DATELINE POINTE-AU-PIC

Trouble at the manor

BRUCE WALLACE December 1 1986
DATELINE POINTE-AU-PIC

Trouble at the manor

BRUCE WALLACE December 1 1986

Trouble at the manor

DATELINE POINTE-AU-PIC

The black scarf of mourning droops from Raymonde Simard’s neck, almost obscuring the Manoir Richelieu hotel logo on her purple sweatshirt. For 12 years Simard worked as a chef at the stately summer resort hotel in Pointe-au-Pic, Que., and she still wears her Manoir Richelieu sweatshirt

with pride. But the scarf, and the Confederation of National Trade Unions button pinned to it, have become equally important symbols to her. After new owner Raymond Malenfant assumed control of the Manoir last December, he refused to recognize the union contract, reduced wages and replaced the hotel staff with lower-paid, nonunion labor—including about 50 former union members. Now, Simard and the more than 260 unionized former hotel employees are at the centre of a bitter dispute that has severed friendships and family ties in the small town on the St. Lawrence River. “My neighbor and I have played bridge with each other all our lives, but I know where she stands in this fight,” said Simard. “We do not play bridge

anymore. We do not even talk.” Simard wears the scarf to mourn the death of 38-year-old Gaston Harvey, whose wife, Jeannine, is a former Manoir employee. On Oct. 25, during a protest march on the hotel, police arrested Harvey, who was intoxicated, and he died shortly after, while in

custody. The initial coroner’s report concluded that Harvey had suffocated after inhaling his own vomit. But a second autopsy, conducted at Ottawa’s Riverside Hospital after union leaders flew Harvey’s body there, concluded that although the man had suffocated, he had done so only after sustaining a concussion from a blow to the head. Harvey’s death further polarized the once-tranquil resort, already seething since the unionized ex-employees began organized protests against Malenfant 10 months ago. “I do not go to the bars at night, so I have never met with any violence,” said Erik Sieb, a 12-year area resident who left the hotel union three years ago to assume a management position and who is now the Manoir Richelieu’s

assistant manager. “But you can see the anger in people’s eyes when you meet them in the stores.” In the past year, that anger has on occasion been turned against the Manoir Richelieu itself. Last June vandals poured five gallons of blue dye into the hotel’s 250,000-gallon water supply, forcing guests out of the hotel. On Oct. 17, 71 people were arrested after they broke into the hotel during a demonstration and caused $15,000 worth of damage. After that, the hotel management asked the court to reinforce a previous injunction barring the union from hotel property and access roads. Picketing union members must now stand at the town’s single intersection, nearly a mile away from the Manoir. The conflict has brought unwelcome

publicity to the Manoir Richelieu, which is struggling to regain business after years of decline. Open for the summer season only, the 58-year-old hotel—a six-storey French châteaustyle building set on a cliff 700 feet above the St. Lawrence River— was once a favorite summer retreat for wealthy Quebecers and Americans. The region, called Murray Bay by anglophones, first became popular in the latter half of the 19th century, when St. Lawrence cruise boats regularly stopped at the town’s wharf. The resort became even more attractive to tourists when William Howard Taft, U.S. president from 1909 until 1913, built a summer home in Murray Bay.

But in 1966 Canada Steamship Lines discontinued its St. Lawrence cruises, and the Manoir’s business began to decline. In 1975, just before losing power to the Parti Québécois, the Liberal provincial government bought the hotel to save it from

bankruptcy. Under the PQ, the hotel staged such high-profile events as the 1979 premiers’ conference—but it still suffered losses. In 1984 the Quebec government decided to sell the hotel.

Last December Malenfant, a Quebec City developer and hotelchain owner, bought the Manoir for $555,555 and a pledge to renovate the property. With the sale, local residents expressed hope that a refurbished Manoir would bring a badly needed economic boost to the Charlevoix region.

roof to improve television reception for the Manoir’s 350 rooms. The new owner also decided to insulate the hotel and keep it open year-round. “He has done more for the region in six months than anybody else in the past 20 !

Since assuming control of the hotel, Malenfant has spent $9 million on upgrading the facilities, including installing an indoor pool and building a new ballroom. Three satellite dishes now perch on the hotel’s television reception for

years,” said Sieb. But Malenfant also cut hourly wages from an average of $7 to as little as $4, claiming that the move was necessary for the Manoir to remain competitive with nearby hotels. About 50 union members accepted Malenfant’s terms and stayed on—facing the anger of their former colleagues. Now, the Manoir management claims that the union’s protests, along with unseasonably cool weather, were responsible for this summer’s disappointing 65-per-cent occupancy rate.

The issue of economic revival was also at the forefront of the town’s November mayoralty elections, won by a 2-to-l margin by incumbent Jean Lajoie, a high school teacher. Lajoie, who says that unemployment in the area is close to 30 per cent, defended the economic benefits Malenfant was bringing to the town. Rosaire Lavoie, his opponent, identified himself with the union cause. “I am not the candidate of Malenfant,” Lajoie told Maclean's. “But nobody allows for grey areas in this fight. If you are not for the union, you are against it.”

But the former employees show no signs of abandoning their struggle. Solange Guerin, for one, a former Manoir Richelieu receptionist, almost stayed on as a nonunionized Manoir employee. Said Guerin, who faced a $2.10-anhour pay cut: “I worked eight hours for Malenfant and then I quit.” She joined the picketers, who have directed their most vociferous anger at Malenfant and the workers who stayed on.

Many of those employees claim to have been threatened by the picketers. “We have not gotten used to the situation yet,” said Diane Audet, 37, a barmaid at the hotel. “Many of us are frightened by the threats.” Lajoie, who says that he has also received threatening phone calls, adds that the climate of fear has invaded the whole town. “Older people are intimidated,” he said. “They are afraid to go to the Manoir for a cup of tea.”

In October Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa—a friend of Malenfant— stepped in to defuse the growing controversy. He appointed Judge Robert Sansfaçon to conduct an inquiry into Harvey’s death. At the same time, Raymond Leboeuf, a government mediator, is seeking an end to the Malenfant-union impasse. But the community divisions show no sign of healing. “Everybody in Pointe-au-Pic is affected by the Manoir issue,” said Simard. “There are sisters who no longer speak to each other because of this.” In her own family, she says, she no longer has contact with her nephew, who works as a waiter at the Manoir. Said Simard: “The union is my family now.”

— BRUCE WALLACE in Pointe-au-Pic