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McGill professors and First Nations leaders debate Plan Nord

Panelists weigh economic and environmental repercussions of Quebec development project

Many questions about Plan Nord were brought up last Saturday, as professors, community leaders, and environmental experts gathered for the panel conference entitled “Plan Nord: Perspectives, Challenges, and Promises for Northern Indigenous Communities.”

The conference – hosted by McGill’s Faculty of Law – was a joint effort between the Aboriginal Law Students’ Association, Environmental Law McGill, and the International Journal on Sustainable Development Law and Policy.

According to the organizers, the aim of the conference was to address the “many questions that remain with regard to the measures which will be taken to flesh out the government’s commitments and achieve its stated goals.”

Plan Nord is a provincial government development project aimed at attracting investment into industrial activities like forestry, mining, and hydroelectricity in Quebec’s northern territories. The plan will be executed over the course of 25 years.

The area Plan Nord will be applied to consists of 1.2 million square kilometres – 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, however local communities and environmental groups fear the project could cause widespread environmental degradation.

The panelists analyzed the consultation process, the commitments, and the legal obligations the provincial government has toward Aboriginal communities residing in Northern Quebec with regards to the Plan Nord project.

One of the panelists, Ugo Lapointe – spokesperson for the Coalition pour que le Québec ait meilleure mine – questioned the consultation processes around Plan Nord and called for “further investigation.”

“We need to worry about Plan Nord… We are missing consultation with the Quebec and Aboriginal population,” said Lapointe.

“Information and transparency are missing,” he continued.

John Paul Murdoch, panelist and a McGill Faculty of Law alumnus, said he was “very excited for Plan Nord.”

“Finally, people are talking about the North before they get there, or before they try to find it…there is so little that people know about the North,” he said.

Born and raised in a Cree territory in northern Quebec, Murdoch referred to past instances in which the government has shown little interest for investing in northern territories, due to it not being “not economically viable.”

Murdoch, a legal consultant who negotiates agreements between energy companies and aboriginal communities, stated that he is a “big fan” of the Plan Nord because “it is putting a value on the North.”

“It doesn’t bother me that they’re putting a value on our territory in the north. I’m quite thankful, because, to be honest, when you sit down to negotiate, it’s annoying how far back you start.”

Aurelie Arnaud, a panelist and representative from the association Femmes Autochtones du Québec (FAQ), discussed the role of Aboriginal women in Plan Nord.

“Aboriginal women are present, but how many are actually in the negotiating tables for Plan Nord?” said Arnaud.

Arnaud also noted potential negative impacts from the mining industry entering the northern territories, such as “prostitution as a result of increased demand and violence against women.”

“We are scared. What are we going to do to ameliorate the impacts [of the introduction of mining] on aboriginal women?” she asked.