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The Plan Nord Riotpdf

JoÊl Pedneault

 

In April 2012, as the student strike entered a new stage of intensity, advertisements started going up all over the city of Montreal announcing a job fair at the Conference Centre. The job fair was organised to allow people to find jobs as part of the Québec government's Plan Nord, and to provide an opportunity for businesspeople to network. A gala-type event was also held and Québec's prime minister at the time, Jean Charest, spoke to a room of bosses and politicians about his government's plans for developing Québec's far north.

The Plan Nord can be understood as a massive effort to promote a series of resource extraction projects in the northern parts of the land mass claimed by the Québec State, land which is also rightly claimed by the region's Indigenous peoples as their ancestral territory. This Plan was already in the works by April 2012—its definitive implementation had been trumpeted in March 2011, at the same time as the government announced the massive tuition increase which sparked the 2012 student strike. The Plan continues to be opposed, amongst other things, on the basis that it will result in the destruction of Indigenous livelihoods, and because it is being used as an excuse to massively subsidise extractive industries using public funds. The election of the more centrist Parti Québécois has seen the Plan change names but continue unchanged.

On the Friday and Saturday when the Plan Nord job fair was held (April 20th and 21st, 2012), thousands of protesters converged outside (and for a few brief moments, inside) the Conference Centre. During the ensuing riot I had the powerful sense that we were living through a turning point in the development of the Québec movement. For those two days different struggles and movements whose paths rarely cross came together in protest; movements that are usually kept apart by class, differing politics on Indigenous issues and nationalism, hundreds of years of colonialism, and geographical distance… This is one personal account of what happened that weekend and its significance.

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Many different groups and organisations worked to get people out onto the streets against the Plan Nord job fair. After some discussion, CLASSE called for a demonstration on both days of the event. Stickers were made that could be put on the ads promoting the job fair; translating from French, the stickers read: "Plan Nord fair: CANCELLED" (Salon du Plan Nord: ANNULÉ). The demonstration that CLASSE called for that Friday was thousands of people strong, providing a lot of momentum to that day's street battles.

Students were joined by many other groups in the streets. A network of eco-anarchists and anti-civilisation activists organised a parallel gathering, setting forth a more explicitly anti-colonial and anti-capitalist analysis than that of CLASSE. Identifiable by their green and black flags, these folks participated in the confrontation with police that escalated when the CLASSE demonstration met up with other folks who had already gathered just outside the Conference Centre.

Day One: Friday April 20th

The crowd moved very quickly and became very militant once the CLASSE demonstration reached the Conference Centre. Very soon, protesters had broken the glass of one of the Centre's many doors, been pushed out of the area by riot police, and had moved on to the street to the south of the Centre. There, a barricade was built on the street (a fairly uncommon occurrence during the strike) out of chic furniture appropriated from nearby cafés and construction equipment. The barricade slowed the police's pursuit, and the crowd was able to get to the eastern entrance of the Centre, damaging the doors on that side of the building as well.

The insurgence continued this way, pursued by police from one locked-down entrance to the Conference Centre to another, until the protesters discovered a large unlocked back entrance on the north side of the Centre. A couple hundred people flooded into the Centre, soon to be confronted by a thick line of riot police who charged down a flight of stairs and escalators to push the demonstrators back.

This highly mobile, highly motivated protest action created such chaos that the organisers of the job fair had to turn attendees away for much of that Friday. Substantial numbers of job-seekers collected around the Centre's entrances and milled impatiently, adding to the number of people in the area and to the overall confusion.

The demonstration grew increasingly chaotic as the riot police charged the crowd, which split up into a groups of a few dozen to a few hundred people. The number of people and both the amount and particular nature of the geographic space allowed protesters to disperse and regroup again and again.1 As a result, a considerable crowd kept converging on the Conference Centre.

