With recent austerity measures affecting many economic sectors within Quebec, the provincial government is desperately looking for new sources of income. The precious metal industry is still profitable, and mining developments such as Plan Nord could bring investors to the province, acting as a safety net to protect people from the ongoing cuts. However, this would not come without a cost that would be shouldered by current and future generations. The benefits of invasive projects such as Plan Nord are often only measured by their immediate value, leaving out negative externalities. Plan Nord is expected to cause substantial environmental damage to the region, due both to the resource extraction the project would entail, as well as its magnitude. In addition to the environmental damage, however, the project will have significant negative impacts on the local communities in the North, particularly with regards to women.
Plan Nord was initially proposed by the Liberal government led by Jean Charest in 2011, but was shut down by Pauline Marois after the Parti Québécois (PQ) came into power in 2012. The PQ has traditionally held an antagonistic position toward the mining sector. Recently, however, with the comeback of the Liberals, a revised version of the project has started to gain steam once again. This version, which encompasses 72 per cent of the land area of Quebec, an area twice the size of France, is expected to create significant economic benefits for the province, including the creation of 20,000 jobs. These jobs, however, would come at the expense of severe environmental damages and a high potential for changes in social structures in surrounding communities, many of which are Indigenous. Additionally, despite the government’s promise that 50 per cent of the mineral rich areas would remain untouched with regard to Plan Nord resource extraction and would be preserved, the other 50 per cent, or 36 per cent of Quebec, is left to be exploited by private mining companies. Environmental agencies and people living in the region have raised questions about the intentions for this half of the plan since its announcement, but have not been able to receive concrete answers.
Mining activities often cause changes in the environment that directly affect communities living in the area – including risks such as airborne chemicals and chemicals leaking into underground aquifers. Currently, little research exists on the location of Quebec’s (and Canada’s) groundwater and aquifer deposits, making it difficult, if not impossible, to account for the quality of these water sources as mining operations expand the Northern territory. Furthermore, Quebec has about 3 per cent of the world’s freshwater, which would make potential leaks and pollution detrimental. Roussos Dimitrakopoulos, a professor in the department of mining and materials engineering at McGill, spoke to these risks in an interview with The Daily. “I think the questions of toxins in the air is quite a minimal thing – I don’t think that there’s a major issue if we operate properly. The question of materials seeping into the ground – yes, it does happen, it can always happen. The question is, do we invest in studying the groundwater and the aquifers?” When mining companies begin new projects, they generally set up environmental and health safety guidelines to follow, or use one provided by their auditors. While this does not eliminate the environmental destruction caused, it mitigates damages, and ensures the safety of both mine workers and those in the surrounding communities. It is important to note, however, that these safety measures are not always completely safety-proof, and in the case a dam breaks, major pollution of the surrounding water sources will occur. Such was the case at the Mount Polley mine in B.C. in August, when 25 million cubic metres of contaminated water and mine waste were flooded into the land and contaminated fresh water supplies.
Despite this, Dimitrakopoulos explained that the success of these guidelines is heavily dependent on the size of the company. He distinguished between three types of mining companies: large, medium, and small. According to him, while the larger ones were more likely to adhere to the guidelines and thereby reduce the environmental impact and safety hazards, medium-sized and smaller mining companies were generally less financially capable of complying with guidelines. “The question of accidents – if something goes wrong, then that varies not because we don’t know what to do, it varies because of mismanagement, in a sense.” So now, in addition to the environmental destruction that would be caused regardless by mining activities, there is now a separate dimension regarding the severity of the damage that will be inflicted on both the environment and local communities.
“It’s like we are giving up our traditional practices, our customs, our lifestyles [that] the mining will take, that we will give up our rights.”
– Denise Jourdain, Innu elder and anti-plan Nord activist
Northern Quebec – the land covered under the Plan Nord project – is comprised of territory belonging to various groups of First Nations and Inuit communities, including the Innu, the Cree, the Naskapi, the Algonquins, and the Atikamekw. Various Indigenous groups and individuals have voiced concerns regarding the project, while others actively support it. Some concerns lie with not being fully informed or involved in the process. Last October, Jobie Tukkiapik, president of Makivik Corp., met with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, where Tukkiapik said that an openness in discussion, as well as the government playing an active role in preserving Indigenous culture, were his primary concerns. “We’re not opposed to development, but we feel like we need to be fully involved,” Tukkiapik said in the article from Nunatsiaq Online. “There needs to be a sense of belonging.” He continued, “We know what people’s priorities are now. Our culture and language cannot be lost.”
Chief Gilbert Dominique of the Innu First Nation echoed these sentiments in an article in the Montreal Gazette last October. “We’ve said it many times: we’re not against development. We just want it to be done in a way that is respectful of our way of life and the environment, and that there be economic benefits for First Nations,” Dominique believes that Plan Nord would be a way for his community to combat social problems that are systemically faced by many Indigenous communities, including higher levels of unemployment than the general population and unequal access to medical services.
Denise Jourdain, an Innu elder and anti-Plan Nord activist, spoke to The Daily about the negative impacts the project would have both on the environment and on the culture of Innu communities living in the North. “[Plan Nord] is very personal for me – in my perspective, I wonder if it’s a trick of the provincial government to get us to sign treaties that Plan Nord is a natural resource development project on our ancestral territories,” Jourdain told The Daily in French. “It’s like we are giving up our traditional practices, our customs, our lifestyles [that] the mining will take, that we will give up our rights.”
Virginia Wabano, president of the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association, agreed with Jourdain’s sentiments, noting the preservation of culture was also important. “I know there’s a lot of job creation and all that, but money doesn’t buy what the foundation is, which is our land, the basis of our culture and values,” Wabano told The Daily. “If there’s going to be a detrimental effect to our traditional cultures and values, then I will stand up to that and say no to development. You know, money is not everything when you have your identity as a person.”
