Plan Nord: Too good to be true?

Photo by Douglas Brown |

While spending some time at a secluded community in Quebec, I had a chance to learn about environmental policy issues that would likely go unnoticed in Ontario. Plan Nord is an extensive economic and industrial development plan that targets 1.2 million square kilometers of resource-rich land in Northern Quebec, announced in early 2011 by Premier Jean Charest, who refers to it as the pinnacle of his political career.

With an investment of $80 billion dollars over 25 years, Plan Nord intends to exploit the rich nickel, iron and copper reserves in the region, develop 3000MW of hydro-electricity, and harvest millions of tons of wood.

In order to support this industrial boom, there are also plans to develop natural gas reserves in the region, improve energy distribution networks and transportation systems in order to allow multi-national corporations to access the harsh and often impassable regions of northern Québec. The Québécois government anticipates the creation of almost 20 000 jobs annually which will greatly strengthen the provincial economy. 

From its northernmost waterfront of Ungava Bay to its southern borders in the Saguenay Lac Saint Jean region, the vast expanse of tundra and boreal forest is home to polar bears, musk-ox, caribou, over 125 species of birds, and wild salmon and trout.

In an attempt to quench the harsh criticism from environmental organisations over the proposed development, Charest introduced a ‘conservation clause,’ claiming that 50% of the designated area would be designated “protected,” and went on to claim that this was the “the largest land conservation policy in history” and an unprecedented example of integrating economic development and ecological responsibility. 

 Despite his optimism there are several obvious flaws.

First of all, it is disingenuous of policy makers to praise themselves for promising to protect land that was facing no threat from human activity prior to Plan Nord.

Secondly, a careful examination of Plan Nord policies reveals another sub clause: if resources are discovered in the protected area, the land will become available for exploitation. Additionally, only 20% of the land (and only 12% of the boreal forest) is currently designated “protected” while the remainder will be publicly reviewed in 2020 and 2030.

Finally, there appear to be few provisions to protect regional ecosystems from the destructive effects of industrial development in the surrounding area. Mining, a notoriously “dirty” industry has been known to produce far-reaching environmental consequences, such as toxic tailing ponds (contaminating nearby water bodies and soil), land erosion and sinkholes, and a reduction in biodiversity.

While often lauded as a ‘clean’ energy source, hydro electric dams cause irreparable flooding and the decomposition of organic material in the flooded areas produces greenhouse gases. Despite efforts to portray development as environmentally-friendly and isolated to only the ‘non-protected’ area of land, it appears that it will be near impossible to uphold Plan Nord's conservation clause.

While it is a good sign that policy makers are considering the environmental consequences of industrial development, I believe that there is a long way to go before Plan Nord can truly be considered environmentally friendly policy. The sustainable development of northern Québec can only be achieved when all parties prioritize protecting the environment and the communities that depend on it, over the desires of multinational corporations who only seek to exploit the region for personal gain.