Quebec Le Plan Nord Compared to Ontario – by Livio Di Matteo (November 10, 2011)

Livio Di Matteo is Professor of Economics at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Visit his new Economics Blog “Northern Economist” at http://ldimatte.shawwebspace.ca/

On my recent trip to Montreal, I picked up the November 2nd issue of La Presse and was amazed to find a twelve page insert dealing with stories and advertising on Quebec’s Plan Nord.  To put it in perspective, it would be like the Toronto Star deciding to devote a block of pages to the Northern Ontario Growth Plan.  Needless to say, the difference between the level of engagement in Quebec with its northern development compared with Ontario is astounding. 

When push comes to shove, Le Plan Nord is being sold as an investment frontier with implications for Quebec’s economic future.  The Northern Growth Plan in Ontario is really something that has only caught the attention of those of us in northern Ontario and even we don’t really know what it means because nothing has been fleshed out.

Le Plan Nord is looking at 33 billion dollars in investment in Quebec’s North – the area north of the 49th parallel – over the next 25 years to develop hydroelectric and mining resources.  This is an area that constitutes 1.2 million square kilometers or 72 percent of Quebec’s land mass and that has a current population of about 120,000. 

Mining investment in Quebec’s north is currently looking at 11 projects, for a total investment of 20 billion dollars and apparently create 11,000 construction jobs and 4,000 additional mining and processing jobs.  In total, about 20,000 jobs are expected to be created by all of the development.  The plan is also about conservation.  Along with the development, there will be land set aside for conservation purposes.

Unlike Ontario, where the Northern Growth Plan seems to have been decoupled from the Far North Act, in Quebec, development and conservation have been integrated – at least for the purposes of the initial plan.  The conservation goal is quite ambitious – the aim is to have 12 percent of the land in their far north set aside from industrial and commercial development by 2015 with up to 50 percent – some 600,000 square kilometers – set aside by 2035. 

The comment has been made that this might be too ambitious.  Our Far North Act actually sets aside a smaller amount of land but has generated more controversy within the region.  I think part of this is because the Ontario government’s lower key and lack of detail approach seems to be signalling that it is more interested in environmental concerns rather than actual northern economic development. The Quebec government on the other hand is asserting it wants conservation as well as development,  has both in the same plan, and is enthusiastic about development in the north.

However, there is not unanimous support within Quebec’s First Nations for the Plan Nord.   It has been expressed that the consultation process does not sufficiently represent all the First Nation communities affected.  Nevertheless, the Cree First Nation’s Chief Matthew Coon Come in the La Presse insert took out a full page ad and stated that “je suis heureux de déclarer, au nom de la Nation crie, que j’appuie et que j’approve le Plan nord.”  In particular, Grand Chief Coon Come expresses support for the economic growth opportunities that the plan is expected to bring.

Le Plan Nord is not perfect and not everything that is planned will come to pass.  Nevertheless, it serves as an interesting comparison between the way in which northern development is being articulated and debated in Quebec – especially in its major urban center – and the way it is being largely neglected in Ontario outside of the north. 

Given Ontario’s weak economic performance over the last few years, one might think that there would be more excitement about a northern investment frontier that would create jobs, boost incomes and government revenues and help propel the Ontario economy to renewed prosperity.  Obviously, we need to think again.

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