At one point a group of demonstrators joined up with a group of Innu women from the Uashat Mak Mani Utenam community (in the vicinity of Sept-Îles, on the far northern coast of the St Laurence River) that had walked hundreds of kilometres to the Montreal to protest the Plan Nord and the destructive effects of colonialism and development on their ancestral land. A road extension located near the Mani Utenam community, for example, had already resulted in the construction of a new bridge over otherwise unaffected rivers that Atlantic salmon—a source of food for the Innu people in the area—use to spawn.

Towards mid-afternoon a fire hydrant was opened and spilled water out into the street. Around this point, I began to notice friends who had been at another action to protest a speech being given that morning by the Canadian Conservative government's immigration minister Jason Kenney. As this significant number of protesters joined in the Plan Nord protest, the police began to attack the crowd. We all happened to be near a large parking lot and people began to throw crumbing asphalt, along with garbage cans and construction material, at the police lines. The parking lot also served as a source of protection, perhaps because police were hesitant to fire tear-gas canisters, stun grenades and rubber bullets too close to the cars. Unfortunately however, it was at around this point that I was hit by a rubber bullet, and the rest of the day's events are less clear to me as a result. The day ended without any mass arrests, although there were reportedly targeted arrests of activists by police snatch squads in vans aided by a helicopter police detail, occurring as militants headed back home at around dusk.

A surprising aspect of that first day's events was the apparent disorganisation of the police forces outside the Conference Centre. Many groups of people were able to move around relatively unimpeded by the police. This was at least in part due to the overall pace of events during this stage of the strike. For weeks, early-morning militant actions (manif-actions) had been taking place on every weekday, and nightly demonstrations had begun gathering at around 8:30pm at Place Émilie-Gamelin on the eastern edge of downtown Montreal. The night demonstrations often lasted for hours, snaking throughout the city until the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes, major demonstrations would also take place in the middle of the day as well. By the weekend of the Plan Nord actions, the Montreal riot squad must have been significantly overextended, understaffed, and/or exhausted. The police force seemed overwhelmed by the numbers and perseverance of demonstrators, to the extent that at one point a group successfully intimidated a police line into retreating away from the Conference Centre. Satisfying video clips of police officers running away from advancing protestors, grabbing the air in front of them, were subsequently circulated through social media.

Day Two: Saturday April 21st

Saturday's action was more subdued than the previous day's memorable events. The major demonstration that day was a joint action organised by a group of politicised Innu activists called Innu Power, and activists from the Réseau de résistance du Québécois (RRQ), a loose network of Québec nationalists of a populist stripe, which I had thought were right-wing, but whose politics seemed more left of centre (although hardly anti-capitalist or anti-colonial) in the context of their opposition to the Plan Nord. Their gathering was not as confrontational as the previous day's had been; folks took up the microphone near where the previous day's demonstration had begun, to talk about Indigenous land claims (in the case of Innu Power) or to set forth a more social-democratic, nationalist politic decrying the Québec government's unwillingness to tax resource extraction to benefit the public purse, and claiming 'natural resources' for 'the people' in Québec (as opposed to various elite or foreign business interests). While it was not clear whether, and if so to what extent, this apparent contradiction was salient to Innu Power and the RRQ, I was surprised that this tension between the two groups' claims about land did not prevent a temporary alliance between them.

Rainy weather and exhaustion from the previous day caused many people to stay home instead of coming out to protest the second day of the Plan Nord job fair. Police manoeuvres were also more successful. When a relatively small group of protesters broke away from the gathering and took to the street as speeches continued peacefully in the park across from the Conference Centre, the demonstration was quickly dispersed by charging riot cops and stun grenades. A few dozen comrades who had made their way into a nearby office building were surrounded by police, arrested, and loaded into a few city buses to be shipped off to a police station for booking. Saturday's protests were not as successful at preventing access to the job fair as the previous day's actions.

What is the Plan Nord and who benefits from it?

