Route 138: Saving Quebec's 'forgotten people'

A historic region on Canada's Atlantic coast pins its hopes for survival on a missing road link to the outside world.

by

    Lower North Shore, Quebec, Canada -   A few times a week Eldon Jones, who runs the tourist information centre in Blanc-Sablon, Quebec, makes the short drive to greet the ferry at the town's harbour. If the pickings are good, he will return with a handful of visitors to the centre, which doubles as a local museum.

    For as long as he can keep their attention, Jones regales the visitors with tales about the area's rich indigenous history, its centuries-long ties to the Basques, the English and the French, and all possible adventures on offer: from whale, iceberg and bird watching to kayaking, camping, and hiking.

    With their heads swimming with information and knapsacks brimming with brochures, the tourists bid their goodbyes to Jones and drive off. A few will go left at the main intersection, and drive down a 70km dead-end road to explore the region Jones just plugged.

    Many others, though, turn right where the road leads into the neighbouring province of Newfoundland and Labrador, a few kilometres to the east. When this happens, it is hard for Jones not to feel downcast.

    "Where's the incentive for people to visit our region when the road just ends, and doesn't connect with the rest of the country?" he asks. "If we're struggling here, what will happen to the other villages that are totally cut off?"

    Quebec's Lower North Shore, known in French as Basse-Cote-Nord, is a stunning 400-kilometre stretch of wild coast, home to some of the oldest fishing villages in Canada. Fourteen formerly self-sufficient communities made up of French, Innu First Nation, Acadian and English speakers dot this rocky, weather-beaten expanse where the Atlantic, the boreal forest and the tundra converge.

    Though nowhere near as far-flung as some other Canadian communities, especially in the far north, the 5,000 residents of these struggling hamlets say they are almost equally cut off and neglected.

    They've come up with a moniker and describe themselves as "The Forgotten People". 

    The dying village of Tete-a-la-Baleine, lies roughly halfway between the two ends of Highway 138 [John Zada/Al Jazeera]

    Much of Quebec's Lower North Shore has no through-road linking it directly with the rest of the world. The province's coastal highway, known as Route 138, runs from the United States border through Montreal, Quebec City and a number of other towns, only to end abruptly at the tiny Innu First Nation village of Kegaska.

    The road appears again - after bypassing several communities spread along hundreds of kilometres of bushy muskeg, or bogland - at the sleepy hamlet of Vieux Fort, before continuing on to the Newfoundland and Labrador border.

    An overland Ski-Doo route provides some respite to the isolation of some villages in the winter months. But the remaining conditions are deeply challenging.

    The Forgotten People

    Air and sea links carrying passengers and goods are costly and unreliable. Mobile telephone and internet service is spotty. Accessibility for tourists is complicated. When combined with long-standing economic woes stemming from the collapse of the commercial fishing industry here in the late 20th century, it means there is little chance to earn a livelihood.

    Leo McKinnon, a retired lobster fisherman in the town of St Augustin, long ago gave up trying to make a living by offering sports fishing tours in the stunning Kecarpoui Archipelago just south of the community.

    "This place is beautiful enough to be a National Park, but there isn't enough business here to justify my costs," he complains. "Flights are expensive. The boat schedule makes no sense. I know lots of sports fishermen from all over the world who'd love to come here, but it's just too big of a commitment for them."

    Residents say some of their communities will become extinct within less than a generation if nothing is done. Much of the region's youth have opted to leave the area for better opportunities in other parts of the province, according to locals. Now, even some of the area's older residents have joined the exodus.

    "When I was growing up in the village of Tete-a-la-Baleine, the population was around 700 people," says Alberte Marcoux, the director of Voyages Coste, a regional co-op working to draw tourists to the area. "Thirty years later, we're at around 150 residents. Soon this - and other villages with so much beauty, history, and culture - will be gone."

    As the Lower North Shore reaches a demographic tipping point, residents are doing everything in their power to save their communities from vanishing into history.

    READ MORE: Canada's Lost Women

    Retired lobster fisherman, Leo McKinnon, looking out from his fishing cottage in the Kecarpoui Archipelago [John Zada/Al Jazeera]

    Cut off and neglected

    Pushing the government to build the extension linking the two ends of Route 138 is a priority for these communities. Villagers insist that completing the road, a promise dangled by politicians on and off for decades, would inject the region with desperately needed tourists and trade. It would also create a faster and cheaper link to the rest of Quebec and the outside world.

    In 2010, the previous Quebec government started paying out part of a $76m pledge to build a small section of the road extension. But after two years, and $36m spent, it pulled the plug on the project after the local contractor, called Pakatan, made up of a cabal of local politicians,  reportedly  mismanaged the project.

    Last year, Quebec's Minister for the North Shore, Pierre Arcand, announced that Quebec intended to spend $177m to build two short extensions to Route 138 - between two pairs of villages. Preparations have been under way for months to plot those routes.

    No timeline has been offered and sceptical residents are watching closely to see if the government follows through on its pledge.

    But the bigger question for locals - if and when the remainder of the roadwork will be done to bridge the whole highway - remains entirely unknown. 

    The wild outskirts of the shrinking fishing village of Tete-a-la-Baleine [John Zada/Al Jazeera]

    "The extension of Route 138 between Kegaska and Vieux-Fort is a priority project for the Quebec government, and will, once completed, reduce the isolation of local communities," the Quebec government said in an email response to an Al Jazeera request for clarification of its plans for Route 138. The statement added, however, that the overall project would "require major financial investment" given the great length of the proposed route and estimated a cost of $1.1bn.

    Residents say they are grateful for any extension of the road, but add that the gesture is too small - and falls short of a solid promise to complete the whole route. Others say the government is unwilling to spend so much money on so few people for a project that, even if successful, won't guarantee vitality for the waning region.

    "Unless Quebec gets additional funding from the Canadian government, I can't see how they'll be able to complete the whole route," says Marcoux. "They don't have the money. And right now there's nothing to indicate that Ottawa has even been approached."

    For some communities on the Lower North Shore, it may already be too late.

    A declining future

    A 30-minute drive from the eastern dead-end of Route 138 is the village of Middle Bay. The community's museum and interpretation centre, small enough to miss if you blink while driving by it, documents 9,000 years of continuous human habitation of the area - and is situated near the remains of a 16th-century Basque whaling station.

    Donna Blanche, who gives tours to the trickle of visitors who pass through, is far from optimistic about the town's future.

    "The post office is closed," she says, counting on her fingers. "The grocery store is closed. There's 35 people left here. Only one of them is a teenager. And the most telling sign of all: When people die here, nobody comes to claim their homes or belongings. No one wants to be here."

    As for government efforts, Marcoux says: "They're not trying because we just don't matter to the rest of Quebec.

    "We're seen as too small and too far away."

    The English-speaking village of Harrington Harbour located on the roadless section of Quebec's Lower North Shore [John Zada/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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