Posted by: rosemary | October 21, 2009

Toward the Finish Line

Steve Leckman, a core member of Alliance Romaine and second-time marathoner, running over the Sheldrake River

Steve Leckman, a core member of Alliance Romaine and second-time marathoner, running over the Sheldrake River

When we started this marathon in early September, it was still important to worry about heat stroke, and we could, and did, jump in a lake to cool off after a hard day’s run. The other day, as I was breaking the hard frost off my tent zipper so I could get up in the morning, I realized both how far, and how long we had been running. There is a sense of poignancy that comes with approaching endings, and as our trek entered its final week, we faced a new set of challenges, but we also encountered new rewards.

Taking the Relais Nordik ferry between Rimouski and Sept-Îles, I remember feeling the butterflies in my stomach. I was convinced that Sept-Îles, like most of the North Shore, was a blue collar community 99% sold on the Romaine project, and eager for more. What kind of an impact, or for that matter reception, would we have here? To be sure, the outgoing, and cosmopolitan staff at the Sept-Îles youth hostel were supportive of our message, but I took this to be an exception. Still, as I spent the next few days talking to media, meeting candidates for the upcoming municipal elections, and accepting rides from locals, I realized that opinion here, as everywhere, is more nuanced.

Without a doubt, many North Shore residents support the Romaine project, but now that the construction site is actually open, there is a realization that the dams do not represent the economic cure-all that was promised. In the village of Havre Saint-Pierre, located twenty kilometers from the Romaine’s estuary, young men are abandoning the fishing industry to go work for Hydro Quebec. With an influx of workers from outside the community, the cost of rent has skyrocketed, and the town is living through the consequences of a sort of localized Dutch Disease, a rapid, and asymmetric boom that does not trickle equally into all sectors of the economy, and may actually leave Havre Saint-Pierre worse off than before once the construction at the Romaine site is finished. At the same time, many of the supply contracts that were expected have not gone to North Shore companies, meaning there are fewer spin-off jobs in the region, and that many locals have less to gain from the megaproject than they had hoped.

As an environmental group, Alliance Romaine has always argued that our ecosystems, including our rivers, constitute a natural capital, and that there is more wealth to be earned, over the long term, from preserving our rivers than from destroying them. The fishing industry, which is now threatened, was once the raison d’être of communities like Havre Saint-Pierre, Rivière-au-Tonnerre, and others, and it is a sure bet that if more rivers are dammed the supply of oxygen and nutrients into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence will be degraded, and the chances for North Shore residents to make a viable living off the fishery will decline further still.
But, even apart from economics, there is an existential reason why many locals are receptive to our message. In an era when you can decide what part of the world you live in, a significant number of North Shore residents have chosen to come here, or, if they were born here, to stay or to come back because they love the seascapes and escarpments, the forests and, yes, the rivers, that give this remarkable region its cachet. Each of these people have their own stories. I am thinking of Michelle Depeyre, who was born in Sept-Îles and spent several years in Montreal before she experienced an epiphany while on a camping trip with her sister and decided to live out her life in a small North Shore village. Michelle is now the author of a beautiful guide book that catalogues the major waterfalls in Quebec. I am thinking of the moose hunter and his wife who stopped to congratulate us on the road, and I am thinking of the staff at the Sept-Îles youth hostel who gave us a free night as a way to support our cause.
Having crossed most of the province, we can say truthfully that the warmest welcome- it feels like a homecoming- was reserved for us here on the North Shore.
People have been asking us what we will do when the marathon is over. We are not quite sure yet, but what we know is that we have the intention of coming back and working- for the next ten years if necessary, with the folks who love and live in this spectacular area. The Romaine, the Moisie, the Magpie, and the Sheldrake- these are rivers worth fighting for- our inspiration to invest in the long-term,  and to become part of the landscape, and the riverscape of the North Shore from now on.
For the marathon team
Chris, near Sept-Îles
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