Plan Nord: Promising or Profligate?

The Northern Strategy introduced by the federal government in 2009 describes some basic objectives for the development of Canada’s Arctic but lacks a specific timeline or accountabilities. Among the provincial governments, there is a similar lack of strategic vision. In 2014, Alberta’s opposition Wildrose Party proposed the establishment of a ‘Northern Corridor’ – a one-kilometre wide right-of-way that would extend from Churchill, Manitoba to a community like Prince Rupert or Kitimat on British Columbia’s coast. But political turmoil between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party later that same year, as well as the unexpected rise to power of Alberta’s New Democratic Party in 2015, has left the Northern Corridor without a champion.

Quebec has come the closest to pursuing a coherent strategy for developing Canada’s North. In May 2011, Premier Jean Charest introduced Plan Nord or “Northern Plan”, a strategy to bring roughly $80 billion worth of investment to northern Quebec’s energy, mining, and forestry industries over 25 years. With the rise to power of Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois in 2012, Plan Nord was put on hold, but it has taken on new life. In April 2015, Quebec’s Premier Philippe Couillard announced that he would revive Plan Nord with a $1.3-billion investment from the provincial government in the infrastructure necessary for industry to operate.

Yet this new northern play by Quebec may also come to nothing. Chief Ghislain Picard, who continues to lead the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, raised serious concerns about revenue-sharing in 2011. The Innu communities of the region also expressed particular opposition. The reinvigorated Plan Nord has also drawn condemnation from le réseau québécois des groupes écologistes (RQGE), a network of environmental groups in Quebec. Plan Nord has begun to come up against the same challenges faced by development projects like the Northern Gateway and faces criticism reminiscent of that directed by Montreal’s Mayor Denis Coderre at TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline.

Given the rapidity with which opposition to Plan Nord has mobilized, there is reason to believe that continued efforts to push development projects will result in a repeat of 1975 in Quebec. In the 1970s, the provincial government established the James Bay Development Corporation with a view to developing northern Quebec’s mining and forestry industries, as well as the construction of substantial hydroelectric power-generating stations. Opposition from the Grand Council of the Crees and the Northern Quebec Inuit Association resulted in a Quebec Superior Court decision temporarily blocking hydroelectric development and the eventual adoption by all parties of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Such a scenario would ultimately see the realization of socially inclusive development in the region, but it would be politically damaging to Quebec’s current government.

Even after a years-long series of court battles and indigenous consultations, Plan Nord faces a relative lack of market access for Quebec’s commodities. Sept-Îles, located on the northern shore of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, is currently the northernmost deepwater port in Quebec and is not connected by road to those regions which Plan Nord seeks to develop. To this end, Premiers Charest and Couillard have proposed the establishment of a new deepwater port in Kuujjuaraapik, a small community in northwestern Quebec on Hudson Bay. This raises an interesting issue: the delimitation of the maritime boundary between Nunavut and Quebec. Under current rules, Nunavut’s maritime boundary with Quebec in Ungava Bay, Hudson Strait, Hudson Bay, and James Bay extends all the way up to Quebec’s shoreline. As such, a deepwater port at Kuujjuaraapik would technically fall under the jurisdiction of the Government of Nunavut, not the Government of Quebec. Nunavut officials have indicated that they have no interest in discussing this issue without some form of incentive from Quebec.

It remains to be seen how the maritime boundary dispute will play out in the long-term with a Prime Minister from Quebec but a federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans from Nunavut. What can be said that, for all its promise, Plan Nord lacked adequate consultation with the necessary stakeholders from the outset and so will remain indefinitely stalled.

Photo courtesy of Paul Chiasson (Canadian Press).

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the NATO Association of Canada, supporting the work of the Canadian Armed Forces Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Armed Forces. His research interests are diverse and include maritime security, the African Peace and Security Architecture, and NATO-Russia relations.