Quebec native communities are divided over the Charest government's plan to aggressively develop natural resources in the vast Northern Quebec territory despite threats of litigation and social unrest by militant Innu communities.
The so-called Northern Plan is Premier Jean Charest's vision for the development of Northern Quebec's 1.2-million square kilometres, or 72 per cent of the province's land mass. The vague and still ill-defined plan to develop the area's energy, mining, forestry and tourism potential began to take shape yesterday following a closed-door meeting that included government officials and representatives of the North's 63 communities, as well as native and business leaders.
The native chiefs of five of the province's nine Innu communities which formed an alliance to fight future development plans on their territory without their consent warned they want their fair share of the wealth the government intends to generate. The alliance claimed to represent 10,000 Innu, or about 70 per cent of the total Innu population in Quebec.
“For years, governments and mining companies have enriched themselves through the exploitation of our territories. Meanwhile, my community continues to live in unacceptable conditions of poverty. Enough is enough. We will stand for respect,” said Innu Chief Réal McKenzie of the Matimekush-Lac John community.
The head of the alliance, Chief Raphael Picard, said the native communities are beginning to mobilize to stop the government's development plan on their territory.
“With its Northern Plan, the government must understand that without the participation and consent of the Innu, not a single development project will go forward,” Chief Picard said.
The Innu said they will renege on an agreement allowing for the $6.5-billion development of the 1,550-megawatt La Romaine hydroelectric project, claiming they were cheated in the process.
“We have territorial rights … and they never recognized our rights and title to that land,” said George Bacon, chief of the La Romaine River community of Unamen Shipu. “We are not municipalities.”
The Charest government has no intention of backing down on the La Romaine project, and for that matter on all development projects it hopes to initiate. Yesterday, the government proudly displayed the support of the four other Innu community chiefs who attended the meeting, while also underscoring the backing of the Cree, the Inuit and the Naskapi for the Northern Plan.
“What the government can confirm is that the Northern Plan is started, it's been launched and we are committed to working with all of the communities,” said the minister responsible for the plan, Nathalie Normandeau.
Innu leader Christiane Lalo rejected the arguments of those who oppose the plan. “I feel reassured by what I've heard here today,” Ms. Lalo said at the conclusion of yesterday's meeting. “It's important that we don't miss the boat this time.”
The head of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard, remained skeptical about the government's stated intentions of developing the North in the interest of the communities.
“People are angry. There's a lot of hypocrisy here,” Mr. Picard stated. “If they were serious about our concerns, the government would consider the native communities differently [than the other communities].”
Unlike the Innu, who have land claims that are far from being settled, the other first nations involved in the Northern Plan have signed modern treaties with the federal and provincial governments. Any development project on their land requires their consent.
Cree Nation Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come said the Northern Plan will have to be subject to the 1975 James Bay Treaty and 2002 Paix des Braves agreement. Despite siding with the government's initiative yesterday, he warned that without the spirit of a “nation-to-nation” partnership, the “Plan Nord” will never get off the ground.
“There is also a danger which is before us. This is the danger of slipping into previous historical patterns of paternalism or marginalization and resulting social conflict, mistrust and litigation,” Mr. Coon Come said.
The Quebec government said the Cree and Inuit can rest assured that their treaty rights will be fully honoured. As for the Innu, the government plans to deal with individual communities on a project-by-project basis.
“Look at La Romaine, that's part of the Northern Plan,” Ms. Normandeau said. “We can see that people are willing to work at defining a plan that will reflect their ambitions.”