“We’re not opposed to development, but we feel like we need to be fully involved,”
– Chief Gilbert Dominique of the Innu First Nation
Changes in social structure
Contrary to Dominique’s point, Wabano believed that instead of reducing social ills, large development projects serve to augment them even more. “There’s increases in negative behaviour as well, in regard to large-scale development like camps, prostitution, sexually-transmitted diseases, alcoholism, drug abuse, and violence – [these] are seen as the negative side of the development,” Wabano told The Daily. “These are impacts that are worrisome for women [who are] concerned about the safety of children and [younger] women. Also [there is the] fear [of] the breakdown of family values – so there are a lot of measures that need to be taken to avoid some of the conflicts.”
The project will have massive impacts on the surrounding communities, specifically with regard to social structures in the region. It is important to recognize that every movement seeking equity is the same at its core – we all are propelled by the same desire for equity, justice, and protection of all people in spite of our differences. This is where environmentalism and feminism converge in their efforts against a capitalist-driven project that, while it claims to create immense economic benefits for the province, will actually result not only in the destruction of the environment, but also in the disruption of the communities living in the affected areas.
Industrial projects have long been producing societal disruption, which often leads to the victimization of women. A student from Stanford University wrote an article in 2012 about her experience in the Peruvian Amazon, where illegal mining was rampant. She noted how casually the locals interacted with mercury, a poisonous metal that is produced in abundance as a result of gold mining, which can have disastrous impacts on those who come in contact with it. She also described how girls under the age of 18 were already part of brothels – many of them were forced into child prostitution between the ages of 12 and 17.
In a case hitting closer to home, Canadian mining company Hudbay was charged in 2013 with lawsuits from Guatemala, where the company had existing mining operations. The lawsuits included a case where 11 women were gang-raped. Yet another lawsuit against Hudbay charged the company with criminalizing Indigenous activists in Guatemala who protested against mining activities. The lack of respect for and the destruction of communities impacted by mining projects is apparent in these examples of what happens when mining companies with a strong financial backing intrude on the land of those who are already suffering financially and are unable to take the culpable companies to court. These cases are not exceptions, but rather a systemic problem produced by the Canadian mining industry abroad as well as at home. Oftentimes these fallacies are hidden by corporate social responsibility programs that encourage companies to engage in the buildup of infrastructure and community programs, such as roads and schools. They do so, however, to create an “ethical facade for unethical mining practices, as some have argued,” as Rex Brynen, a professor of political science at McGill, told The Daily in a previous article called “The problem with development organizations” (November 5, 2013, News, online) .
“If there’s going to be a detrimental effect to our traditional cultures and values, then I will stand up to that and say no to development. You know, money is not everything when you have your identity as a person.”
– president of the Cree Women Eeyou Istchee Association
Impact on women
With regards to Quebec specifically, Plan Nord has already started impacting the women in communities predicted to be affected by the project. A Huffington Post article focused on the region of North Shore specifically, explaining that after the first announcement of the plan by the Charest government, the promise of 20,000 jobs lured many investors and workers to communities there. When the PQ dismissed the plan, however, many found themselves out of work and having to cope with higher costs of living. For women, this often meant a step back to society’s traditional patriarchal roles, where men would work long hours while women took care of the household on what meagre income they received. In cases of divorce or separation, women were often left with nothing. These taxing living conditions often caused heightened stress between couples and lead to an increase inincidents of domestic abuse. Many cases were not officially reported, however, because women feared that going to women’s shelters or seeking help would result in their ostracization.
Wabano said that part of not speaking up could be attributed to the fact that many were never asked how they felt in the first place. “We know that women often feel left out of the consultation processes that are conducted in communities. These consultation processes are usually geared to reach leaders of the community, and there’s also some exclusion of some groups, such as women and youth. Even though the invitation [to speak] is there […] women [may still not attend] because there is no childcare provided, or maybe they’re afraid to speak up, to express their concerns in public,” Wabano told The Daily. “So maybe having a focus group for women only would be more convenient for them to discuss their thoughts on the impacts.” Work for women in the mining industry is limited and only a restricted number of women were able to find a job in the community. Unfortunately, they make up only 1.3 per cent on average of the construction workforce – not counting for jobs in cleaning or food services – resulting in unsafe spaces where they often faced racism and sexism from their male counterparts.
Wabano said that the way to combat these issues is to foster stronger communication between the government and the local communities impacted by mining. “It’s always essential to establish good relationships between governments and large-scale companies in the early stages of these development projects because [the local communities] need to be involved in the decision-making, ongoing community engagement, ongoing dialogue, and information-sharing throughout the whole process,” Wabano told The Daily. “In order to protect women, there’s always these measures that should be considered, and some of them could be hiring additional female security officers, or having cameras in sensitive areas within the camps, because we all know that there are challenges that women face, not only within mines but overall. It does not only happen to Aboriginal women, it happens to everyone, to every woman,” she continued. “It could be like [providing] training on human rights to police, or could be developing a conflict resolution or negotiating training program which includes everyone – leaders, women, everyone.”
Despite her request for increased information for the affected communities, Wabano does not think that Plan Nord should be carried through, seeing as it would result in disastrous environmental impacts. “Take uranium mining for example. There was a big stand against uranium mining in the Cree nation territory because of its detrimental environmental impact. So of course we are going to say no to that,” she said. “In order to say, ‘Okay, we’re coming into your community and we’re going to build a mine in your backyard’ – how are you going to protect us? How are you going to protect our community? How are you going to protect our land? For the present, and for future generations?”