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Three: Life on the Shield

The Canadian Shield is, to most Canadians and foreigners alike, the quintessential Canada. I share this view having lived in the Gatineau Park spur of it for more than a decade and having often vacationed at Lake of the Woods for many more years. In countless ways, the Shield is idyllic. I think, for example, of the hundreds of motor boats which gather each July 1st in Kenora Bay at the north end of Lake of the Woods to watch Canada Day fireworks. Mingled with townspeople at these annual events under the stars are summer residents from all over the country. Many would move to the area to live year round if they could somehow earn a living; some do.

Approximately two million Québeckers and Ontarians combined live on the Canadian Shield. Since its borders are physical rather than political, residents on both sides of the provincial boundary lack effective structures through which they can pursue common regional concerns. The north of both provinces contains relatively thinly-populated frontier hinterlands; for many years, each of them has had only a limited influence on its respective provincial parliament and upon Ottawa policy makers.

The Shield in fact occupies more than forty per cent of our national territory across five provinces, but contains only eight per cent of our national population. In recent years, vigorous natural resource competition from developing countries, a declining resource-orientation of the world economy, and the weakened political position of the American economy have reduced mineral exploration and development across the region. Decades ago, it also contributed to the development of our national self-identity through the art of the Group of Seven and considerable writing about Northern self-reliance.

John Diefenbaker’s view that our national future lay in harnessing the distant North was popular in its day. Economic historians also accorded the Shield a large role, one competing even with the Laurentian school of thought. Some of them concluded that our national resource export patterns have entrenched metropolitan hegemony over various hinterlands such as the Shield.

The Shield is Canada’s largest and best-known physiographic feature:

4.6 million square kilometres of a lake-dotted plateau ranging from Labrador in the East to the Arctic in the Northwest. Distinguished by a mosaic of rock, deep lakes and forests, it offered the challenge of minerals of vast value hidden in a hostile wilderness. For most of the nineteenth century, its mineral potential was largely ignored and it was seen as a useless barrier blocking the northern and western expansion of farm settlement. In 1864, The Toronto Globe dismissed the Shield as "gaps of rough and.. . barren country which lie between us and the fertile prairies of North-Western British America."

Personal Income Per Capita
Provincial and Sub-Provincial Regions

Figure 3

The regional variations of the Shield have determined a discontinuous and thinly scattered pattern of settlement. The first to arrive were farm communities established on land opened during the westward lumber boom of the nineteenth century, including the Ottawa Valley and Lac Saint Jean lowlands. Between 1880 and 1915, the second group of settlements sprang up along the CN-CP rail routes; some of these, notably Thunder Bay and Sudbury, achieved national significance during these years. Finally, more recent centres such as Lynn Lake in Ontario and Schefferville in Québec were created to mine resources. The Shield’s aboriginal residents today often live near single-industry mining or forest towns with narrow job opportunities, but continue travelling over large areas to seek fish and game.

As a result of these three types of settlement and the boom and bust cycles of natural resources, the urban structure of the Shield today consists of small and medium-sized communities with no large metropolis. Single-enterprise resource communities, vulnerable to the loss or depletion of their resources or a necessary international market, is a classic urban Shield feature.

The tendency of Southern cities to diversify their economies through import replacement seems not to apply to smaller communities on the Shield. Dozens of them in both Ontario and Québec depend on single employers and their service sectors. The isolation of most such centres, with limited employment opportunities and few social and cultural outlets, has encouraged considerable out-migration. Most communities on the Shield run from a few hundred to more than a thousand residents. According to the 1986 census, there are only three sub-regional cities even within our two largest provinces with populations of more than 100,000: Chicoutimi-Jonquiere (158,500), Sudbury (150,000) and Thunder Bay (122,200).

These three cities are connected much more closely to Montréal, Toronto and Winnipeg respectively than to each other. Their local industries are invariably controlled from one of the larger Canadian cities or from the United States. In addition, successive Ontario and Québec governments have for the most part shown an inadequate understanding of their own provincial north. A common regional identity has unfortunately failed to emerge that might have provided an effective voice in setting both public and private policies for a relatively large group of Canadians.

The construction of the CPR line across Canada solidified Montréal’s position as the dominant Shield metropolis during the late nineteenth century. It connected such major centres as Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay and Winnipeg to Montréal before later rail links to Toronto provided any real competition. Torontonians caught up and passed Montréalers in Shield dominance well into the twentieth century by becoming the financiers of most Shield mines. Through forest company mergers during the 1970s, the Ontario capital also reduced Montréal’s earlier dominance over Shield wood product industries. Together, however, the two cities, home to large natural resource companies such as Alcan, Noranda, Inco, Abitibi-Price and Hydro-Qudbec, effectively control the Shield’s economy today to an astonishing degree. Consequently, Sudbury, Chicoutimi, Thunder Bay and other towns are in essence merely regional centres of services. The smaller communities are even less protected than these larger ones from the common boom-bust cycles of ore industry resource towns.

