COMMENTARY: Exploitation in disguise – Plan Nord is unfair and unsustainable – by George Ghabrial (McGill Daily – March 16, 2015)

Plan Nord is an economic development project for Northern Quebec originally introduced by Jean Charest’s Liberal government in 2011. After a 19-month hold during the tenure of the Parti Quebecois, the plan was revived by Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard in 2014. Despite the official rhetoric, the government’s current approach to northern Quebec land and its Indigenous inhabitants is economically self-serving and environmentally destructive.

The plan is the second-largest mining development project in the history of Canada, just after the tar sands development in Alberta. If successful, 72 per cent of Quebec’s land will be transformed over 25 years. The aim is to develop the region to facilitate resource extraction and to make profit. The plan also entails developing infrastructure in northern Quebec, such as roads, airports, hydroelectric facilities and housing.

Couillard calls it “an exemplary sustainable development project,” and a report in Canadian Mining Journal estimates it will create and sustain 20,000 jobs, as well as $80 billion in public and private investment: $47 billion to renewable energy and $33 billion to mining and infrastructure. Bringing jobs to Northern Quebec is an aspect the government is particularly keen to stress; however, Quebec’s mining industry stands to benefit most.

The government does have a fund of $1.2 billion set aside for infrastructure development, but this is mainly meant to make it easier for mining companies to access resource-rich areas. Moreover, since the program’s revival in 2014, the government has been offering economic incentives for Quebec-based mining companies. Because the Quebec government is effectively subsidizing interested contractors, the plan has managed to attract the interest of both domestic and global mining companies.

While job creation for under-developed regions is good, the government’s plan has serious and potentially harmful problems. The way the government is treating Northern Quebec’s Indigenous communities under the plan is a particularly acute problem. As it stands, Plan Nord targets resource-rich areas that will generate the most money, which will almost certainly result in huge wealth disparities between different Indigenous communities. However, if the argument is to develop northern Quebec, everyone should be included equally. What’s more, the fact that Canadian mining companies have a history of exploiting the communities in which they operate is troubling.

The other question to ask is why the government is pursuing infrastructure development only in tandem with resource extraction. Compared with non-Indigenous land, many of the areas that Plan Nord targets suffer from a lack of infrastructure. The land is only really being developed now in the pursuit of profit, and as it stands, many Indigenous communities won’t see any, anyway.

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