Business

Cheap cars... there’s just one catch

SUSAN MOHAMMAD September 8 2008
Business

Cheap cars... there’s just one catch

SUSAN MOHAMMAD September 8 2008

A CITY IN DECLINE

Special Report

SMART CITIES

Quebec's Saguenay region has problems. A poor learning environment is making things worse.

MARTIN PATRIQUIN

SAGUENAY RANKS LAST AMONG MAJOR CITIES WHEN IT COMESTO LEARNING

Carved out of the forest and Laurentian foothills about 200 km north of Quebec City, the Saguenay is home to a tough, proud people. “Our Texans, complete with one-of-a-kind accents,” quips La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé, and they aren’t the type to take any guff from big city folk. So it’s no wonder that Mayor Jean Tremblay outright dismissed the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), which has ranked the city of Saguenay dead last among major cities in its learning index for three years in a row.

“I’ve never heard of them,” Tremblay says tersely of the CCL, before listing off the benefits of his town: its university, its brand new aluminum smelter, its pristine sports centres. “We have the best judo facilities in North America,” he says, like a proud father.

Martial arts aside, the city’s consistently poor showing on the CCL’s Composite Learning Index indicates that the region offers its citizens a poor environment for advancement. It’s a sobering indication of the troubles faced by Saguenay—and in Quebec in general. Save 52

for Gatineau, the province has consistently occupied the lowest ranks of the index of major cities since its inception in 2006. Even Montreal, for all its purported worldliness and European je ne sais quoi, ranks behind the likes of St. John’s, Moncton, N.B., and Peterborough, Ont. (for the full ranking of major cities, see page 47).

The CCL study lays bare an uncomfortable truth about La Belle Province: its population is older and has a higher high-school dropout rate than most other Canadian provinces. And Saguenay, the city of 144,000 that is the namesake of this vast region, is the worst of the worst. Not only is the city on the bottom of the list, Saguenay has the dubious honour of having the worst year-toyear trend numbers of any major Canadian city.

Saddled with plant closures early in the decade, Saguenay’s population fell by more than two per cent between 2001 and 2006. A dearth of jobs, as well as Quebec’s perpetually low birth rate, means more grey hairs: upwards of 16 per cent of the city’s population is 65 or older, with an average age of 41—quite a bit older than the national average. Young people continue to leave the area in droves, and it seems the prospects for those

who stay aren’t good. “They either go on unemployment or go to school and end up in mom’s basement,” says Nanette Marshall, who runs a skateboard shop in downtown Saguenay.

The city’s “learning to live together” score, which aims to measure a sense of community through indicators such as participation in social clubs, is less than half the Canadian average. Quebec in general, and Saguenay in particular, lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to volunteering. Saguenay is also well behind in the “learning to do” index, a measure of a community’s applied skills. Its overall score of 62 is 15 points below the national average of 77Its unemployment rate, at 8.7 per cent, is more than two percentage points higher than the Canadian average. “The unemployment capital of Quebec” was how La Presse designated the Saguenay region last month.

Yet no one, not the mayor and certainly not the Quebec government, has done anything to mitigate the situation, according to the CCL president, Paul Cappon. “We support these cities by working with them to understand what the composite learning index is and how they can use it as a tool,” says Cappon. “But we have to be asked, and we haven’t been asked. The leadership has to come from within the communities, and if we aren’t asked, then of course we don’t give advice.”

The Quebec government has instead attacked the CCL itself, saying the measuring of educational standards impinges on a provincial jurisdiction. Moreover, Quebec officials have said, the learning index is riddled with oversights and thus fails to recognize several initiatives, such as a provincial daycare program, that are unique to Quebec. “We distance ourselves from this study because it has many weaknesses,” a government spokesperson told Le Soleil.

Despite several requests, the province’s Ministry of Education could not provide anyone to comment on the province’s poor

showing in the report. “We don’t generally comment on anything the CCL publishes,” ministry spokesperson François Lefebvre told Maclean’s.

Meanwhile, the Saguenay continues to suffer. Like many remote Canadian communities, the city lives and dies by its resources, and the long-term slide of Canada’s forestry industry has wreaked havoc in the region. Some 650 jobs were lost when forestry giant Abitibi Consolidated closed its pulp and paper plant there in 2005.

“Like in smaller markets elsewhere in Quebec, Saguenay’s economy is dependant on large investments from either government or big business,” says Marc UrbainProulx, a regional economics professor at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. Yet because of automation, investment in forestry and aluminum technology doesn’t necessarily mean more jobs. Even the twinned highway from Quebec City, which is set to open next year, comes at a price. “More companies in the area will be tempted to shut their regional offices here now that Quebec City is so much more accessible,” UrbainProulx says.

To make matters worse, the CCL numbers suggest that Saguenay—like Quebec in general—has a harder time rebounding from economic hardship because of a lack of informal learning. “ ‘Learning to live together’ is where Quebec has its lowest scores,” says Cappon, “because there is less learning through volunteering in Quebec. There is also less participation in social clubs and organizations in which a lot of informal learning goes on.”

All is not dire in Saguenay. In 2002, in a bid to improve his city’s prospects, the mayor implemented Promotion Saguenay, an economic development arm of the newly amalgamated city, with a mandate to select and execute capital projects and attract investors to the region. It might sound like well-meaning hubris, and Tremblay has been criticized for wielding too much discretionary power over the $25 million the town pours into Promotion Saguenay’s coffers, but something clicked: in 2007, Canadian Business magazine ranked Saguenay as the third best place to do business in Canada, largely because of the region’s low cost of living and low crime rate. (The survey also lauded Sher-

brooke and Laval, two other Quebec cities that performed poorly in the CCL study.)

As well, the real estate market in Saguenay, which was in wretched shape 15 years ago, is now “one of the healthiest in Quebec,” according to the Canadian Real Estate Association’s Bob Linney. The reason, according to Tremblay, is because the city has managed to slow out-migration from the region. As well, some young Saguenay natives, such as 27-year-old Dominique Couture, a university-trained human resources manager, have been enticed back home. In her case she returned partly because of her disdain for the big city—“People are too stressed in Montreal,” she says—and partly because of an $8,000 tax credit from the provincial government. Meanwhile, Saguenay’s youth are staying in school longer than ever: even though Quebec dropout rates are generally higher than the rest of Canada, the region’s are now the lowest in the province.

Mayor Tremblay can list off many more positive aspects of his town: its low taxes and debt load, its affordable housing. And, of course, there’s always the judo. “I’m not contesting the CCL because it’s negative and it doesn’t look good for Saguenay,” he insists. “Even if they tell me I’m the best mayor in Quebec, I would doubt it.” M

‘WE CAN SUPPORT THESE CITIES... BUT WE HAVE TO BE ASKED’