When Québec Premier Philippe Couillard presented his ambitious development plan for the province’s northern territory to a room full of potential New York investors last week, he was emphatic in declaring his concern and regard for the aboriginal communities in the region.
“The First Nations want development, but not just any kind of development,” Couillard said at a press conference following the event. He explained that the kind they want will contribute to the social development of their communities, provide decent jobs for their youth, and respect their traditional way of life. He also said that his government has been communicating with the First Nations “from the very beginning” of the project, to make sure that they are on board with the major changes that will soon be coming to their homelands.
“Plan Nord” is Québec’s new $50 billion development plan, focused on natural resources extraction in an area about twice the size of Texas. The region is home to over 120,000 people, of whom one third are aboriginals. Couillard’s concern for indigenous interests is well-intentioned as Québec begins to roll out its 20-year plan. But he is downplaying many of the conflicts that the project poses for aboriginal communities, and his stated aim of including them from the beginning has already hit rocky ground.
“We’ve always had difficulty engaging with the province,” said Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Québec and Labrador. “Today, I have to say that we’re not there yet. We feel that the government seems to really key in on principles, but practically it doesn’t really express itself the way we as First Nations would expect.”
Picard discussed Plan Nord in hesitant terms, explaining that it creates a tough situation for communities that are both desperate for economic opportunity and protective of their land after a colonial history that took much of it away from them. Canada’s First Nations fall far behind its non-aboriginal population with respect to educational attainment, average income, and even such basic measures as access to clean drinking water.
The national unemployment rate for First Nations was most recently reported at 18.3 percent, compared to 7.5 percent for the rest of the country. Couillard has promised that Plan Nord will bring jobs and educational opportunities to the region, but industrial development is not an easy solution in places where many people still rely on hunting and fishing, and where animals such as caribou can carry cultural or religious significance.
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