In the world of mine development and its outsized scales of size, time and money, there’s always this thought in the back of the mind while listening to any promoter’s pitch: "Well, it may never happen."
This was the case with Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s $80-billion, multi-decade pro-mining Plan Nord northern development program, which went way beyond the mandate of a parliamentary government and its typical four- to five-year lifespan.
On the other hand, the Quebec government’s track record in realizing the vast James Bay hydropower development over several decades and changes in governing party shows there can be the will to get big things done in Quebec’s Far North, regardless of who holds the reins in Quebec’s National Assembly.
However, the increasing likelihood that the provincial government in Quebec will change in September has cast new doubt on whether the premier’s ambitious plan will ever be made real.
Charest, who has been Quebec’s premier since 2003 and leader of the federalist Quebec Liberal Party since 1998, called the snap general election on Aug. 1, and Quebecers will vote on Sept. 4.
The Liberal government, now angling for a fourth term, is widely viewed as tired and tainted by whiffs of corruption, and Charest’s personal approval ratings dipped as low as the mid-teens last year. This past year has been particularly messy politically with adult student activists repeatedly rioting in city streets to protest modest tuition hikes.
Charest and his Liberals are trying to position themselves as the province’s best economic stewards, while the soft-separatist Parti Québécois is making healthcare improvements a main election plank.
With the election just weeks away, the PQ leads widely in the polls, with the Liberals in second spot and the newbie, relatively centre-right party Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for Quebec’s Future) trailing in third.
In resource rich Quebec, mining often pops up as a provincial election issue. In early August, Charest told supporters on the campaign trail that he would use mining royalties from Plan Nord to help pay down the provincial debt.
The Charest government has already jacked up its tax rate on mining profits to 16% from 12%, but the PQ is proposing to replace all that with a 5% tax on the value of minerals extracted.
PQ opposition member and mining critic Martine Ouellet said a new PQ government would "redo" Plan Nord, arguing that the current government is giving away the province’s natural resources for next to nothing. She told the Canadian Press that a PQ government would raise mining royalties, carry out more environmental reviews, ensure more mineral processing is done in-province, and spend less money to help private companies.
More specifically, the PQ is looking to Australia’s new mining taxes as a model, and is proposing a 30% tax on all mining profits above 8%. It is also considering axing some of the $2 billion in current northern infrastructure spending that will only help private companies.
The CAQ also vows to revamp Plan Nord, arguing it is too generous to foreign companies and Quebec-based ones that are tight with the ruling Liberals.
One of the quirks of Quebec politics is the long standing and thoroughly politically incorrect support by the Quebec and federal governments of asbestos mining in the Eastern Townships. A once booming industry in the province, asbestos is today represented solely by the suspended Jeffrey mine in the town of Asbestos. Jeffrey has recently received a $58 million loan from the Charest government to reopen as an underground operation beneath the gaping pit, employing about 400 people in the one-industry town.
The last asbestos production in Canada was from Jeffrey in 2010 — 150,000 tonnes worth $90 million — and almost all of it was exported to developing countries.
The CAQ’s leader François Legault pointedly said, with respect to asbestos mining in the province, that "exporting a toxic product is morally and scientifically indefensible . . . Quebec has to come to terms with an industry that’s stuck in the past."
PQ Leader Pauline Marois said she deplores the way the loan was handled, but isn’t ready to ban asbestos exports.
So, we’ll see continued asbestos mining in Quebec for at least a few more years, greenies and health professionals be damned.
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Michel A. Rathier, Consulting Partner, Secor Consulting
The underlined issue with Plan Nord is that from a good idea the Charest governement has totally misled not just Quebecers and Canadians but many potential international investors. Following the slick dog and pony presentation of last year the Liberals have held very counter economic development initiatives around the Plan Nord, that all died with the dissolution of Parliament: Bill 65 was to block 50% of the territory North of the 49th, a territory the size of France, from all potential development including exploration and Bill 14 was to give 1200 municipalities veto power on mining exploration and development, a move that was to undermine provincial fiduciairy responsibilities given by the Constitution; impose environemental reviews for all extraction (already in place for 7000 tons !) and expropriate without compensation thousands of rightfully owned claims, a move that went clearly against the North American Free Trade Agreement on investments. The proposed Bill 14 had already retroactively frozen all claim requests throughout the province since the 13th of May 2011. Even with a majority in the Assembly, they where not even able to pass Bill 27 which was to establish the Crown Corp. that would have managed the Plan Nord ! Such weak leadership in managing mineral ressources had already been demonstrated in the mismanagement of our forest ressources with Bill 65 that will come into full effect next spring, unless Quebecers put an end to a governement that has been cowtowing to all sides for the last 8 years. Sadly from a natural ressource development perspective the PQ seem poised to take power with absolutly worse ideas, the most dramatic one being to adopt and impose the Australian royalty model on a sector that has but 15 viable mining operations versus nearly 900 ones for our down under cousins. That leaves the new CAQ who still need to formulate a clearer platform for mining and natural ressources, at least they have the president of the board of a junior mining company running in a Montreal area riding…there may still be hope that mineral development in Quebec will find its letters of nobility and cease to be either the punching bag or the mythical milking cow for a governement ailing to be all things to all people !
Is it that hard to see that Plan Nord is just a rescore grab choked with propaganda put in place to turn our eyes away from huge environmental destruction towards the better sounding guise of “sustainable tourism”. I love how they use the words “major economic bodies” instead of what they really are – mining companies. Northern Quebec’s opportunity for sustainable tourism is larger without roads, mines and dams all over it.
One of the things they don’t say in their propaganda is that under much of Northern Quebec lies highly expensive lithium which is set to boom with the introduction of more and more hybrid cars on the market but as environmental experts warn the harm created in extracting lithium will outweigh the effects of fewer emissions.
I don’t see how Plan Nord will be a “win” or “sustainable” for the greatly depleted George River Caribou Heard. Northern Quebec is one of the World’s last true wilderness areas and it will be cherished on a global scale in the near future because of this. This plan does not look far enough into the future. What was the famed quote from a legendary Onondaga Chief? “Make every decision that we make relate to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation.” This is a far cry from that although the Quebec government would like to lead you to believe otherwise.
I hear the government crying out that this will help the native communities, many which have poverty and substance abuse problems. I have traveled all over the North and have met many very dignified and outstanding native people in several very remote communities, people I am happy to call my friends. I live in the big city where there is more infrastructure, social programs, and job opportunities than anywhere else in the country and the native people here aren’t doing any better than the ones in the communities. In fact I know many more upstanding native people in small communities than I do in the big city. The issues facing them are deeper than what can be fixed by a road and a job at a mine. To be honest I find it ignorant and disgusting that the Quebec government sees (or pretends to see it) as black and white as this when they speak about the benefits of Plan Nord.
The propaganda Charest and the Quebec government is using to go forward with Plan Nord is disgusting and should be illegal. The truth should be told to us in a “straight-up” fashion, no pulling the wool over our eyes, no propaganda. After all the misleading statements and literature have been de coded and the real facts are on the table let the citizens of Quebec vote on Plan Nord.