Tom Mulcair: Quebecers want answers, not arrogance

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Pierre Fitzgibbon, Quebec’s minister of economy, innovation and energy, appears to have a high opinion of his opinions. He also seems to believe that any opinion that disagrees with his is wrong. 

“Fitz” got into a huff in La Presse on Monday sharing his profound dissatisfaction with an opinion expressed by highly respected commentator Michel C. Auger. Auger penned a piece going after Legault for having said Quebecers must change their attitude and stop opposing big projects like the Northvolt battery plant project in St-Basile-le-Grand. Fitzgibbon came across as arrogant while Auger’s column was, if anything, understated. 

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Auger pointed out, correctly, that the rules appear to have been changed to suit Northvolt. Up until that project appeared, a project producing over 50,000 tonnes of cathode materials per year would automatically require hearings before the Quebec environmental public hearings board, the BAPE. 

The limit was changed to 60,000 tonnes and, lo and behold, the 56,000 tonnes projected to be produced by Northvolt no longer exceeded the rejigged threshold. It smacked of cheap politics, and Premier François Legault and Fitzgibbon got called out for it. Seasoned and respected environmental lawyers have instituted legal action. The public in the area of the proposed plant has expressed outrage. 

Trying to show his folksy side, Fitzgibbon offered up this gem: The fish in the area of the planned Northvolt plant probably have three eyes. It was his way of saying a little bit more pollution won’t change anything; it’s an ecosystem that’s already sunk. 

The Richelieu River, near the proposed plant, is one of the most beautiful in Quebec. To dismiss concerns for biodiversity in such a way is not just harebrained, it’s insulting. It contrasts starkly with Legault’s moving speech before delegates from 196 countries at the United Nations Montreal Conference on biodiversity in December 2022. The Coalition Avenir Québec talks a good game on environment and biodiversity but looks hopeless when it comes to actually respecting species and habitat. 

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Don’t get me wrong — I don’t have a hard and fast opinion about the Northvolt plant’s site. Why? Because it’s never been adequately studied. That’s what the BAPE hearings would have ensured. After scuppering the BAPE, Legault and Fitzgibbon don’t get to whine about how unfair environmentalists are being in the face of their “great project.”

Let’s go back to another “great project” Legault was touting just a few short years ago. In the run-up to his government’s first victory, he was adamant in his support of oil and gas exploration on Anticosti Island. He went so far as to say he might withdraw Quebec government support for the candidature of Anticosti as a UNESCO World Heritage Site if there was a good buck to be made extracting hydrocarbons. 

Since he made that statement, Legault did an incredible about face. Anticosti has been recognized by UNESCO and Legault has come out against oil and gas exploration anywhere in Quebec. 

That turnabout even earned Legault recognition by Al Gore. Where is that Legault today? 

In his La Presse piece, Fitzgibbon offers up unsubstantiated anecdotes as a way of supporting his view that approvals are just too complicated in Quebec (and in so doing appears to give motive and justification for rigging the rules for Northvolt.)

He pleads that “several Quebecers who work outside the country speak to us about this, and foreign companies doing business here confirm it: carrying out large projects is longer, more complex and expensive than almost anywhere else in the world.”

If true, it would make for a fascinating study at any one of our top business schools. Of course it’s hard to see this as anything other than hot air — the type of b.s. shovelled by those who oppose environmental protection and corporate social responsibility.

The public is right to push back. 

Tom Mulcair, a former leader of the federal NDP, served as minister of the environment in the Quebec Liberal government of Jean Charest.

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