In May of this year, Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced the launch of a massive and ambitious $80 billion economic, social and environmental plan to develop Northern Quebec over the next 25 years. Plan Nord covers all the territory in Quebec north of the 49th parallel, which represents 72 per cent of the province’s land. And it is land that is rich with natural resources and untapped potential, including such mineral resources as nickel, cobalt, platinum, diamonds, zinc, iron ore and uranium, but poor when it comes to infrastructure, which makes developing these resources hugely expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. Plan Nord is the vision that can change that, not just for the mining sector but also for such industries as forestry, energy and tourism.
According to Clément Gignac, the province’s minister responsible for Plan Nord, “since we presented Plan Nord last spring, we have been receiving tons of demands to present it to political figures and potential foreign investors, and to talk about the mining potential and different aspects of mining policies in Quebec.”
“For mining exploration and miners in Quebec, Plan Nord is a fantastic opportunity,” says Ghislain Poirier, president of the Association de l’exploration minière du Québec (AEMQ), who for two years sat as the representative of the mining exploration sector on the Plan Nord Partners Table, which included 25 representatives from various industries, Aboriginal Peoples and other stakeholders in the region, and was set up by the government to develop the plan. “Many explorers are very confident that if we succeed with Plan Nord, the entire province of Quebec will benefit, because the potential for resources is not big, it’s huge. And the international mining community has recognized this for many years. It’s one of the best regions to explore – it’s a dream for an explorer.”
It is a dream that some mining companies over the years have pursued, but to do so, they have had to beat the odds, tackling the challenges with tenacity and tremendous investments. At the extreme northern tip of the province in Nunavik, for example, there is Xstrata Nickel’s Raglan Mine, which has been in operation since 1998 and includes a two-kilometre-long landing strip. The company purchased a Boeing 737 and made it gravel-strip capable. The combination cargo/passenger aircraft transports critical supplies, fresh produce and all employees and contractors. The mine, which now consists of three mines, another close to starting up and two more starting construction in 2012, has access to a 150-kilometre year-round road network, but the site is accessible only by boat and plane. “Logistics is the principal consistent challenge for us,” says Mike Welch, vice-president, Xstrata Nickel Raglan Mine. “There’s also the unpredictable weather to deal with. The main production and accommodation site is approximately 100 kilometres south from our port facility at Deception Bay, so wind, snow and whiteouts can interrupt the transport of concentrate and supplies.” And, adds Welch, “There is always the intense winter cold. There is no drilling-dry; therefore, we use a brine solution underground to keep the water from freezing.”
Expanding the network of roads
Since 2006, in the Otish Mountains, some 275 kilometres north of Chibougamau and 210 kilometres northeast of Mistissini, Strateco Resources has also been beating the odds with its Matoush project, which the company says is one of the world’s highest grade uranium projects. But to do so, it has already spent $65 million. The company is now awaiting federal approval to build an underground exploration ramp. “We have access to our project by air and with a winter road from January to March, which costs us between $800,000 and $1 million per year,” says Guy Hébert, the company’s president and CEO. Plan Nord, whose top objectives include making Northern Quebec more accessible, is about to change that. Construction for the $331.6 million extension of Route 167 between Témiscamie and the Otish Mountains is expected to begin soon and will benefit not just Strateco but also Stornoway Diamonds’ Renard project, among others. As part of Plan Nord, the government plans to recoup 50 per cent of its investment, asking industrial users to chip in both in construction costs as well as covering the maintenance costs once the road is built.
“With the road, which we should be connected to by the fall of 2012, we’ll not only save money from our winter road,” says Hébert, “but having permanent access to transportation also saves a lot of money in storage as well and reduces your need to store inventory.”
This extension is an example of the type of transportation initiatives Poirier’s organization believes the government should pursue. “Route 167 will serve at least four potential mining projects, as well as a national park and a potential windmill farm being developed in the area,” he says. “I think building multi-services roads is the way to develop the North rather than on a project-by-project basis.
But there is no certainty yet that this is the way Plan Nord will always materialize. The fact is that while there is a lot of buy-in for Plan Nord among stakeholders from industries and communities, to date, the plan remains a framework, with few specifics and details. “I think the first tool needed to develop the implementation is the Crown corporation, La Société du Plan Nord,” says Poirier. “That entity will be created in the current parliamentary session.”