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Plan Nord: Québec's First Nations on the Fence

By Nellie Peyton

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.

When Plan Nord was first unveiled by Jean Charest’s government in 2011, it was met with immediate opposition from local communities and environmental groups. The new version, announced by Couillard this April, is somewhat scaled-down, but the essential elements remain the same. The plan is to expand Québec’s mining, forestry, and renewable energy sectors, promote tourism, create public infrastructure, and otherwise prepare the region, which extends into the Arctic, for potentially warmer days ahead. Couillard has said that 50 percent of the territory will be reserved for non-industrial purposes and environmental protection. However, it is not clear which 50 percent will be designated, or by whom.

Some of the potential land disputes were decided years ago. Of the four First Nations living in the area, three—the Inuit, Cree, and Naskapi—have agreements with the government dating back to the 1970s that determine which portions of land will remain in their control. These might have more leverage than the remaining Innu Nation, said Picard, which has no such agreement and has not yet taken a position on Plan Nord.

Two Innu communities in Québec—those of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam and Matimekush-Lac—are already waging a legal battle against the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC), seeking $900 million in compensation for over 60 years of damages. They claim that the IOC’s mining complex, hydroelectric plants, and railway (all projects similar to those Plan Nord might include) have harmed the environment, displaced members of their population, and prevented them from practicing their traditional way of life.

Other communities, such as the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach, have already signed on with Plan Nord. A representative of the Naskapi, Robert Prévost, said that jobs are the nation’s priority right now, and that they know there is mineral potential in their area. They are currently working with the government on training centers to make sure that Naskapi workers meet requirements for jobs in the mining industry, said Prévost. Although he is optimistic, he said that there is still a lot of work to be done. The residents of Kawawachikamach, a town of about 1,000 people near the Québec-Labrador border, only have access to internet by satellite and are hoping that Plan Nord will also bring them fiber optic capabilities.

“[The First Nations] are more and more interested in being partners in development,” said Couillard. He may be right, but vital communication is still lacking. According to Picard, there are still various conversations to be had as to what constitutes proper consultation between the government and local communities, and some chiefs are simply stalling because they don’t know what to do. Both parties are willing to engage, said Picard, but as they set up the process on how to move forward together, the government is already moving forward on its own.

“Unless we have a secure process then we’ll continue assuming that all parties are in agreement when that may not be the case,” said Picard. “The worst thing Québec can do is to take us for a ride.”

Understandably, Couillard is eager to brush over these sticky issues and present a united front. “Investors today want to know that they are investing in sustainable development, they want to know that the questions concerning the First Nations are being considered with all the importance they deserve,” he said in New York. It would be encouraging if he were right that investors care about these issues, but less so if the government is merely telling them what they want to hear, with neither party pausing to make sure that it’s true.

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Nellie Peyton is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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