The Shield forest industry in both provinces is illustrative of a common sub-regional problem. From the early I 800s until World War I, a breathtakingly wasteful cutting of Shield trees lunged westward across both provinces. There was very little forest regeneration and it became necessary to move northward after 1918 for fresh pulp and paper stocks. Earlier mills were founded in the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Valleys, but later ones extended from Chicoutimi to Kenora, providing pulpwood logs mainly to northern American newsprint markets. Various attempts by provincial Ontario governments to bar the export of raw pulpwood logs -- "the manufacturing condition" -- ultimately failed when governments in Québec City declined to enact similar legislation.

Only when American publishers, foreseeing a shortage in wood, succeeded in persuading legislators in Washington to allow the tariff-free admission of Canadian newsprint did large new investments create a number of new pulp and paper mills across the Shield. The resulting excess capacity, combined with the arrival of the Great Depression, brought severe drops in newsprint prices and major havoc for a host of newsprint-dependent communities. Québec and Ontario politicians and Canadian banks made various attempts to create an industry cartel that would end price competition and reduce production -- a mechanism comparable to OPEC’s attempts to control oil. This failed for various reasons, but the banks’ and provincial governments’ motivation probably had little to do with keeping hinterland mill employees out of the ranks of the unemployed.

During the 1960s and early I 970s, another wave of pulp and paper mills was built, often financed with the help of Ottawa and provincial regional development grants. Unfortunately, long-term negligence by the two provincial governments acting as forest landlords has created severe problems, especially in northwestern Ontario where three out of four manufacturing jobs today still depend on trees. In recent years, both governments have improved their forestry practices a good deal.

Given that almost ninety per cent of the Shield’s pulp and paper and about sixty per cent of our newsprint goes to the United States, the current high exchange rate of the Canadian dollar -- a ten year high -- is causing real marketing problems. The Bank of Canada Governor appears to have kept Canadian interest rates at high levels mostly to keep the Canadian dollar at levels which will persuade Japanese and American institutions to buy Canadian government bonds. As a result, residents in the Shield believe they and the condition of the forest industries in which they earn their living have scant influence on the policies of the Bank of Canada.

Mining on the Shield began during the 1 890s in response to demands from various international markets. At Sudbury, where the CPR discovered ample nickel deposits during construction of its line westward to the Prairies, the mines enjoyed almost a world monopoly on the product for a long period. It was not, however, until after 1945 that the mining age on the Shield flourished, following some very large investments in railway construction. Minerals from new sources, such as the Québec-Labrador iron fields, then came into production.

Since the 1982 economic recession across Canada, the Shield mining industry has faced an uncertain future. Severe competition from a number of developing countries and from Australia has hit the Canadian Shield. This, combined with uncertain ore prices, threatens the economic future of numerous Shield communities.

Shield minerals constitute an essential part of the Ontario and Québec economy; mines in Québec brought in $2.2 billion during 1986 and employed more than 20,000 people. They are a mixed blessing, though, since they are developed for outsiders and usually by firms from the south -- thus perpetuating a hinterland status for the North.

The case of Elliot Lake illustrates the fortunes of communities affected by decisions taken thousands of miles away. Located 140 kilometres west of Sudbury, Elliot Lake, a community of 16,000 people, came into being in 1955, two years after the discovery of uranium in the area. The American military’s demand for uranium during the height of the Cold War was so great that a boom developed lasting from 1956 until 1963. By 1959, a dozen mining companies were in operation in the district. Almost 25,000 people were living in the carefully-laid out community when Washington announced in 1959 that it would not renew its contracts. As a consequence of this devastating news, Elliot Lake’s population collapsed six years later to only 6,600. By 1970, only Denison Mines and Rio Algom were still in operation. A better period emerged in the I 970s with the advent of nuclear-generated power in Canada. The fortunes of the "Uranium Capital of the World" improved slowly until the early 1 980s when sales to Ontario Hydro stimulated a second surge in growth.

