Quebec-Cree collaboration on the Plan Nord

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Unveiled in 2011 under Jean Charest’s Liberal government, Plan Nord was the province’s long-term strategy for improving access to and developing the vast untapped mineral and energy resources that lie north of the 49th parallel; a gargantuan landmass twice the size of France. The original Plan Nord, which sought to create 20,000 jobs and invest over $80 billion over the next 25 years, was effectively dismantled by the PQ during their term in office. However, now that the Liberals have been re-elected, Plan Nord has been revived in a less ambitious, but perhaps more practical form.

The revival of the Northern Plan seeks to ensure continuity although the
objectives are more modest than those announced in 2011,” said Véronique
Normandin, the press officer to the Ministry of Energy and Renewable Resources responsible for Plan Nord. “Indeed, the investments targeted by 2035 are on the order of $50 billion, as against $80 billion in the 2011.”

In terms of rights to the land, the James Bay Cree are the biggest stakeholders in the region and enjoy more rights and a higher degree of control over the development of their land than many other Aboriginal communities due to the 1975 James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). As outlined in section 22 of JBNQA, the government must obtain the permission of the Cree before initiating any kind of large-scale resource extraction project on Cree territory. According to the JBNQA such projects, as well as all infrastructure development in the region must be first subjected to impact assessment processes.

The environmental and social impact assessment process of the JBNQA was the first of its kind to exist in Canada, and was tailored by the Cree specifically to ensure that any infrastructure and/or resource development on their territory is undertaken in a way that respects the Cree’s desire to ensure fair compensation, as well as the conservation of their ancestral homelands and the protection of their culture. 

Moreover, section 28 of the JBNQA stipulates that the government provide assistance to Cree entrepreneurs when possible, as well preferential treatment towards the Cree in terms of job creation, training and access to employment as well as implement policies which promote self-sufficient economic growth in Cree communities.

“The Crees have demonstrated in the past that we are in favour of sustainable development, provided the Cree Nation’s workers and communities benefit, and the environmental and social impact assessment processes are respected,” said Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Grand Council of the Crees (GCC).

“We’ve made a public statement of what our position is on Plan Nord, our ‘Cree Vision of Plan Nord,’ which we have given to the premier and other ministers and published online. Those are all the rights that must be respected or else we will not collaborate with any development.”

According to Namagoose, the Cree community is receptive to the provincial government’s plans, and wishes to collaborate with the government and private companies to develop the region, provided all partners are willing to operate within the guidelines of the JBNQA. Although legally, any breach of the treaty would be unconstitutional as the JBNQA has been entrenched in Canada’s constitution since the Constitution Act of 1982.

According to Normandin, in no way does the current Plan Nord conflict with the JBNQA.

The Quebec government intends to abide by the agreements signed or being
negotiated with the Cree, the Inuit, the Innu and the Naskapi, who will be
key partners in defining a shared perspective of northern development,” said Normandin. “[Quebec] has also committed itself to observe its obligations concerning the consultation of the Aboriginal communities.”

As incentive for active collaboration, Normandin said Quebec’s Cree communities stand to gain considerable social and economic benefits as a result of the Plan Nord.

Significant investments will be made in the coming years, particularly in infrastructure such as telecommunications and the rehabilitation of roads, including the James Bay Road,” said Normandin. “The most recent budget announced a $100-million investment for Aboriginal training. Furthermore, economic projects such as Stornoway’s Renard mine and Goldcorp’s Eleonore mine will benefit the Cree from the standpoint of job creation and economic spin-off.”

To manage the use of government funds across the diverse sectors and expansive regions encompassed by Plan Nord, the provincial government has decided to create the Société du Plan Nord (SPN), an administrative body that will be responsible for the proper execution of government-subsidized projects at local levels.

According to Cree-Quebec negotiator of the GCC, Abel Bosum, it is imperative that the government appoints a proportionate number of Cree members to the SPN in order to protect Cree interests.

“The composition of the SPN’s board of directors should reflect the greater burden of development that has been borne and will continue to be borne by the Cree of Eeyou Istchee,” said Bosum. “We recommended that Cree directors should be appointed to the SPN’s board and that their number should reflect the impacts experienced by the Cree.”

Normandin said that the provincial government reserves the right to appoint SPN board members. However, she stated that the majority of board members, including the chair, must come from the territory affected by Plan Nord. Normandin also stated that the SPN will oversee the creation of an Assemblée des partenaires (assembly of partners).

“The members of the Assemblée des partenaires will be appointed in a way that
represents, in particular, the Aboriginal communities in the Nunavik, James
Bay/Eeyou Istchee, Côte-Nord and Nord du Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean territories,” said Normand. “Accordingly, the Cree will assume their place as do the other Aboriginal communities living in the territory that the Northern Plan covers.”

In addition, Normandin said that the government is well underway establishing the Cree Development Corporation (CDC), which is intended to work closely with the SPN to protect and further Cree interests.

“The CDC is a financial vehicle managed by the Cree Nation to ensure returns
on investments,” said Normandin. “The Société du Plan Nord has a more horizontal mandate to coordinate in an integrated, coherent manner the development of the
territory that the Plan Nord covers. Accordingly, the Cree Development
Corporation and the Société du Plan Nord will act as complementary partners
in the development of the territory.”

Although, not present anywhere in the current Plan Nord, one final concern the Cree have expressed regarding resource extraction in the James Bay area is the possibility that Quebec may lift the temporary ban on uranium exploration and mining pending the findings of the Bureau d’Audiences Publiques sur l’Environnement (BAPE) review.

According to Namagoose, the official position of the GCC is that the Cree completely oppose lifting the moratorium on uranium exploration, or mining under any circumstance.

Normandin said Quebec is waiting for the results of the BAPE study to be made public before commenting on the issue of lifting or extending the uranium moratorium. BAPE is scheduled to submit its findings to the government by May 20, 2015; the findings are to be made public within 60 days thereafter.

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