Capitalizing on the Opportunities Afforded by the Plan Nord: a Rocky Road Ahead?

August 31st, 2013

As at the time of writing this article, the dots are not all yet connected for the launching of the Quebec government’s bold and ambitious Plan Nord. The Société du Plan Nord, a Crown corporation that will be a key player in determining infrastructure priorities, has still to be created, and not all the political players on whom the viability of the project depends are currently on board. As the months go by, the rules are firming up but at the same time becoming more complex. “Full speed ahead!” some may say, but any such commitment will be far from risk-free. Only those who can identify the inherent risks and take appropriate precautions will be successful.

Calls for tenders, northern-style

First and foremost, the particularities of calls for tenders in the context of the Plan Nord must be considered. They highlight the reality faced by potential projects in the area.

A good illustration of the fact that carrying out a project in Northern Quebec can involve difficulties not encountered south of the 49th parallel is the extension of Highway 167 toward the Otish Mountains and the controversy that ensued concerning the right of businesses belonging to aboriginal interests to obtain infrastructure contracts without having to submit a tender. In that case, the Quebec government, in response to the concerns of the aboriginal community, adopted a decree on December 14, 2011 approving an agreement between the Minister of Transport and the Mistissini Cree community giving the latter the right to build part of the extension of Highway 167 to the Otish Mountains.

This is just one example of how these particularities will be reflected in any given situation. The logistics of lodging on construction sites, the participation of private enterprise in project financing and the private investor’s technical requirements in connection with road infrastructure, the obligation for contractors to provide local economic benefits and the hiring of aboriginal workers pursuant to agreements in place between primary contractors and local communities are other examples.

On the technical level, a glance at a map of the area in question confirms the absence of an interconnected network of roads or railways, despite the fact that there are several communities in the area.  While there are some 51,000 km of logging roads and a few hundred miles of public roads, upgrading and integrating them into a coherent network presents a major challenge.

The technical challenges due to distance, climate and the scarcity of labour and resources will also require greater planning, particularly regarding modes of transporting and storing equipment, materials and fuel.

Northern challenges in terms of the environment, labour relations, governance and relations with aboriginal communities

Businesses will have to comply with the environmental rules specific to projects near the 55th parallel, pursuant to both the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and Quebec’s Environment Quality Act, and also, in some cases, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

Labour standards and industrial health and safety regulations specific to the geographical and climactic realities of this part of Quebec will also have to be taken into account.

In terms of the governance and management of projects, businesses will be dealing with multiple jurisdictions (municipal, regional, provincial and federal).

Last and certainly not least, aboriginal communities will be indispensable allies for the successful realization of any project. The last word will not always be with the primary contractor and it will be more than prudent for businesses involved to get to know the communities impacted by the work, as well as their rights, claims, and political and social structures. The primary objective of this preliminary exercise is to establish good relations with aboriginal government bodies. This will not only ensure that the project proceeds smoothly, but will satisfy constitutional obligations of the government towards the aboriginal communities.

All of these challenges can no doubt be met, provided the groundwork is carefully laid.