The prospects of uranium are much less bright for the last decade of the century. In 1990, with the announced closures of the Rio Algom and Denison uranium mines as a result of plummeting uranium prices and rising production costs, 2,500 miners are expected to lose their jobs; an additional 2,000 service and support sector jobs will disappear as well. The impact on the local population and business community could be compared to job losses in Metro Toronto of one million. The expected exodus of the laid-off miners and their families again threatens to reduce Elliot Lake to the ghost town it resembled in the mid-1960s. The community is bracing itself in anticipation of tough times. Its enterprising mayor has attempted to find salvation for his thirty-five-year-old mining town by persuading Canada’s seniors to move in. During the last two years, more than a thousand of them have been persuaded to move to Elliot Lake under the retirement program sponsored by the town and the mines. Doubts persist that even the 3,000 more seniors whose arrival is anticipated will be able to sustain the town once designed for ten times that number. Still, local citizens are determined not to let their community die. "Many of us have a lot of faith in the town and this community that it just can’t become a ghost town. We’ll adjust," a miner’s wife said defiantly.

Since 1950, the major demand for the Shield’s cheap electricity has come from the urban-industrial heartlands within Canada and the American Northeast. The Churchill Falls project, started in 1953 in Labrador by a consortium of Europeans, set a standard for others to follow. Unfortunately for residents of Newfoundland and Labrador, in 1965 the Smallwood government entered into a sixty-five-year contract with Hydro Québec to provide ninety per cent of the power generated at a price which during the 1980s was approximately one-tenth of its value in American markets. In 1984, the Supreme Court of Canada, displaying an unusual respect for the sanctity of contracts, saw no legal reason to rescind the agreement. The Québec government goes on selling Labrador’s power for huge profits in the U.S. and uses the product domestically to attract industry into Québec. Meanwhile, the two provincial governments continue to disagree hotly over where the Labrador-Québec boundary should be drawn.

Northern Ontario Disaffection

Life in the Shield has been far too little examined but one of its features is well known: the grossly unequal struggle between the heartland of southern Ontario and metropolitan Québec and the northern hinterlands. Manufacturing firms have no incentive to locate on the Shield because metals refined there are by direction of head offices rarely sold at prices set at the mine gate. Gasoline sold in Red Lake, Ontario, goes at the Sarnia price plus a two thousand and fifty kilometre freight charge to Red Lake even though Red Lake is only about five hundred kilometres from oil refineries in Winnipeg. Another case is Matagami in northern Québec, whose residents complained in 1976 that their community was relocated more than a half century ago to make room for a hydroelectric darn, while they themselves did not obtain electricity until 1971.

For generations, federal policies have been designed to suit southern Ontario’s needs. "New Ontario," as northern Ontario was known a century ago, has today approximately three-fourths of the province’s land area but only ten percent of its population. In terms of Canada as a whole, however, northern Ontario lies not in northern Canada but close to its centre. Draw a straight line from Edmonton eastward and it runs into James Bay. Residents of North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury might occasionally call themselves "Northerners", but they live south of some parts of the United States. A few northern Ontarians have sought provincial status for their sub-region at various intervals since Confederation as a solution to their isolation from Queen’s Park but with very little success or popular support.

In many ways, northern Ontario is a microcosm of Canada as a whole: eighty-five million hectares within the Shield’s rugged, lake-dotted geology; a scattered population; a colonial economic system; a sizeable French-speaking community in the northeast; a neglected native population who have finally begun to lobby for their rights at many isolated points everywhere. While it is true that Ontario, in the words of the late Ontario Premier John Robarts, is the "golden hinge" of Confederation, it is equally true that northern Ontario is "the rusty linchpin." As Don Scott notes, "If Canada is to work, then Northern Ontario, where all the alienations meet, must be made to work for it. It is here that Eastern Canada meets the alienated West. It is here that English Canada meets alienated French Canada. It is here that the Indian suffers a silent alienation within sight of a standard of living far above his own. It is here that a colonial industrial system functions with an alienated work force."

When Ontario’s Ministry of Northern Affairs sponsored a history of the region during the province’s bicentennial in 1984, the author of one chapter concluded cheerfully: "No longer is Northern Ontario simply a place in which to work or survive; rather it is a place in which three-quarters of a million Ontarians choose to live satisfying and productive lives. Ontario’s north has finally come of age." The realities of everyday life in northern Ontario scarcely warrant such optimism. Discontent is a sentiment which surfaces readily in discussions held north and west of any line drawn down the Mattawa River, Lake Nipissing and the French River. It reflects the feeling common among many residents of the sub-region that they are being short-changed; that their natural resources, local residents and money are constantly removed from them in order to serve southerners; that southerners in return have little or no concern for balanced economic and cultural development, environmental protection or local government structures and services. This sense of grievance and feeling of powerlessness tends to be reinforced by the perceived impotence of elected representatives at both the federal and provincial levels throughout northern Ontario.

