Plan Nord a “big opportunity,” Charest tells northern crowd
Plan's goal is to benefit "those who live in the North — in particular First Nations and Inuit"
OTTAWA — Quebec Premier Jean Charest touted Quebec’s Plan Nord to an audience of northern government and business leaders Feb. 2, selling the scheme as a way to benefit the aboriginal people who inhabit the province’s north.
Speaking to a luncheon at the Northern Lights business and cultural showcase in Ottawa, Charest told his audience that his 25-year plan to develop Quebec above its 49th parallel responds to a strong demand for natural resources, coupled with better access to the region after climate change.
But above all, Charest said the Plan Nord’s main goal is to benefit all Quebecers, “most of all, for those who live in the North — in particular First Nations and Inuit.”
“We set out to work very closely to work with the 120,000 who live in the North,” he said. “For two years, we worked with 450 people around the same table.”
Charest rolled out the first details of his Plan Nord, largely considered the premier’s legacy project, in May, 2011.
The Quebec premier has spent the last 10 months selling the project on an international level, drumming up interest in the rich mineral deposits that dot the province’s north.
In the face of a growing demand for natural resources, particularly from Asia, Charest said the plan represents “big opportunity.”
“Only 80 per cent of this land mass has been surveyed — in other words, it hasn’t been fully explored. The potential for development is extraordinary,” Charest said. “Even with the ups and downs, there will be a fairly constant demand over the next 25 years.”
Charest has projected the Plan Nord will attract $80 billion in investments over that time ; roughly $47 billion of that from Hydro-Quebec alone while another $33 million is expected to come from mining and infrastructure.
But, Charest ensures that “our vision is not a short-term,” and Plan Nord will also offer significant environmental protection for the province’s north.
As part of the plan, the Charest government has committed to protect 50 per cent of the landmass, with 12 per cent of those lands to be set aside as park reserves or protected areas by 2015.
Charest pointed to ways the plan has already reached out to residents of the North, through the government’s investments in housing.
When the plan was announced last May, it came with the promise of 300 new social housing units for Nunavik, plus another 200 homes under a new home ownership program.
Charest called on the federal government to step up its support for new housing in Nunavik, where it’s estimated at least 1,000 new units are needed to quell the shortage.
Charest also credited Nunavik’s only operating mine, Xstata’s Raglan mine, as helping to “elevate the ability of local communities to enter the work force.”
But speaking earlier at a Northern Lights mining conference, Xstrata’s Mike Welch called on Quebec’s Plan Nord to lend better support to the mining operation, particularly in the field of employment support to train Inuit staff.
Roughly half of Nunavik’s labour pool is under 18 years of age, Welch said.
“We need to get them the skills they need,” he said, adding that the province’s support is vital.
Although the Tamatumani program, run through the Kativik Regional Government, already offers job training to Nunavimmiut, Welch said that only offers Raglan short-term solutions.
In the mine’s neighbouring community of Kangiqsujuaq, the local school might only graduate a couple of students into college every year, Welch said, which doesn’t offer the mine a solid enough local labour base.
Welch said communities like Kangiqsujuaq could benefit from community-based educational programs.
“We have to get down to the grassroots level, and it must be an integrated approach with different levels of government,” he said.
Welch said Xstrata also hopes to work with Quebec to develop some alternative power sources to fuel its mine site, which is currently 100 per cent dependent on diesel.
Welch estimates that Xstrata’s Raglan operation invests about $300 million annually into the province’s coffers.