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Economy

Quebec Sets Off To Conquer Far North

Canada’s vast northern territories are to be opened up in a plan to exploit its rich natural resources. Some environmentalists are skeptical about the long-term effects.

Quebec's Premier Jean Charest
Quebec's Premier Jean Charest
Ludovic Hirtzmann

LEVIS, QUEBEC – Quebec's Premier Jean Charest has unveiled the outline of the Plan Nord, an ambitious initiative to develop the province's territories above the 49th parallel. Thanks to huge investment in infrastructure projects, the 25-year Plan Nord should enable natural resources to be exploited in Quebec's Arctic regions.

"Above the 49th parallel, there is a territory where we can build Quebec's future," said Mr Charest, adding that "Quebec's people are the shareholders' of northern Quebec, a territory twice the size of France with a population of 120,000. After years of dithering, the head of government took six ministers on a trip to Lévis, a dismal suburb of Quebec, to unveil his idea.

In front of a radiant Premier, Native Americans applauded, visibly intimidated. Nordic regions are being coveted again, a reminder of the 1970s James Bay Project to develop Quebec's hydro-electricity potential. Since then, the economic potential of the isolated far north has been underexploited. Over the next five years, 11 gold, diamond and copper mines are to appear, along with a new infrastructure of roads and airports. The government is considering building a deep-water port in the Hudson Bay. Hydro-Quebec will develop more hydroelectric power-plants. "The Plan Nord is a 25-year plan. Five-year plans will be set up to develop the energy, mining, forestry, organic farming and transportation sectors," explained Christian Dubois, deputy minister in charge of the plan.

Charest said the goal was to reduce the isolation of Nordic communities. One of the leaders of the American Indian Naskapi community, John Mameanskum, a sturdy man with a chubby face, said: "It is a historical day for us. We will receive money. The mining companies are expected to create new jobs for us." The Naskapi, the Inuit and the Cree communities have given their blessings to the Plan Nord, but several Innu communities are still opposed. Unless all the native communities support it, there will be hiccups in "the project of a whole generation," as Charest called it. The Plan Nord's success also depends on the price of raw materials remaining high for years. Otherwise, the mining companies will have to shut down. And last but not least, the government will have to face environmental groups who are opposed to the Plan Nord. The project's stakeholders have promised to protect 50% of the far north's territory, but have not indicated how they will do so.

Dubois says that the Plan Nord "will not destroy northern Quebec's landscapes." Some environmentalists are skeptical. "This plan is only the first step towards a mining boom... What will we do when the mines shut down?" asked Christian Simard, executive director of the environmental group Nature Quebec. He said Charest's project "aims to sell out northern Quebec's natural resources to attract many companies, but they will leave quickly."

The government estimates the plan will add 162 billion dollars to the province's GDP over the next 25 years, but figures used to calculate these estimations are extremely vague.

Many factors remain unknown, and northern Quebec's development is a challenge in itself. The weather conditions are extremely harsh. Some roads in Quebec's southern regions are sometimes closed in winter, so maintaining a road network in the far north, even a small one, is likely to be the Plan Nord's real headache.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - premier-ministre.gouv.qc.ca

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