Many northern Ontarians share with Outer Canadians generally the view that while they do much of the really hard work in often inhospitable places, rewards "go south." Northern Ontarians also share the hinterland conviction that both federal and provincial government services are only grudgingly provided in their communities and that they are victimized by a host of transport and trade policies which leave them with undiversified resource economies vulnerable to every drop in world commodity prices. "Northern Ontario is for the rest of the province what the Prairie West is for Canada," notes Tom Miller, with the difference that "the Prairie West has provinces and a political voice; northern Ontario is apart, and electorally a very small part, of the province that exploits it. Political frustration gives northern resentment a very special bitterness." During the summers I spent in the Kenora district of northwestern Ontario I was able to fully verify this feeling.

In Northern Ontario today, the sense of belonging to an exploited hinterland is both widespread and reinforced by geographic and other natural factors. Timmins has only ninety-two frost-free days, Sudbury and the Soo -- 112, compared with Toronto’s 160. Thunder Bay is a two-long-days’ drive from Toronto, and residents west of the lakehead are for all practical purposes really Manitobans who happen to live in Ontario. Lakehead residents often read Manitoba newspapers and watch Manitoba television. Many go to university in Winnipeg and find it closer for serious medical problems. The thought that things would have been better if everything west of Thunder Bay had been joined formally to Manitoba keeps few northerners awake at night today, but a persuasive case can still be made for it.

Kenora, one of the most idyllic settings anywhere in Canada, is northern Ontario in its most perfect state. On most summer weekends across northern Ontario there are about 300,000 vacationers among 800,000 local residents. Visitors generally drive better cars and own the better lakeside locations. When a high-powered motor boat full of carefree holidayers speeds down the lake, almost swamping a family of Indians in a canoe, many of us are horrified. Tourism is the region’s third-largest industry, yet it is badly paid, seasonal, often harmed by pollution, and to a degree preempted by better incomes in the forest industries. Looking deeper, one discovers that freight practices and rates maximize the movement of raw materials out of the north; decent roads are usually built reluctantly by the Ontario government and late in the day; most communities lack dentists; and doctors are scarce. The tourists probably do not notice the brisk out-migration of young Northerners seeking better job opportunities to the South.

North of the Fiftieth Parallel

In addition to its northeast and northwest, Ontario also has another north, the one beyond the fiftieth parallel where boreal forests become tundra. Sioux Lookout, Moosonee and Red Lake/Balmertown are its major cities; places like Pickle Lake and Ear Falls are its "towns." Most of its approximately 30,000 residents live in isolated communities, accessible mostly by bush planes.

Culturally, the various Ontario Norths differ both from each other and from the southern part of the province. Many non-British newcomers reached parts of northern Ontario and Prairie Canada in roughly equal numbers and at about the same time. Today, despite the passage of three generations, multiculturalism has triumphed in numerous northern communities. Francophones are found everywhere in northern Ontario, although most numerous in the northeast, and today command reasonable access to francophone education, radio and health services in a number of census districts. A second major group is the aboriginal peoples who predominate "north of fifty" either as status Indians, with treaty rights, as non-status Indians, or as Métis. Ojibway is spoken in the south; Ojibway and Cree in the centre; Cree only in the north. Band councils and Band chiefs are the municipal governments of these peoples. It troubles small native communities who live from fishing and hunting that their band chairmen are not yet recognized by Queen’s Park and Ottawa as they are by other Indians.

The living conditions of Ontario aboriginals tend to vary with the situation of the neighbouring white centres. The Fort William band members near Thunder Bay live quite well; conditions for people living near less prosperous centres are often outrageous. Native communities in some remote reserves compare unfavourably with settlements in developing world nations. Virtually nowhere today do hunting, fishing, trapping, and wild rice harvesting provide decent livings. High school and junior education is generally inadequate for young persons choosing either to remain in the north or to seek future-oriented jobs in the south. An Indian brief to a recent Ontario Royal Commission noted: "Our traditions, stifled within this foreign system, could no longer guide or support us, and we gradually sank into a pool of despair: a despair that led to alcoholism, violence and the numbing apathy that characterizes a colonized and dependent people."

Many northern Ontarians were deeply concerned that areas around Sudbury were chosen by American astronauts as a practice moonscape. Most know that industrial pollutants released both in Canada and in the United States have killed thousands of lakes within the Shield. Most also know that the Shield ecosystem, fragile enough because of thin soil, poor drainage systems and lakes vulnerable to acid rain, grows ever weaker as one goes north.

The most tragic occurrence of Ontario Shield water pollution was the Reed Paper Company mill at Dryden on the English/Wabigoon River system. For years, the Dryden Chemicals mill at Dryden in northwestern Ontario had, in full compliance with Ontario government permits, dumped large amounts of mercury into the local river. Until the Japanese discovered the fact at Minimata, few in North America knew that mercury does not diffuse, but instead becomes highly toxic and, being absorbed in plants, is then eaten by fish.

