has been Quebec’s premier since 2003 and leader of the federalist Quebec Liberal Party since 1998, called the snap general election on Aug. 1, and Quebecers will vote on Sept. 4.

The Liberal government, now angling for a fourth term, is widely viewed as tired and tainted by whiffs of corruption, and Charest’s personal approval ratings dipped as low as the mid-teens last year. This past year has been particularly messy politically with adult student activists repeatedly rioting in city streets to protest modest tuition hikes.

Charest and his Liberals are trying to position themselves as the province’s best economic stewards, while the soft-separatist Parti Québécois is making healthcare improvements a main election plank.

With the election just weeks away, the PQ leads widely in the polls, with the Liberals in second spot and the newbie, relatively centre-right party Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for Quebec’s Future) trailing in third.
In resource-rich Quebec, mining often pops up as a provincial election issue. In early August, Charest told supporters on the campaign trail that he would use mining royalties from Plan Nord to help pay down the provincial debt.

The Charest government has already jacked up its tax rate on mining profits to 16% from 12%, but the PQ is proposing to replace all that with a 5% tax on the value of minerals extracted.

PQ opposition member and mining critic Martine Ouellet said a new PQ government would “redo” Plan Nord, arguing that the current governemnt is giving away the province’s natural resources for next to nothing. She told the Canadian Press that a PQ government would raise mining royalties, carry out more environmental reviews, ensure more mineral processing is done in-province, and spend less money to help private companies.

More specifically, the PQ is looking to Australia’s new mining taxes as a model, and is proposing a 30% tax on all mining profits above 8%. It is also considering axing some of the $2 billion in current northern infrastructure spending that will only help private companies.

The CAQ also vows to revamp Plan Nord, arguing it is too generous to foreign companies and Quebec-based ones that are tight with the ruling Liberals.

One of the quirks of Quebec politics is the long-standing and thoroughly politically incorrect support by the Quebec and federal governments of asbestos mining in the Eastern Townships. A once-booming industry in the province, asbestos is today represented solely by the suspended Jeffrey mine in the town of Asbestos. Jeffrey has recently received a $58-million loan from the Charest government to reopen as an underground operation beneath the gaping pit, employing about 400 people in the one-industry town.

The last asbestos production in Canada was from Jeffrey in 2010 — 150,000 tonnes worth $90 million — and almost all of it was exported to developing countries.

The CAQ’s leader François Legault pointedly said, with respect to asbestos mining in the province, that “exporting a toxic product is morally and scientifically indefensible . . . Quebec has to come to terms with an industry that’s stuck in the past.”

PQ Leader Pauline Marois said she deplores the way the loan was handled, but isn’t ready to ban asbestos exports.

So, we’ll see continued asbestos mining in Quebec for at least a few more years, greenies and health professionals be damned.