In order to understand the Plan Nord and its political significance it is important to note the types of resources that are being extracted out of the landmass north of the 49th parallel in Québec and what this entails. Diamonds, gold and various rare earth metals and uranium are reportedly present in significant quantities in the area. Of course, the ores that are mined in the area need to be moved to where there are factories to turn them into something that can be bought and sold; which means that a major aspect of the Plan Nord is building a significant amount of heavy infrastructure in the vast region.

Road extensions into the northern and eastern reaches of this land have already begun and been blockaded by Indigenous protestors, especially in the area of Sept-Îles, on the far north-eastern coast of the Saint Lawrence River. Hydroelectric lines are also being extended onto Indigenous land, in some cases against the explicit will of the peoples who claim the land in question. For instance, the Innu community of Uashat Mak Mani Utenam held two separate referenda on the question of whether to allow hydroelectric line extensions into their territory, both of which showed the community is against doing so. In spite of this, Hydro-Québec—a major stakeholder in the Plan Nord—has gone ahead with the hydroelectric development as planned. Other proposed infrastructure development projects include the construction of railways to move ore out of the region, as well as deep-sea ports that will also serve an effort by the federal Conservative government's attempts to militarise the region and claim "Arctic sovereignty."2

The Plan has also been linked to various other aspects of the state apparatus. As the government cuts funding and implements stricter regulations for the federal Employment Insurance program, for example, a Plan Nord section was added to the Emploi-Québec website, which serves as a state-sponsored job search engine. Stories have also begun to surface about more university resources being oriented towards mining companies' research and labour needs. For instance, the regional university in Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT; the northern-most university in Québec) has begun to create programs specifically tailored to the needs of the mining industry, such as a mining management degree.3 This aggressive re-positioning of the Québec state as an enthusiastic benefactor of resource extraction companies is perceptible across the board.

Strangely, the apparent effervescence on the part of the business class is contradicted by evidence that the price of metals (including rare earth metals) is entering a sharp period of decline, in the context of a boom-and-bust cycle that repeats itself around every decade.4 It would seem that the financial capitalists who bankroll resource extraction projects are becoming more stingy with their purse-strings, just as production costs are rising. This begs the question: what non-economic forces are at play that motivate this latter-day gold-rush?

One answer is suggested in an interview with a former Parti Québécois minister, Richard Le Hir, who states that certain major financial interests in Québec (he names the infamous Power Corporation, a pillar of monopoly capitalism in the province) may currently be concerned with moving their financial instrument-heavy investments into more "stable" sectors of the economy in order to ensure a more solid basis for their future money-making endeavours, in light of the 2008 financial crisis.5

Extrapolating from this claim, I suggest that the Québec State may currently be in the process of subsidising the overhead costs of an otherwise unattractive or unprofitable industry in an effort to encourage capitalists to participate (more actively) in a long-standing process of settler colonisation and the territorial expansion of the reach of the State. This process continues at the expense of Indigenous peoples, while the government rolls out an aggressive public relations campaign to convince the settler/Southern Québec population that this process is being carried out for their own benefit. Perhaps the Québec State is also taking cues from a shift in other Canadian provinces towards natural resource extraction as a way to generate the conditions that make so-called "economic growth" possible—a shift that includes, but is not limited to, the mining of the internationally condemned Tar Sands development in the province of Alberta.

Challenges to anti-colonial solidarity on the left

The Québec left's response to the Plan Nord has been ambiguous when it comes to the relationship between the (potentially) lucrative resource extraction projects the Plan encompasses, on the one hand, and public finances, on the other hand.

The centre-left, made up of major unions, political parties, and NGOs or coalitions with (some) state funding, has embraced the idea that Northern development can be carried out in such a way that it can fund the continued existence of the welfare state. Some groups have advocated a reformed version of Plan Nord, or a more equitable distribution of the wealth created by extracting resources.

This segment of the left has done little to act upon an understanding of the impacts of such development on the environment or on Indigenous livelihoods. Nor has there been much (or any) critique of the work-camp economy this type of development tends to expand, exacerbating a colonial division of labour where white people/settlers tend to get the better jobs in resource extraction industries, and Indigenous folks end up working in or around these industries for lower pay, while the their livelihoods and the social fabric of their communities are undermined by environmental destruction and the appeal of survival through wage-labour (as opposed to traditional means of subsistence).

