Sitting comfortably at the kitchen table in her modest basement apartment in a quiet residential neighborhood of Jonquière, Que., 29year-old Caroline Mills remembers the day in 1988 when she quit a full-time job as a legal secretary to become one of the hundreds of temporary office workers at Acan Aluminium Ltd.’s office. At the time, it meant a pay raise from $10 to $22 an hour. “I jumped at the chance,” she says. “I was able to live a great lifestyle. And I had the chance to get on full time. That was everybody’s dream when I was growing up here: getting on full time with Acan.” Three years later, however, the giant aluminum manufacturer laid off many temporary workers—including Mills. She and her nine-year-old daughter, Sarah, now survive on government loans and grants. “It’s too bad really,” she said sadly. “I would have been happy to stay at Acan forever.”
Mills’s story is a disturbingly familiar one to people in ChicoutimiJonquière, neighboring cities on the rocky shores of the majestic Saguenay River 200 km north of Quebec City. With a population of 166,000, the area holds the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment rate among Canada’s major population centres: 14.7 per cent. “The true number is probably even higher,” said Marina Larouche, Chicoutimi’s acting mayor and a city councillor for the past nine years. “We’ve unfortunately gotten used to high unemployment around here, but 1994 was definitely the worst. The situation was— and remains—quite simply dramatic.”
Most people in the area agree on the main reason for the poor employment situation: a steady decrease in the high-paying jobs in the massive aluminum and pulp and paper mills located throughout the region. “Unfortunately, those industries have come to forks in the road at the same time,” said André Tremblay, president of the regional chamber of commerce and a lawyer at the Chicoutimi firm of Cain, Lamarre, Wells, the firm where Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard used to practise. “Since the early 1980s, they’ve been modernizing, restructuring and rationalizing. We’re having a hard time adjusting.”
Industrial activity has long been an integral part of the history of the Saguenay, an almost entirely French-speaking region noted for its strong nationalist feelings. Chicoutimi and Jonquière, respectively the commercial/administrative and industrial hubs of the area, were founded in the mid-19th century by lumber companies that came to harvest its giant white pines for the British shipbuilding industry. When the pine disappeared, lumber and pulp and paper mills began processing the seemingly endless stands of black spruce that still cover the rugged Canadian Shield landscape. Then, Alcan arrived in the 1920s and built the first of six hydroelectric dams in the region. That power is used to operate four smelting plants that account for more than 80 per cent of Alcan’s aluminum production in Quebec. For generations, the mills provided a steady supply of high-paying jobs. But all that has changed: Alcan has cut its total employment in the region from 8,700 in the early 1980s to just 6,300 now, maintaining production levels by relying on modernized facilities that require less manpower.
One effect of the Saguenay’s economic slowdown—and one that seems to strike home deepest with local residents—is an exodus of young people. “To me, that’s the scariest thing,” Tremblay said gravely. “The population is aging and the best elements are leaving.” Steeve Tremblay agrees. “Most of my friends are college or university grads, and they’re long gone,” said the burly 26-year-old as he filled out unemployment insurance forms at a Canada Manpower centre office. For the past eight years, Tremblay worked as head cook at a restaurant in downtown Chicoutimi, but it closed on Jan. 10. “I’ll try to find something here,” he said, “but I’ll go somewhere else if I’m offered a job.”
There are some encouraging signs. World prices for newsprint and aluminum are rising and the lumber industry is making a comeback, due in part to increased demand from the United States. And local people point to the region’s economic assets, including a university and four colleges, two regional hospitals, and the Bagotville air force base, which injects $100 million a year into the local economy. Still, Larouche says that entrepreneurial efforts are being hampered by what she describes as the difficulty of weaning people away from the hope of work at the big mills. “We simply grew too dependent on those high-paying jobs,” she said. “Our entrepreneurial spirit was lost somewhere along the way.” But at the same time, Larouche feels that most people remain optimistic, “if for no other reason than we’ve hit rock bottom. It just can’t get any worse.”
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