Ultimately, much of the fish was consumed within the Indian communities of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog north of Kenora. The health, food and tourism consequences lingered for many years. At one point in the late sixties, the Schreyer government in Manitoba passed legislation aimed at holding liable anyone who polluted rivers flowing into Manitoba. An action was initiated by the province against Dryden Chemicals for what it had done with its mercury; it ultimately failed when the courts held the statute was unconstitutional for attempting to legislate against acts occurring beyond Manitoba territory. The vulnerable residents of the district had been victimized by official ignorance, but the many more years until the mid-1980s it took to arrive at a settlement of damages with Ottawa was also very troubling.

In northern Ontario, the radicalism created by alienation and economic and political domination from outside the area has been mostly immobilized because of small populations, ethno-cultural fragmentation, and ideological rivalries. Trade unions were slower to make headway in company towns such as the Nickel Belt than in communities such as Timmins where employees did not live on company premises. In addition, internal disputes weakened union activity in Sudbury between 1940 and the 1960s. Only in recent years have significant improvements been achieved in working conditions and work safety issues generally.

Politically, northern Ontarians persist in dividing their votes among three political parties at both the federal and provincial levels, a practice that results in a lack of any serious political impact both at Queen’s Park and on Parliament Hill. C.D. Howe, when minister of virtually everything in Ottawa, had great difficulty in keeping the Port Arthur shipyards (now Thunder Bay) at work: they were located within his own constituency. Lester Pearson was prime minister when Elliot Lake, within his own Algoma East riding, suffered its greatest economic difficulties.

It bothers many northerners that some one-industry northern towns are so vulnerable as to be receptive to the most blatant bullying. Atikokan, for one, was reduced to accepting an offer of a nuclear waste disposal site and a thermal power station even without scrubbers for the chimneys. On the brighter side, other northern communities have diversified. Sault Ste. Marie won an Algoma Steel plant. Thunder Bay’s Canadian Car company has made aircraft, buses, tree harvesters, prefabricated houses, rail and subway cars for international markets since as long ago as World War II. Its high-tech products appear to have overcome high transportation costs. Contrary to conventional wisdom about it being essential for manufacturers to be close to their markets, Canadian Car is a beacon for all who seek economic diversification across both northern Ontario and Outer Canada as a whole.

Northern Ontario’s economic structure often reinforces the psychological basis for disaffection. When nickel ore from Falconbridge goes to Norway, iron ore from Atikokan to Cleveland, uranium from Elliot Lake to Japan, this troubles some local residents. There are enough northern ghost towns that Northerners worry about working themselves out of both jobs and town sites as mines become exhausted. Too many rivers and streams are polluted and there are too many pollutants in the sky. Federal and provincial officials, rather than taking action, prefer making self-serving speeches about doing regional justice. Discriminatory freight rates compound economic problems within the sub-region. The area from Levis, Québec, to Armstrong in northern Ontario has the highest freight rates in Canada. In addition, because favourable rates apply for the export of raw resources out of the north, those for moving many manufactured products into the north are higher.

Northern Québec

Québec’s North is a moving frontier, as full of the same social and psychological importance for the rest of the province as the American West holds for the United States. As early as the middle of the nineteenth century, Northern Québec had assumed far more significance than its geography implied. For many Québeckers, it became both a symbolic region and a myth: they needed reassurance about their dwindling population relative to other regions of Canada. The rapid industrialization of the United States in that period, the threat to Québeckers’ culture, language and religion caused by surging anglophone immigration, the dangerous overcrowding of provincial land already settled, and the uncooperative reception given French-speaking families who sought to settle in the English-speaking Eastern townships -- all these factors encouraged the development of the province’s north as Québec’s region of hopes and myths.

Québec’s North acquired a legendary status from well-known geographer Arthur Buies. During the years 1850-1860, "the North" for many Montréalers meant a vast region with no precise boundaries but one where the southern edge was almost at Montréal’s city limits. As Buies put it, "It was believed that the limits of cultivable lands had been reached and that the name ‘North’ meant there was nothing beyond Saint-Jerome but a fleeting spring, an illusory summer. The railway to Saint-Jerome opened up, just a few leagues behind Montréal, an almost unknown, sparsely-cleared region. At the time, the North was the forbidden region, closed to any attempt at colonization or even habitation, doomed to the immutable stillness of sterility and even the imagination did not dare probe its remote and sinister depths."

