Skip to content

Quebec's Plan Nord provides fodder for Northern leaders

Talk is cheap to Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce President Harold Wilson when it comes to the Ontario government's commitment to invest in the Far North.
How Ontario's Far North will be both developed and protected will depend on the level of commitment from the province, say Northern leaders .

Talk is cheap to Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce President Harold Wilson when it comes to the Ontario government's commitment to invest in the Far North.

Wilson was one of the organizers behind a January presentation in Thunder Bay that gathered some of the architects of Quebec's Plan Nord who outlined the province's blueprint for development in that region.

The invitation, extended to consultants from National Public Relations, was to discover what the plan was, where the parallels were with the Northern Ontario Growth Plan, and where the two plans diverge.

The presentation has gotten tongues wagging, especially in northwestern Ontario, when comparing and contrasting it with the growth plan.

While Quebec is forging ahead with an $80-billion provincial investment, Wilson said Ontario is lagging behind.

The impression he took away from the presentation is that Quebec Premier Jean Charest “articulated an end-state” in choosing where the province wanted to see sustainable economic development, and backed that up with a major public investment.

“In Ontario, we have not heard a similar vision for development for Northern Ontario and the Far North. We have not heard that from the premier on what the vision is.”

Quebec's Plan Nord is an ambitious strategy to develop the province's 1.2 million square kilometres. The plan's aim is to develop the province's mining, forestry, energy and tourism resources for an area containing 63 communities and 120,000 people, less than two per cent of the province's population.

Millions will be spent in infrastructure developments, housing, health care and education.

To implement the plan, the Quebec government has established a special coordinating body – Société du Plan Nord – made up of regional representatives, First Nations, industry and government.

Both the Conference Board of Canada and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce have released studies promoting investment in these remote communities, which are deemed generators of national wealth. Both advocate public investment in infrastructure that returns the greatest socio-economic benefits.

“We were given the Far North Act, so is that the end state,” said Wilson, “as opposed to something which is about sustainable development, jobs and investment?”

Wilson had hoped a government-organized Ring of Fire infrastructure conference held last summer in Thunder Bay would have provided some clarity on Queen's Park's development vision for the North. But Wilson said he, and some heads of industry, were sorely disappointed.

“When Paul Semple of Noront Resources asked if this is a public-private partnership, where's the public, that's where you heard the echoes.”

After two government-hosted Think Conferences in 2009 and 2011 – events that Wilson called “talk shops” – he said it's time to go “back to the beginning” to achieve consensus on the Northern development plan.

Mineral exploration companies spent $1 billion last year in Northern Ontario and companies are preparing to invest more on mine development across the region and in the Ring of Fire.The looming question is when will the Ontario government get on board?

Paul Semple, chief operating officer of Noront, doesn't necessarily favour copying the Quebec plan, since a development strategy for Ontario needs to be judged on its own merit.

His company is set to wrap up a feasibility study on its Eagle's Nest nickel deposit in the Ring of Fire by late March. Semple said a degree of government buy-in is encouraging when his firm goes to the market to raise money.

The two biggest issues are transportation access and cheap power.

“Our perspective is that infrastructure of this scale should ultimately be owned by a combination of the province and the First Nation communities.”

Noront would be a transportation user, but the “least likely candidate to be an owner” of the infrastruc­ture.

Noront is prepared to invest in infrastructure, but Semple said it's not realistic to expect his company to pay the full freight.

“That's a tough pill for our shareholders. They don't expect us to invest in roads, they expect to invest in mines and produce nickel.”

Semple said a government funding commitment needs to happen shortly.

“We're trying to do a feasibility study and if we have a big unknown that's between 100 per cent and zero per cent of the infrastructure, that leaves a gap (in our study) that affects our ability to raise finances and attract investment to get the project going.”

Minister of Northern Development and Mines Rick Bartolucci was noncommital on a timetable for provincial investment.

“We're in discussion with Cliffs (Natural Resources) and those discussions are confidential. The operative thing here is there is a very proactive discussion taking place with the Ring of Fire.”

The province's Ring of Fire Coordinator, Christine Kaszycki, said Ontario is prepared to partner with industry on infrastructure spending.

“We continue to work with the companies and understand that there is some kind of opportunity for public-private partnership, but I can't be any more specific than that.”

Catherine Cano, managing partner at National Public Relations, said developing the Far North is a huge opportunity, “but it has be done the right way.”

The Toronto and Montreal-based firm helped facilitate the many meetings between the stakeholders for Plan Nord.

“In Quebec, it was clear the government was engaged,” said Cano, who emphasized that Plan Nord was a grassroots response cultivated in the communities.

The process involved gathering 450 people drawn from industry, municipalities, First Nations and the province in 60 meetings over two years.

It was an exhaustive process, but the 25-year strategy achieved consensus and was endorsed by the Quebec government. Respecting the environmental concerns of First Nations was vital.

“I think that’s what defined the plan. There was huge consultation from the beginning,” said Cano. And the dialogue still continues.

Cano said it's an oversimplication to characterize Plan Nord as an $80-billion marketing exercise to attract global investment.

The plan will likely create more than 20,000 jobs, but the proof is already happening on the ground with housing booms in small northern Quebec towns, job training, road building and transmission line construction underway.

“People feel engaged and they’re partners now.

“The plan is going faster than you can imagine because people sat together from the beginning.”

Cano said it’s difficult to compare Plan Nord with Ontario’s Northern Growth Plan, but she’s heard the concerns in Thunder Bay and said those can only be addressed with more conversation.

“The communities (in northwestern Ontario) are very determined. They understand what this opportunity means and they have a (chance) to take ownership, and in Quebec that’s what happened.”