On May 9, Québec Premier Jean Charest unveiled for a second time his famous “Plan Nord” that aims to occupy, develop and exploit this vast territory north of the 49th parallel. The area is 1.2 million square kilometers and makes up over 70% of Québec’s land mass.
Coordinated by a new state corporation, the Charest plan anticipates public and private investments of about $80 billion over a period of 25 years. This includes some 11 mining projects that are already underway, like the one announced a few days ago by ArcelorMittal, which plans to significantly increase its iron extraction in Fermont, in the Northeast part of the province. The plan also includes the development of new energy projects (hydro, wind and tidal), which will add over 3,500 megawatts to Hydro-Québec’s total capacity.
The Plan will no doubt have a detrimental affect on the health of Aboriginal people, according to Martin Lukacs, an activist with the Barriere Lake Solidarity Committee. Already, he says, “one in six indigenous communities in this country are on an active boil water alert.” Lukacs cites studies that show suicide and poor health outcomes increase when Aboriginal communities are no longer able to hunt and fish on their lands.
Out of the 18,000 contaminated sites identified by the Treasury Board of Canada, around 5,000 are on treaty territories. Meanwhile, the life expectancy of Aboriginal people is approximately seven years lower than the average, according to Statistics Canada, and many indigenous communities near mining projects suffer through-the-roof cancer rates.
From the $2.1 billion the Québec government plans to invest in the five first years of its Plan, a mere $382 million will be used to establish so-called “social measures.” And yet, “social measures” includes the money that will be spent to train the workforce the capitalists will need. For the people who inhabit the territory covered by the Plan Nord (who are mainly indigenous and Inuit), the only concrete measure that has been announced is the building of 840 houses in Nunavik and the renovation of 482 others. But even then, these housing projects are not necessarily intended for current residents.
The government’s official website specifies that these housing projects will aim “to develop the accommodation capacity” of the concerned territories. A leaked report from the Ministry of Health said that while 8% of Québec houses require major repairs on average, no less than 36% of houses in Nunavik and 31% of Cree houses require such major work. But with the Plan Nord, the new or renovated houses will be first given to the bosses and foremen from the big corporations and then, if some are still available, to workers from the south.
While it has not generated the level of enthusiasm the Charest government would have wished, the opposition parties are hardly critical of the Plan. Official Opposition leader Pauline Marois said her party agrees with the general outline of the project and even promised to maintain it if the PQ was to win the next provincial election. Much of the criticism has focused on the level of royalties the government plans will require from mining companies and the tax benefits it will grant to them, which could eventually cancel out the former.
Some argued Plan Nord, by delivering Québec territory on a silver platter to foreign investors, is subjecting Canada to the “colonial” influence of Chinese and Indian corporations such as Tata Group. But the real colonialism in this case is the fact that First Nations people living on that territory will be forced to accept a few crumbs in exchange for waiving of their traditional claims.
In order to give the illusion of some kind of “respect” for indigenous communities, the government has ensured the collaboration of the Grand Council of the Crees and some Band councils leaders appointed under the Indian Act, who will be allowed to manage and redistribute some of the crumbs the Plan Nord will sprinkle —if they don’t simply keep it for themselves. This typically colonialist operation ignores any recognition of the First Nations’ right to self-determination.
In fact, the achievement of Plan Nord will renew the historical theft and occupation of their territories, which are the source of all the problems they have continued to face since the first settlers arrived. The Plan Nord is nothing else than a project tailored for the imperialist bourgeoisie in Québec and Canada.
If the will of the bourgeoisie to exploit the territories located north of the province appears obvious from an economic point of view, it also has an important political objective linked to the control of the territory and its integrity. On May 9, Jean Charest again repeated what he had said in September 2008, when he pointed his finger at the huge map displayed behind him: “This territory, twice the size of France, belongs to us Quebecers!”
In saying this, the Prime Minister was not only thinking about its huge resources and the juicy profits his big Québec capitalist friends will make from exploiting them: he was also considering the important challenge posed by the effective occupation of this territory, especially in the context of climate change and the opening up of the Northwest Passage. In this way, Québec’s position is similar to the one of the federal government, which posed many gestures in the recent years, even if some of them were more symbolic than anything else, to assert Canadian sovereignty over Arctic land areas.
For more than fifteen years, we have seen the development of what may be called the final phase of the colonization of the territory by the Canada-Québec imperialist partnership, which aims to assert Canada’s sovereignty (through its various provincial entities) as opposed to self-determination of First Nations. In this colonial game, only big business will win. Of course the biggest losers will be the indigenous peoples, but the majority of Canadians will also lose out due to the environmental destruction of the mining projects proposed in the plan.