It is against these outcomes that Indigenous, anarchist and anti-colonial networks have mobilised to oppose resource extraction projects in Northern Québec. Networks have been created to support those Indigenous people—often women or those who are at odds with their local band councils6--who oppose industrial development on their ancestral lands, and who have blockaded roads and construction sites to stop development projects.

CLASSE's position during the student strike was ambiguous with respect to whether or not the funds generated by the Plan Nord should be used to make post-secondary education more accessible to low-income folks. At one point spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois told Le Devoir, Québec's left-of-centre independent daily newspaper, that revenue generated by the Plan Nord could be considered an alternative to raising tuition fees. His statement took the easy route of emphasising that foreign corporations were able to access mineral ore virtually for free (since at the time taxes on mining profits were very low).7 These public statements led to debates in student general assemblies and CLASSE's Congresses over whether this would be an acceptable "alternative" to the tuition fee increase we were fighting. Some associations resolved to oppose this type of solution that might deliver a short-term 'win' for the student movement at the expense of Indigenous communities and of the environment.

The divergence within the left regarding the extraction of natural resources has been exacerbated by the 2012 election of the Parti Québécois (PQ). The PQ has introduced slightly higher taxation on mining revenues; with the extra revenue being used to service the province's public debt payments (i.e. to contribute to major financial institution's profits), and not to directly fund social programs as some might have hoped. This debt reduction effort sees the extra money being transferred to a fund named the Fonds des générations, whose explicit goals are a) stabilising the Québec state's credit rating and b) not increasing other forms of taxation.8

Alongside these developments, the PQ government has stopped calling its intervention into northern resource extraction projects Plan Nord, instead choosing the (even more colonial sounding) slogan Le Nord pour tous ("The North for Everybody"), and has launched consultations with environmental groups in an attempt to "greenwash" (without significantly altering) its policies. Despite the demonstrations that happened around the 2012 Plan Nord job fair and suggested the potential for a common struggle to be created, the critical mass of students who were active in the strike have been ambiguous about responding to the PQ's continued push to "develop" the North at the expense of Indigenous land claims. I hope that we will be able to move past this ambiguity and develop movements that can make demands regarding the redistribution of resources by the social-democratic welfare state (such as the demand for free education), while acting to facilitate the efforts of Indigenous folks and their anti-colonial allies.

1 My thanks to Smoke for this and many other insights about the tactical dimension of the events of that weekend.

2 Alexandre Shields, Le Devoir, July 4, 2012. "2 ports en eau profonde de plus qui serviront à militariser la région"

3 Radio-Canada, September 7th, 2012, "UQAT : nouveau programme dans le domaine minier," www.radio-canada.ca/regions/abitibi/2012/09/07/003-programme-gestion-mines.shtml

4 Dansereau, Suzanne, La Presse Affaires, June 6th, 2012, "Des nuages noirs au-dessus du boom minier"

5 Le Hir, Richard and Rémi Leroux, A Babord No. 47 (dec. 2012/jan. 2013). "Entretien avec Richard Le Hir," www.ababord.org/spip.php?article1592

6 Band Councils are a creation of Canada's Indian Act, and are a non-traditional form of governance that is tasked with representing by the federal government. Band councils often negotiate the terms of resource extraction on land claimed by Indigenous people, in exchange for material "benefits" such as cash payments for the community.

7 Alexandre Shields, Le Devoir, February 20th, 2012, "Droits de scolarité: plus de 30 000 étudiants sont en grève"

8Quebec Ministry of Finance, Le Fonds des générations. Pour favoriser l'équité entre les générations, la pérennité des programmes sociaux et la prospérité, 2006, www.budget.finances.gouv.qc.ca/fondsdesgenerations/LeFondsGen.pdf