Premier Jean Charest has unveiled an ambitious multibillion-dollar plan to develop Quebec's remote northern region, creating a legacy project that he hopes will generate a new source of revenue for the cash-strapped province.
The economic proposal, Plan Nord, involves a region north of the 49th parallel that is twice the size of France and covers more than 70 per cent of the province's territory.
The proposal involves $80-billion in public and private investment over the next 25 years, Mr. Charest said. In return, he said, it will generate an estimated $14-billion in revenue over the same period and contribute $162-billion to the province's gross domestic product.
"What we are unveiling here is Quebec's future," Mr. Charest said. "On the political level, this is one of the best moments in my life. This is one of the reasons I got involved in politics."
For a government heavily in debt, the Plan Nord will involve a lot of upfront spending: Over the first five years, Quebec plans to spend $2.1-billion - close to $1.2-billion for infrastructure including roads and airports, $382-million for social and housing programs and another $500-million in venture capital.
The money will be vested in a special fund and managed by a new agency called La Société du plan nord.
The government projects it will take in $14-billion in tax revenue over 25 years as a result of northern development projects. It also estimates it will pull in $1.4-billion worth of mining royalties in the next five years, half from northern Quebec. The government also plans stakes in money-making ventures - such as mines - in the area.
No fewer than 11 new mining projects are at an advanced stage and will begin operating in the next few years, Mr. Charest said.
"Public funding for the plan will be financed by the economic fallout that the projects will generate," said Nathalie Normandeau, Minister of Natural Resources.
Companies will be required to build homes in communities where they open new mines, the government said. Special hydro and wind-power energy projects - the development of an additional 3,500 megawatts - are being planned partly to meet the needs of new mining projects and the communities affected by the boom.
The government also proposed a major expansion of the tourism industry in the north and promised to protect half of the vast territory from industrial development.
"The Plan Nord was until recently a vision. And as of now it is the most important sustainable development project for the future of Quebec. And one of the most sustainable development projects in the world," Mr. Charest said during a special ceremony in Lévis involving 450 representatives from native groups, local communities and industries.
The Northern Quebec Crees applauded the initiative. "Gone are the days when projects were announced by the government of Quebec without involving the first nations, without involving the communities directly affected. This is a new era," said Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come.
"We have gone from an era of a policy of exclusion to an era of a policy of inclusion."
But not all native groups agreed. Some refused to participate, saying the consultation process failed to take into account their needs. "How can the government launch its Plan Nord without obtaining consent of all first nations. The process is incomplete and very disappointing," said Ghislain Picard, head of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador.
A coalition of Quebec environmental groups also expressed skepticism, saying that the plan was an attempt to regulate a mining boom rather than the expression of an authentic vision for the north.