Plan Nord was meant to shore up the sagging fortunes of Charest and his Liberals

Plan Nord was meant to shore up the sagging fortunes of Charest and his Liberals. Image via Pieuvre.ca

Quebec occupies more than 1.5 million square kilometres and is Canada’s largest province by area. Its population recently reached 8 million.

But less than 120,000 of Quebeckers live north of the 49th parallel, the demarcator of the province’s vast hinterland. Relatively few have attempted to permanently occupy this land, which covers nearly 1.2 million square km (approximately three Californias).

This area has much mineral wealth, most of Quebec’s fresh water, and large tracts of pristine boreal forests. In sum, everything that growing Asian economies–as well as an expanding U.S. population– need and want, all found in a stable democratic jurisdiction.

It is this convergence of abundant resources with growing emerging markets that led Liberal premier Jean Charest in 2011 to announce his Plan Nord with considerable fanfare to a very receptive worldwide business audience.

Why Plan Nord?

Plan Nord was meant to shore up the sagging fortunes of Charest and his Liberals, who were trailing in the polls at the end of an unprecedented third consecutive mandate. The rule of thumb in Quebec is that governments alternate after two mandates. If they wanted a fourth mandate, the Liberals would have to come up with something big; something that would make dream.

They drew on Quebec history. In 1970 Robert Bourassa, another Liberal premier, ran and won on his promise to build the gigantic James Bay hydro-electrical complex (16,000MW) and create 100,000 jobs. Charest wanted to be perceived as a builder like Bourassa, and previous leaders such as Jean Lesage and Rene Levesque.

To do this, in 2009 a few senior advisers came up with the idea of the Plan Nord, a 25-year plan to open up Quebec north of the 49th parallel and to develop it in a rational and permanent manner. Mining and hydro-electricity would lead the way. When announced, it promised private and public sector investments of $80 billion over 25 years.

Unfortunately, Charest’s Plan Nord, while catchy, was short on detail. It was well received initially, but had difficulty bearing scrutiny. The fact that ministers and civil servants made up answers as they went along did not help.

Charest’s Liberals were defeated on September 4, 2012. Plan Nord, while not entirely disowned, was quickly rebranded by the incoming Parti Quebecois as “Nord pour tous” (North for all), with details to follow.

Four Key Takeaways From Plan Nord

What did the Plan Nord accomplish in its short life? A lot more than casual observers think:

1. It crystallized consensus in favor of allowing commercial activity in Quebec’s north — provided such activity conforms to best practices and contributes to Quebec’s coffers.

2. It illustrated the massive need for infrastructure development, and the lack of clarity and commitment related to this issue. Development in the north must be done rationally, and this starts with infrastructure. While industry is primarily responsible for supporting and meeting its infrastructure needs, governments may be able to assist under certain circumstances. The problem here is that the Quebec government, regardless of party, has yet to define the assistance and the circumstances.

3. It set a benchmark for environmental protection in the north. Charest proposed to protect in one way or another 50 percent of the Plan Nord’s territory, about 600,000 square km, an area the size of France and much larger than all of Canada’s federal parks. This is an astonishing proportion by world standards. Inadvertently, Charest may become one of the greenest leaders of his time. 50 percent is likely to become a line in the sand that no future Quebec government will dare cross.

4. It made Quebeckers more conscious that they have a large territory to protect and defend. Asserting Canada’s sovereignty in its north is only beginning to enter the Canadian psyche. The same is true in Quebec. In 2050 there will be 9 billion people on earth, and some may question why vast, resource-rich territories should be entrusted to small populations.