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Plan Nord: A Model for Sustainable Development

By Will Becker

On Tuesday June 23, World Policy Institute and the Government of Québec held a private breakfast and discussion featuring the Premier of Québec, Philippe Couillard. The event was part of the Arctic Deeply Roundtables initiative, which seeks to engage leading experts and investors on the most pressing issues of our time, including sustainable development in the region.

Couillard began the discussion by outlining Québec’s capacity for Arctic development. The province holds 3 percent of the world’s renewable freshwater, which has already been put to sustainable use through its hydroelectric industry. Ninety-eight percent of energy in the region now comes from this hydroelectricityand many Québecois companies boast of their wind power capabilities as well. Currently, Québec is home to several specialized centers like the TechnoCentre Éolien, which focuses on wind power, as well as the Canada Research Chair on Nordic Environment Aerodynamics of Wind Turbines (ÉTS), the Anti-Icing Materials International Laboratory (UQAC) and the Wind Energy Research Laboratory (UQAR). And there is tremendous room for growth across this sector.

After laying out the province’s capabilities, the Premier’s presentation focused on Plan Nord, the Québec government’s proposal to develop the Québécois region north of the 49th parallel. The plan encourages sustainable development, particularly in the more remote areas of the province that are rich in resources but currently lacking infrastructure and investment.

Joe Cari, Philippe Couillard, and Sherle Schwenninger

Plan Nord is extensive in scope. Under the plan, the Government of Québec will support development on 745,645 square miles of territory, the equivalent of two Texases. It will center on building digital (telecom and Internet access) and physical (roads and mining/energy industry) infrastructure. Couillard confirmed the newly created Société du Plan Nord would coordinate the development of the plan and that Investissement Québec would work with private investors to finance it. The government-run financing corporation – which describes itself as a type of bank that undertakes higher risk investments than others – assures that investment in the Québécois region does not rely solely on subsidies. Instead, the government will become a ‘partner’ in investment, and carefully advise development in the region. As of 2015, 17 public and private mining projects are already in the appraising/development phase in Plan Nord and could generate more than $22 billion in investments. By 2035, that amount of investment is projected to reach $50 billion.

Couillard plans to implement Plan Nord in cooperation with the First Nations indigenous to Québec’s northern territory, including the Naskapi, Cree, Algonquin, and Innus. In order to secure their cooperation, 50 percent of the total territory will be protected from industrial activity. The Boreal Forest Conservation Framework, which aims to sustain both the cultural and ecological integrity of the region, will spearhead these protection efforts. Moreover, he explained that any mining or exploitation of natural resources included in Plan Nord will be done responsibly and in complete collaboration with the people who live there. But in spite of these positive steps forward, some challenges remain.

A number of the First Nations have not signed the 1975 James Bay Treaty. The treaty is an agreement between the Government of Québec and the Cree, Inuit, and Naskapi, which places the land in Northern Québec into three different managerial categories. In the first category, 8,699 square miles of land falls entirely under indigenous control. But almost 60 percent of the total land under the James Bay Treaty, or 564,205 square miles, falls under the jurisdiction of the Government of Québec. This area does not require First Nation consent for Plan Nord to move forward. However, the government still needs to negotiate with several indigenous groups not covered by the treaty, in order for the entire project to proceed.

Despite the challenges of negotiating with so many different parties, Couillard said he remained optimistic. He noted that Québec’s changing natural environment might in fact provide new opportunities for development. Couillard explained that climate change could provide new economic opportunities—melting ice caps in the Arctic could generate new shipping and trade opportunities, allow for the expansion of the clean-energy sector, and encourage infrastructure construction in previously inaccessible areas. In fact, 70,000 jobs have already been created in clean energy and climate adaptation sectors, according to Couillard, and Plan Nord stands to continue that upward trend.

Couillard’s overall portrait of Plan Nord is one that promises great rewards yet remains complex in its breadth and potential magnitude. In short, though the program faces challenges in its implementation, it has emerged as one of the most attractive investment opportunities in North America and as a leading model for sustainable development. His optimistic vision demonstrates that Québec and Arctic states alike can achieve productive, profitable development while adequately addressing the negative environmental and cultural impacts that have normally been associated with large-scale development projects. Though inevitably compromises will have to made, Couillard assured the audience on Tuesday morning that Plan Nord would work to minimize any harmful outcomes.

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Will Becker is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal. 

[Photos by Westerly Gorayeb]

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