The Laurentian mountains near Montréal and Québec City were the closest ramparts of the North. Only a few Montréalers were conscious of the potential of the North; many others believed the province was worthless beyond the St. Lawrence Valley. In the developing "Open Country North" myth, the sub-region gradually became the province’s promised land. At first, it was seen as a desert, only becoming a Garden of Eden later. Providence would use the area to help Québeckers survive: though hostile, the northern land would be settled and cultivated.

Like the Canadian and American frontiers, Québec’s north also held within it the crucial element of regeneration: new people for a new country. Frederick Jackson Turner, the American historian, proclaimed in the American western frontier the birth of a new spirit, a long-lost purity in the bosom of virgin territory. Similarly, Québeckers would be regenerated in their North, a promised land in which courageous spirits might figuratively cross a Red Sea. The North was also widely seen across Québec as the symbol of a new and classless society. The significance of Québec’s North during the second half of the nineteenth century has been seriously underestimated by recent historians. In fact, the parallels, despite obvious differences, between Québec’s North and the American West were substantial. Each carried the aspirations of the nation and each became first symbols and later myths for their respective peoples. In Québec’s case, however, the myth of the North now seems largely forgotten, victim mostly of the lure of the two large provincial cities and the draw of the much closer Appalachian region.

A 1983 publication by the government of Québec, The Québec North, regional profile, identifies the southern boundaries of Northern Québec with the limits of the administrative regions: Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Sauguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and North Shore. According to this publication, the total area of Northern Québec covers one million square kilometres or two thirds of the total territory of the province, the equivalent of the combined land area of Spain, the two Germanys and Portugal but with a population of approximately 100,000 people.

The geological exploration of Northern Québec dates back to 1684 when the Hudson’s Bay Company sent ten men from Fort Charles to the mouth of the Eastmain to exploit a mica mine. Two names stand Out in the history of geological explorations of the area: an Oblate missionary, Father Louis Babel, the first to discover iron ore in Northern Québec between 1866 and 1870; and a geologist, Albert Low, who with his partner covered

5,675 miles at the end of the nineteenth century, carrying out his scientific studies. Low identified millions of tons of iron ore along the shores of Lake Cambrian. The mineral resources of the North of Québec are abundant, particularly in its southern parts and the Labrador trough. However, factors like access to the resources and current economic conditions severely minimize their exploitation.

The names of many places in Northern Québec reflect the presence of the Northern peoples in the area for thousands of years. The Amerindians of the Algonquin tribe arrived almost 8,000 years ago. The Inuit crossed over from Baffin Island almost 4,000 years ago to the northern shores of Québec’s Far North and settled along the coast of Hudson Bay. They played important roles as guides, helpers and interpreters during the days of the fur trade and its explorations. They still pursue traditional activities like hunting, trapping, and fishing, but are gradually becoming more dependent on social assistance for survival. Recent decades have witnessed the native peoples’ fighting more successfully for self-determination and becoming more aware of their rights. The agreements between James Bay Crees, the Inuit and Québec are examples of the more effective participation nowadays by Québec aboriginal peoples in controlling their own lives.

The Case of Schefferville

The case of Schefferville in the heart of the Québec-Labrador peninsula, 1,400 kilometres northeast of Montréal in one of the most peripheral regions of the province, illustrates the uncertainties of life in northern Québec. In 1981, its population was 1,997; by 1986 it had collapsed to three hundred and twenty-two residents. In November, 1982 the Iron Ore Company of Canada, based in Montréal, announced it would close its Schefferville mine by mid-1983. The company had built the community in 1953 with initial reserves of ore estimated at 420 million tons. At the peak, there were 4,500 community residents. When I visited it as a student during the summer of 1964, the future seemed bright to everyone.

A fall in the world price of iron in the early 1980s dashed many hopes. The company’s president of the day, Brian Mulroney, announced a $10 million severance package for employees losing their jobs, amounting to $9,200 per family, with three-quarters to be paid by the federal arid provincial governments and one-fourth by the company. Thirteen months later, only 274 of the 2,000 non-aboriginals who had lived in the town a year earlier still remained. Approximately 900 Naskapis and Montagnais Indians who live on two local reserves remained, thereby preventing it from becoming a ghost town, but of 500 modern home 375 were unoccupied. The school and hospital continued as public services. A proposal to establish a federal correctional institution in the area was rejected by Ottawa, because it would have resembled ones in Siberia and a proposal by Mulroney to create a national park in the area also met with little enthusiasm at Parks Canada.

Schefferville and many other communities are victims of boom and bust cycles and the inability of governments to develop a comprehensive policy for northern resource towns. "The end of the great collective dream," declared the headline of a 1984 issue of Québec City’s Le Soleil. The dream of many Québeckers to provide their province with an integrated steel industry had also collapsed with it.

