The Plan Nord: A Big, Big Plan for Quebec

10/19/2012 12:15 EDT | Updated 12/19/2012 05:12 EST

The Plan Nord: a Quebecois, Modern Version of the Tragedy of the Commons? (Part 2)

2. The Project of a Generation

Quebec's Plan Nord, if it lacks something, certainly doesn't lack ambition. The immensity of the coveted territory, the impressive amounts of money that will be invested over the next 25 years or so, and the amazing job creation potential it bears should please anyone who is fond of gigantic ventures.

2.1 The Multiple Aspects of the Plan Nord

As exposed by Quebec's Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife (MNRW), the Plan Nord has four main components: community development, economic potential, transportation and communications, and environmental protection. Each of these components is in turn divided into different aspects with goals attached to them.

Community development, for instance, has five subcomponents: education, manpower, housing, health and social services, and culture. All of these will seek to improve the life of those who live in the 1.2 million square kilometres of land that is included in the project, quite far from any big urban centre. Even though Quebec has a population of eight million, most people live in the south of the province: only about 120 000 people -- of which about one-quarter are Inuit and aboriginals from the Cree, the Innu, and the Naskapi Nations -- are settled in the Plan Nord area (MNRW, 2011a).

The quality of life in these northern communities often is not as good as that of southern Quebecois; the discrepancy is even more accentuated among First Nations, where the school drop-out rate is three times that of the rest of Quebec (MNRW, 2011b) and unemployment is quite high. The Plan Nord thus seeks to promote school and improve education in Northern Quebec, train and hire northern communities, Inuit and First Nations members in various development projects, renovate and build hundreds of new housing units to better satisfy the needs of the northern population and to welcome the incoming workforce.

It also hopes to improve health and social services to satisfy a population, which will certainly boom as development projects unfold, and to promote First Nations culture through agreements and infrastructure (MNRW, 2011b; 2011c; 2011d; 2011e; 2011f). The idea obviously is to take advantage of the various economic ventures of the Plan to improve the quality of life of otherwise unheard-of Quebecois communities.

The economic potential of northern Quebec is fascinating; to make the most out of its development, the Plan Nord encompasses energy resources, mineral resources, forest resources, wildlife resources, tourism, and bio-food production. In a nutshell, the energy program mostly seeks to add 3,500 MW of clean, renewable energy (mostly hydroelectric and wind power) to Quebec's national network (which is administered by Hydro-Québec, a government-owned public utility), supply industrial needs even if they are not within reach of the main network, and support a wind power-diesel pilot project to generate energy in an Inuit community still deprived from it (MNRW, 2011g).

On the mineral side, the Plan Nord aims at increasing Quebec's production of staples such as iron ore, diamond, gold, nickel, cobalt, zinc, rare earth metals and others. Even if it is private firms that will exploit the minerals, Quebec claims it will get a fair return of the companies' profits (MNRW, 2011h). The forest-related part of the Plan mostly seeks to acquire knowledge about northern vegetation, support the use of forest biomass through good and new practices, and establish local forests in some regions (MNRW, 2011i).

As to the transportation and communications objectives of the Plan Nord, they mostly intend to modernize northern Quebec. In an attempt to facilitate access to regions with huge economic potential, many roads and airports will be repaired and new ones will be built. Deepwater ports and railways are also expected to be constructed (MNRW, 2011j). High-speed Internet and cellular telephony should also be developed both to enhance the quality of life of the communities living there and to assist private entrepreneurs who will be operating all over these remote areas (MNRW, 2011k).

Last but not least, the Plan Nord is described as a project to be carried out in a spirit of sustainability. In effect, the government hopes to protect 50 per cent of the territory covering the Plan Nord by 2035, and as much as 20 per cent in the years to come - that is, by 2020. Provincial parks should be built, an atlas on northern Quebec's biodiversity ought to be finished and published, and a strategy to accomplish the 50 per cent-protection goal is expected to be carried out following the passage of a framework law (MNRW, 2011l).

This brief but rather complete portrait of the Plan Nord's main components certainly gives an idea of the project's grandeur. However, for most of the Plan's biggest critics, the fact over which the shoe pinches concerns the financing of this project of a generation. Therefore, we shall now turn the financial part of the Plan, whose closer examination will allow us to better understand how Quebec's commons is affected fiscally, either positively or negatively, by the Plan Nord.