On the Gaspé, local residents have decided not to take the peninsula's economic problems lying down
Navigating the steep, tight curves on the Gaspé coast, Gaston Langlais seems every bit the professor as he sits behind the wheel and launches into a sober, detailed explanation of the regions woes. But within minutes, indignation creeps into his voice. Economically, he says, the Gaspé is like a plane locked in a fatal spin. “Were coming to the bottom of the spiral,” laments Langlais, who teaches business at a local junior college, the CEGEP de la Gaspésie et des Iles in the city of Gaspé. As a result, he and several other residents banded together to form L’Action des patriotes gaspésien(ne)s last December to protest their economic plight. The fledgling movement immediately struck a
chord. Membership has already soared to 12,000 people, who refer to themselves as les patriotes—not after the militant insurgents associated with the 1837 rebellion in Lower Canada but, as Langlais explains, for “someone who loves their homeland.”
There is much to love on the rugged peninsula, with its winding coastline and mountains. Most of the Gaspé’s 120,000 residents live in towns that hug the coast, some of them breathtaking spots such as Percé, with its famous, massive rock jutting up from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But for all its natural beauty, the Gaspé also lays claim to the second-highest unemployment rate in Canada—a staggering 24.2 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. The region is still reeling from two recent setbacks. Last October, AbitibiConsolidated Inc. closed its newsprint plant in Chandler on the tip of the peninsula, leaving more than 550 people out of work and a town without its lifeblood. Two weeks earlier, 300 miners lost their jobs when Noranda Inc. shut down its copper mine in Murdochville because of depleted reserves. “The Gaspé is going through one of the worst crises in its history,” says Guy Lelièvre, a native Gaspesian and Parti Québécois MNA for the region.
Which likely explains the patriotes’ appeal. “I think people are desperate enough that they are going to jump on anything,” says Stephen Tribble, academic adviser for the English sector of the Gaspé CEGEP, which has 170 students. But the patriotes bandwagon is also delivering action. The organization has been promised a hearing before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva and hopes to air its grievances this month—accusing Ottawa and Quebec of “economic genocide.” For Langlais, the proof of deliberate government neglect lies in the past three decades. “It’s been 30 years that we’ve put together structural projects and they never get off the ground,” says Langlais, whose organization also hopes to file a class-action lawsuit against the provincial and federal governments.
Skeptics note that some of the patriotes leaders, mosdy businessmen, have benefited themselves from government subsidies over the years. Others question the group’s chances for long-term success. “It’s good to shout—it wakes people up,” says Michel St-Pierre, the mayor of Chandler. “But it doesn’t go far.” Still, the patriotes complaints resonate with Gaspesians. Chandler, with its 3,500 residents and cozy, welltended bungalows, was long one of the Gaspé’s most prosperous towns. Mill workers earned an average of $48,000 a year at Abitibi-Consolidated’s newsprint plant. Then came the October shutdown. St-Pierre says the city became poor overnight; some 45 homes are now up for sale in the area. “Houses are now selling for 30 per cent less than the municipal valuations,” the mayor adds.
Huge stacks of logs still lie outside the closed plant. Several proposals are in the works to buy the factory from AbitibiConsolidated; Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard recently declared it a priority to get the plant running again. “I’m optimistic,” says St-Pierre, “but the problem is when.” Even if a new owner comes in, he says, it will take two years to transform the factory to produce a different type of paper. And in the meantime, people are leaving. Michel David is one of 200 Chandler mill workers who have gone to find work elsewhere. His wife, Lorraine, and their two daughters, the older 8, the younger an eight-month-old baby, still live in Chandler while David works in Montreal at a steel cable factory—and undertakes the 11-hour drive home once a month to see them. “I have no choice,” says David, 39, of his relocation. “If I stay at home, we’ll lose everything anyway.”
In the nearby village of Newport, the mayor and some municipal councillors have also left for jobs in Asbestos in the Eastern Townships and Montreal. The large, modern fish plant on the water’s edge, which opened with great fanfare in 1987, is a striking reminder of the town’s better days. The assembly-line room looks frozen in time, after being shut down seven years ago because of the 1993 Atlantic cod moratorium that decimated the Gaspé’s fishing industry. “It’s like the Titanic,” laments Walter Smith, the village’s director
general, referring to the silent, empty plant. “Everything is modern and nice but everything is dead inside. It’s terrible.” And, he adds, “If I had a piece of advice to give to anybody in the world it would be: be careful of a single industry. Try to diversify to give yourself security.”
Diversify. It’s almost a mantra among many Gaspesians. Evelyne Dubé, the president of the chamber of commerce in the coastal town of Grande-Rivière, says her organization now promotes the idea of more entrepreneurship in the area. “Governments tell us to take charge of things,” says Dubé. “That’s not bad—but they have to help us.” Dubé adds that many government subsidies have been doled out to the region, but not necessarily in the right places. She and many other Gaspesians say future money should go into long-lasting projects with permanent jobs. For example, instead of fish and lumber being shipped out of the region, Dubé says, those primary resources could be transformed into other products—in the Gaspé.
Some Gaspesians continue to carve out a living in traditional ways. And even at that, they’ve had to adapt. Réginald Cotton, 49, a licensed cod fisherman, still owns a 16-m
trawler in Rivière-au-Renard, a picturesque village on the north side of the Gaspé. During the five-year cod moratorium, he fished for turbot in Newfoundland. When that didn’t prove worthwhile, he started catching shrimp. The cod moratorium was partially lifted last year but Cotton says the new quotas translate into fewer than two fishing trips a year. To boost his catch, he rents other people’s shrimp quotas in the area as well as in Newfoundland and Labrador, paying them a fee to nab their catch. “I spend the winter on the phone,” says Cotton. “It’s the only way to get ahead.” Even at that, Cotton, who is at sea 18 weeks a year, finds it increasingly difficult to earn a living. “What I find these days is that you have to fight so hard.”
That battle is claiming many victims—including the Gaspé’s young people, many of whom are striking out for greener pastures. Brian Jones returned to the Gaspé with his wife in 1979 after studying in Montreal. But he doesn’t expect their two teenage children to remain on the coast. “At one time, I would have liked to tell the kids, ‘I hope you can come back because it’s a choice we made,’ ” says Jones, 47, who is on the patriotes executive. But in the current economic climate, he wouldn’t advise them to stay. “I was always very optimistic,” says Jones, a soft-spoken businessman. “I wish I could still have that.” But optimism now seems in short supply in the Gaspé. Cl
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