Premier has bold vision for the North

The premier announced a bold vision for the North last week. Which premier, you ask? You can probably guess it wasn't one of the territorial leaders. None of the three are known for their vision.

The premier announced a bold vision for the North last week.

Which premier, you ask? You can probably guess it wasn’t one of the territorial leaders. None of the three are known for their vision.

It was Jean Charest of Quebec. And his new “Plan Nord” for northern Quebec really is bold. It has a 25-year perspective and promises $80 billion in investment to support 20,000 jobs a year.

It conjures up memories of when our leaders had bold visions for the future of the Yukon, like Diefenbaker with the Dempster Highway or the Carr Report that legendary former Yukon commissioner Jim Smith commissioned in 1968 along with the federal minister of Indian and northern affairs.

The Quebec plan has the bold industrial development ambitions associated with earlier northern visions, but wrapped in 21st-century language about renewable energy and environmental protection. And these aren’t just vague talking points. Renewable energy investments in hydro, wind and other generation total $47 billion – yes, billion – and 50 per cent of the 1.2-million-square-kilometre territory in scope will be reserved for nonindustrial use.

The approach is one that has so far eluded the Yukon, which is to definitively protect large areas and at the same time make it clear that aggressive development is welcome in the nonprotected areas. Charest has set a date of 2015 to establish a network of protected areas covering 12 per cent of the land, with new provincial parks and new laws to withdraw land from industrial use.

On the other hand, he hopes for at least 11 new mines, a new northern forest practices certification to boost wood exports, new programs to encourage hunting and fishing businesses and initiatives to draw both “Quebec and foreign” tourists.

Quebec also hopes to foster a northern “bio-food” sector, making northern Quebec blueberries, cloudberries, and northern fish as much a part of the economy as maple syrup is for southern Quebec.

Supporting all this will be investments in road, internet and wireless infrastructure. Public-private partnerships will be used to spread the cost onto the private sector.

The Ministere des Finances estimates the plan will add $14 billion in tax revenues for Quebec over 25 years, including billions in mining royalties.

Charest also wants northerners to benefit as much as possible from the development. The most fundamental investment will be in education, where Quebec hopes to offer education programs better suited to the needs of northern children as well as better-linking training programs and business needs. Businesses participating in Plan Nord will be required to have a training plan involving locals.

Charest and his ministers do not gloss over the importance of education to sustainable economic development in northern Quebec. They note that in 2008-09, 70 per cent of Naskapi youth, 81 per cent of Inuit and 92 per cent of Cree left school without a diploma or qualification. Plan Nord has 12 specific education and training initiatives planned, and they specify the role for government, local communities and business in each one. This will be backed up by money: for example, $80 million over five years to support training and recruitment.

Plan Nord also integrates housing and the promotion of aboriginal culture, two hot northern issues. Resource companies will need to have a housing plan for their workers, and the government will also invest in further social housing.

Skeptics will remind us that it’s easy to hold a press conference and release a glossy plan. Some will say that the whole thing is just a smokescreen for Hydro Quebec to build some more massive dams.

Time will tell if Quebec can really achieve better educational outcomes and if the new roads, parks, mines and windmills actually materialize.

Nonetheless, Quebec is ahead of us in three areas.

First, at least it has a vision backed up by a relatively comprehensive plan.

Second, Charest has driven a “whole-of-government” approach. Ministers and officials covering economic development, natural resources, parks, agriculture, environment, education and aboriginal affairs are being forced to work together. Whole-of-government may be a buzzword, but doing it successfully is critical to success on today’s issues which often cross the org charts of traditional government departments. It’s something the Yukon government has not traditionally been highly successful at.

Third, Quebecers appear to understand the importance of balancing economic development and environmental protection. You sometimes get the impression that more than a few Yukoners would be happy if no new mines, roads or electricity-generating projects were ever built here, and that we instead rely on Ottawa to continue to increase our transfer payments each year.

We shall see if Quebec voters reward Charest for putting a northern vision forward. Recent polls suggest that he may not be premier of Quebec for long. But he has translated his plan into English, and the many current aspirants to the Yukon premier’s office might want to read it and see how it compares to their visions for the Yukon’s future.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.