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Environmental and First Nations groups criticize Plan Nord

Project aims to stimulate resource development and tourism

Provincial environmental groups and First Nations communities fear that the Quebec government’s Plan Nord, a development project aimed at attracting investment into industrial activities in Quebec’s northern territories, will lead to severe environmental degradation.

The plan, which will be carried out over the course of 25 years, aims to stimulate investment in the region’s forestry, mining, hydroelectricity, tourism, and bio-food sectors. The area covered by the plan consists of 1.2 million square kilometers – 72 per cent of Quebec’s geographic area. According to government estimates, the plan is expected to create, on average, 20,000 jobs a year and bring in $80 billion in investments.

In an effort to limit the environmental impact of industrial activities, the government has vowed that by 2015, 12 per cent of the land covered by Plan Nord will be dedicated to the creation of protected areas. This area will gradually be extended so that by 2035, 50 per cent of the territory will be protected.

This provision, however, has incited criticism on several fronts. The Réseau québécois des groupes écologistes (RQGE)  – a network of environmental groups in Quebec – has deemed this land protection proposal insufficient.

“The first problem we have with [the plan] is that the fact that this 50 per cent number is somewhat arbitrary,” said Bruno Massé, general coordinator of the RQGE, in an interview with The Daily. “We see it more as a symbolic political number than anything else, because they present it as protecting half of the territory, which validates basically doing the exploitation of the other half.”

Similarly, several First Nations groups have expressed concerns about the impact of industrial development. The area covered by Plan Nord is inhabited by a number of First Nations communities, including the Inuit, the Innu, the Cree, the Naskapis of Schefferville, the Algonquin, and the Atikamekw.

Ghislain Picard, the regional chief of Quebec and Labrador in the Assembly of First Nations, told The Daily that, even though Plan Nord “offers great perspectives in terms of employment,” the government has not made enough efforts to protect the region’s environmental security.

“We’re very much concerned with the intentions expressed by the government, such as the commitment to have at least 50 per cent of that territory dedicated as a protected area,” said Picard. “The biggest question that comes after that is what becomes of the other 50 per cent? Is it all wide open for development? If that’s the case, then we’re not in favour of that.”

An additional critique is that even protected regions will still be open to certain development activities.

“Even if we were to just focus on that [protected] 50 per cent, we see that [the provincial government] still consider forest exploitation not to be an industrial activity,” said Massé. “They would also permit mining and exploration, tourism…and the construction of infrastructure, all within territories that are supposed to be protected.”

Massé also noted that the selection of protected areas would be susceptible to industrial interests.

“Basically, their plan is that, by 2035, they have to have this 50 per cent number, but to get there they’ll be switching around areas if they realize that there are resources that they hadn’t seen before,” he said. “It will be a whole mix and match, shifting things around, as long as, at the end, they can have their 50 per cent that will be fulfilling their goal.”

For many First Nations communities, this prioritization of industrial interests has drawn comparisons to past development projects.

“There are also memories of the past,” said Picard.  “In Schefferville, it’s not the first time that mining companies have come to that area. To demonstrate that, around Schefferville, all you have is big holes…from the exploitation between the 1950s and the 1980s. People who live there, who have continued to live there despite the closure of the town, remember that. So there are very deep concerns about the environment.”

Though the government is accepting input from concerned groups in the form of public meetings and online communication, Massé argues that these steps are merely symbolic.

“Our input has not been valued at all ever since the beginning, and the biggest problem we have with these consultations is their lack in the basic principles of democracy,” he said. “If they’re asking us to voice our concerns, they should at least guarantee that these concerns are going to be taken into account…we can blow steam as much as we want, but we have no power whatsoever as to what they are going to do.”

Despite concerns, the project is likely to continue.

“The resources that we have up North were not worth much a couple of decades back because of the world context, but now we’re seeing a rise in demand and the resources are getting much more rare,” said Massé.

“We have to remember that before we try to tackle the subject because it’s happening on a much larger scale,” he added.

Massé warned that, if criticisms are ignored, the environmental security of Quebec’s territory could be threatened.

“We hope the people will start asking the right questions and try to change towards a more sustainable way of life,” he said. “We can only hope that this transition will be done voluntarily and peacefully before it’s too late, and not in a sort of catastrophic setting, which is what we’re headed towards if nothing changes for real.”