Life in the Québec north continues to be harsh and is often made more so by insensitive measures devised by southern policy-makers. Guy StJulien, MP for the Abitibi riding in Northern Québec, located mostly beyond 50 degrees and extending northward beyond the 60th parallel, attempted in vain to bring his Ottawa colleagues attention to the plight of his constituents during late 1989 and early 1990. The devastating impact on northern communities of the combined effects of Canada Post rate increases and proposed elimination of the tax benefits provided to northern and isolated areas had become fully apparent. The mayor of Umiujag community was alarmed at the increase in the cost of living as a direct result of the Canada Post Corporation decision to eliminate cheap rates for food shipments. In February 1990, the mayor wrote that a bag of apples that had earlier sold for $2.86 now cost $4.44, bread had gone up from $1.70 to $3.88, a can of evaporated milk from $1.60 to $2.60. Native communities are going to suffer the most as they struggle to make a living off the land and from the scarce number of jobs available. The residents of Chapais, who stand to lose their status as an isolated post, must travel long distances by car to obtain special services or specialized care mostly available in Chicoutimi (378 kilometres away) or Québec City (524 kilometres away)." The loss of these tax benefits will inevitably and tragically contribute to the exodus of workers to the south," said St-Julien, "… life in the north is harsh, isolated and expensive. We have very little compared to the south and we are producers rather than consumers."

Québec’s Peripheral Sub-regions

Québec’s five peripheral sub-regions are Eastern Québec, the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, the North Shore, and James Bay (New Québec). Together they contain slightly more than half of the province’s land mass, but only thirteen per cent of its population. Services in each of them are significantly inferior to those available to other Québeckers in part because the managers usually live outside them and have an inadequate knowledge about them. The per person income of residents of the peripheries was also well below the Québec average in 1987 of $17,256: Eastern Québec --$13,558; Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean --$14,581; Abitibi-Témiscamingue--$l5,833; North Shore--$15,185; James Bay (New Québec) --$12,151. Living costs are often greater in the peripheries than in Montréal and Québec City.

Statistics Canada reported the following unemployment levels for the province’s different economic regions in September, 1989: North Shore --12.1%; Gaspé -- 23.1%; Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean -- 14.3%; AbitibiTémiscamingue -- 13.3%. These compared to 9.9% in Québec City and Montréal Centre. The common complaint in Gaspé that provincial taxes go mostly to Montréal was only sharpened by such figures.

Ranging in size from 42,000 kilometres (East Québec) to 350,000 square kilometres (James Bay), the five peripheries are at different economic stages as well. East Québec and the Abitibi region are attempting to urbanize and industrialize while reducing their out-migration. Hydroelectricity development around James Bay is having a heavy impact on the 10,452 mostly Crees who live there. Overall, the residents of all five subregions face some common problems: a peripheral location, a marginal local economy, and a heartland core in the province rushing to urbanize and industrialize. The transformation toward a post-industrial information economy is also creating serious growth and social disparity problems for all five regions.

Tourism continues to be a source of major hope for Québec’s periphery regions because visitors from all parts of North America and beyond find their scenery and natural environment, their human qualities and culture, their socio-economic diversity, fresh air, and wildlife to be fascinating even if only during two or three brief summer months. In Gaspé there are so many summer visitors that the local tourist services remain inadequate.

For more than twenty-five years, residents of Québec’s outer regions have fought fiercely in many ways to overcome difficulties. A number of committees and structures have been put in place; all kinds of experiments have been tried to pull the regions out of their difficulties and to create development opportunities. It would appear, however, that the chief beneficiaries of these efforts were businessmen, politicians, researchers, technocrats, planners, experts and consultants from outside the areas who discovered in under-development greater income and fresh soil for their theories. If so, the Québec peripheries have lots of company here with other parts of Outer Canada.

Both isolation and economic disparities aggravate the perceived inferior status of peripheral Québeckers. A major cause of peripheral alienation is the fact that so many decisions affecting the five sub-regions are made in Québec City, Montréal, Toronto and the United States. Decisions made in far-away centres are often based on inaccurate data, further distorted by distance, misconceptions and urban prejudices. As a consequence, they are often inappropriate for the region concerned and do not result in sustainable development. The policy-makers are simply unaware of relevant facts.

