Posted at Americas Quarterly on May 19, 2011
History is a great teacher, and in these days of disaffected voters I take solace in reaching back in the past to see if we can find some inspiration to make our politics more appealing to the voter. Senator Robert F. Kennedy was fond of this quote: "Some people see things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?” Lest we not forget Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s call: ‘’Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.” You might say this was another era and we were dealing with transformational changes such as civil rights. But it was more than that. It was about an era where we could dream of a better world, not for the next election cycle but for the next generations. It was a time where we believed in the power of dreams. It seems voters in democracies are craving for this kind of aspirational and inspirational rhetoric and leadership from their elected representatives.
Since the days of RFK and MLK, it seems our politics have become more transactional than transformational. We argue about deficits, taxes, debt, stimulus funding, and how to negotiate an amendment to a bill. We sometimes fall into silliness like insisting on certified proof of the birth of a person already duly vetted and elected over two years ago. Voter turnouts in western democracies have consistently declined, though the last presidential election saw an increase. Much of it can be attributed to the candidacy of Barack Obama where young people felt inspired by the power of his words and, yes, his dreams for change in America. That was the lesson of 2008 whether you voted for Obama or not. Dreams matter.
On May 9, 2011, Premier Charest tried to take a page from history to present a project not for the next election, but for the next generation. It is called “Plan Nord: Building Northern Québec Together.”
To be fair, not all politics can be about transformational change. We need to be realistic. Not only would it be irresponsible to bankrupt a nation to pay for electorally-popular programs, it would be downright immoral to neglect the impact on future generations. People want jobs, not speeches. But sometimes, it is important that politicians get out of the box and think beyond the next election cycle.
This is why the recently announced major sustainable project in Northern Québec becomes worthy of attention. Skeptics may caution scrutiny, but it is definitely one that merits interest for its magnitude and its promise to demonstrate that economic development, environmental protection and community building can be on the same page when it comes to vision, policy development and decision-making.
In the interests of full disclosure, you would expect my endorsement of this project given my current position. This being said, this announcement by Québec’s premier is the culmination of years of study, consultation, debate, and discussion from all the different parties interested in developing a modern, sustainable development project. Environmentalists, aboriginal leaders, builders, investors, voters, and political opponents all have the right to ask: What is in it for us? Why do it? If so, how can we turn it into a win-win proposition—one that benefits the current generation but embodies a wealth of opportunity and hope for the next generation? This is why at the announcement and after years of consultation and study, the Plan Nord had to begin to answer these questions.
This far-reaching vision will span over 25 years and will be developed under a series of five five-year plans covering the territory north of the 49th Parallel, roughly twice the size of Texas and France, and comprising 72 percent of Québec’s land mass. It is above all an open sustainable development project that integrates energy, mining, forest, bio-food, wildlife tourism, infrastructure building, and preservation of biodiversity—ensuring sustainable community development.
The project will involve over an $80 billion USD investment of public and private money. The government will commit by law to protect half of the territory for purposes other than industrial use—making it one of the most ambitious initiatives ever to protect the boreal forest and Northern ecosystems.
Aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities are partners in the enterprise and will benefit from the economic activity and wealth. At the launch, the public support of the Cree Nation’s grand chief, Matthew Coon Come, was deemed to be symbolically significant as he was largely responsible for scuttling the Great Whale Hydro project two decades ago because he did not feel the process included the aboriginal communities and environmental concerns. The difference this time, he said, was that the communities felt included and the concerns were addressed.
It is to be expected that some groups will question the viability and the scope of such an enterprise, but newspaper editorialists in Québec acknowledge the plan was developed in a responsible way, highly conscious of the environment and respectful of the communities. I have known Premier Charest personally for more than 20 years and I know he has cherished two important objectives as part of his public commitment: sustainable development and developing the north for future generations.
To some, it may seem like just a dream. Not, however, if you believe in the power of dreams.