Could politics stand in the way of Plan Nord? Stikeman Elliott seminar raises the issue

A seminar I attended in Toronto this week raised some interesting issues around Plan Nord — Quebec’s massive initiative to develop its north by 2030. The plan would draw $80 billion in public, private and foreign investment for mining and energy projects, while simultaneously developing infrastructure and strengthening ties with First Nations communities.

The panel was moderated by Stikeman Elliott’s Erik Richer La Flèche, with speakers including: Maxime Turcotte, also a partner in Stikeman’s Montreal office; André-Martin Couchard, vice-president, environment of the engineering consulting firm Genivar; and Nochane Rousseau, leader of PwC’s mining and Plan Nord initiative.

Genivar’s Couchard spoke at length about the planning and permitting stages, a process of two years or more during which numerous permits — 25 to 60 by his reckoning — were required, along with environmental assessments and intensive consultations with First Nations communities.

Couchard stressed the need for “social acceptability” and for developers to involve local communities as soon as possible:

“In most projects, we strongly recommend to our clients to start the consultation process right at the start, so there’s a better feeling and a better understanding of the local community’s perceptions of the project and what they think of the project. So very early on in the process, the project can be adapted to the local community’s apprehensions.”

Environmental acceptance was also a hot topic — and not only local or national acceptance, but international as well.

“In order to be able to massively export its power into the US,” La Flèche interjected at one point, “[the industry] needs to get the acceptability of US environmental groups. One of those groups, particularly the Pew Foundation, has said that one of the most important elements for its acceptance is protection of the Quebec Boreal Forest.

“There’s a need to protect some of that forest in order to be able to export, and that is a theme that we are seeing more and more — Alberta is learning that lesson also.”

And, of course, politics came into play in the discussion, as Turcotte spoke on Bill 14, which would amend the province’s Mining Act in ways that could prove troublesome for the industry. Most of the focus has been on article 91 of the bill, which would require that claims holders obtain the consent of nearby cities. But as Turcotte points out, “It’s not that much of an issue, because most Plan Nord projects are in the middle of nowhere.”

Turcotte also brought up the implications of a provincial election that has to be called by the end of 2015: “The Parti Québécois … has made Plan Nord their main electoral issue. They argue for higher royalties and taxation for mining companies. They’ve argued for charging mine companies with ‘fair’ prices for energy.”

La Flèche, however, was quick to point out that the Parti Québécois  has not been consistent historically in its approach to business: “Whenever the PQ has been in power, it has been more generous – and perhaps too generous – towards business.

“If you look at the public statement that has been made by [Pauline] Marois, you will see  … a lot of softeners, which means that this is still a case-by-case story.

“The PQ is going into elections, they’re challenging, they’re saying frankly that the Liberals are too generous. But when you look at what they’re releasing, they are quite subtle … so we have to be nuanced. The fact that the PQ comes in isn’t going to change anything. Plan Nord will move on, and after six months or a year of some uncertainty, things will go back to normal for business. … At least that is the history of the PQ.”

David Dias

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