Residents of Québec City, Montréal, Ottawa and Toronto usually follow developments in peripheral Québec only when the provincial or national media focus attention on some picturesque story. This is vexing to residents of the five regions who are largely dependent on Québec City, Montréal, Ottawa and Toronto. Most of the administrative and economic decisions concerning them are made in these cities and it is to Québec City and Montréal that they must go for specialized services. Important news is filtered and broadcast from Québec City or Montréal. These two cities are also the cultural and scientific centres exercising an influence on the entirety of the province. Fellow Outer Canadians in St. John’s, Yellowknife, Sudbury and Nanaimo face, of course, the same problems.

Major strikes, demonstrations (including the riveting one at Oka), large-scale relocations of people, violent storms, school closings, poor health conditions, communications problems -- such items are the usual news fare about the peripheries broadcast or published in Montréal and Québec City. Given the metropolitan bias to electronic and print media, periphery residents accordingly know a great deal more about metropolitan Québec than about residents of other peripheral or neighbouring regions. They also tend to know about other hinterland regions through the metropolitan media filter and through public officials. No single medium, written or electronic, private or public, covers all of Québec’s sub-regions. The coverage of events in the peripheries by the Montréal and Québec City media at times is almost comical. During 1979, Montréalers were more informed by their media about the socio-economic problems of Port Cartier than were the residents of North Shore generally. A regional consciousness and pride is in consequence very difficult to develop and sustain. There is little regional solidarity among the Québec peripheries, as elsewhere in Outer Canada, mostly due to distance, disparity and poor communications. Attitudes in the regions are also characterized by parochialism preventing regional consciousness to develop. This is an observation also made about Northern Ontario as typical for alienated regions.

A related factor is economic fragility with its consequent high unemployment and low incomes, which themselves promote considerable migration from all five sub-regions. This phenomenon exists despite large forests, fertile soil for farming and plentiful mineral resources. Moreover, each sub-region has its own special economic strengths: mining in AbitibiTémiscamingue, hydro-electricity and aluminum in Saguenay-Lac-SaintJean, fishing and fleet maintenance in Eastern Québec, hydro-electricity and iron ore on the North Shore, and electricity around James Bay. For each region, however, part of the price of having such natural resources is that the output is mostly consumed beyond the district and its price and development are determined by factors beyond the periphery.

Limited economic diversification appears to be a further part of the employment problem in each of the five. One in four residents of Eastern Québec and five in ten in Abitibi-Témiscamingue live from work with wood. Almost four in ten employees in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and three in ten on the North Shore work in mines. Paper-making employs almost a third of the North Shore work force, twenty-three per cent of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean’s, seventeen per cent of Abitibi-Témiscamingue’s, and fifteen per cent of Eastern Québec’s. In other words, with so many of northwest Qudbeckers working in the wood and paper sectors, the rise and fall of international demand for their products is a daily and dominant concern. The three in ten residents of East Québec who earn their living from fish are similarly vulnerable to the ups and downs of foreign markets and a very short working season.

In this context, few Québeckers were surprised when the new government of Robert Bourassa opted in 1971 to develop the immense hydroelectric potential of James Bay with its promise of 125,000 jobs, many to be in the farthest periphery of the province. Five important northern rivers were to be dammed and a huge amount of land, including that of approximately five thousand natives, was to be flooded. Soon after the announcement, it became clear that the government had consulted no native residents, had done no environmental study, and had not even determined on which rivers the work would be done.

Following the 1970 October crisis and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s invoking of the War Measures Act, Premier Bourassa found himself with an uproar in parts of rural Québec as well. Operation Dignity, led by Catholic priests, was soon in full flower across Eastern Québec. The lack of proper consultation with local people about the Baie James project produced a hinterland backlash over other major projects as well. The proposed pipeline to Eastern Québec, a cablevision war in the lower St. Lawrence, and the establishment of Forillon park in the Gaspé all reinforced the widespread view that regional interests were of secondary importance in the plans of both Québec City and Ottawa.

Montréal and Québec continue to have a large influence on Shield Québeckers, providing, for example, supplies for most of their businesses and almost all public and semi-public services. This reality compels rural managers to travel to these two cities to meet public officials, business people and investors and to attend exhibitions and information sessions. Such frequent inconveniences, time consuming and expensive as they are, are part of the price of dependence.

In summary, northern Ontario and peripheral Québec are not only Canadian hinterlands but also provincial ones of their respective southern industrial metropolitan centres. The degree of progress and relative prosperity reaching the people living there proves elusive; depending on southern economic interests or needs of the day rather than policy designed for the long-term interests of the area. Residents already disadvantaged by an often hostile and harsh natural environment, continue to fight for a degree of dignity against the indifference of both senior levels of government and global and Canadian market forces. They fight often hopeless battles to hang on to a way of life they favour. To give up would mean moving south to be absorbed by a faceless megalopolis and becoming just another statistic in the success story of Inner Canada.


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