James Bay was burdened by a lack of housing, services and labour

“Living in our North” is the primary goal of Quebec’s 2020-2023 Northern Action Plan. But despite the many economic projects and jobs available, the towns of James Bay are emptying, weighed down by lack of housing, services and labor. Many citizens and organizations are demanding concrete measures to break the vicious circle that is devitalizing their region.

In Chibougamau, Montreal residents like to remind everyone that their city is never congested. You can be enjoying the great outdoors in minutes, whether lounging on the beach of sparkling Lac Gilman in the heart of downtown in the summer, or putting on your snowshoes at the hospital exit lined by the boreal forest.

Before 9 a.m., there are only two ways to buy a coffee to go: McDonald’s and the convenience store at the gas station. The Tim Hortons is an empty shell, recently condemned to uselessness by lack of staff. Like many other restaurants, Chez Raymonde’s owners have reduced their opening hours and no longer serve meals on Saturdays and Sundays, proving their “open every day” sign belies it.

“It’s been a long time since shops have started to close or not have many opening hours,” says mum Julie Tremblay.

The labor shortage has other significant effects on womenme Tremble. Two years after returning from maternity leave, she still hasn’t found a daycare center for her son Étienne. In the living room of the family home, whose large windows offer a breathtaking view of Lac Caché, the three-year-old has gotten used to playing with his collection of miniature cars while his mother works on the computer. Mme Tremblay watches over Adèle, the neighbor’s granddaughter, also a victim of the lack of care.

“It’s a fun brain teaser, quite tiring. As a child, Etienne accidentally emptied the soil of my plants while he was looking at me while I was speaking in a meeting because he was tired of me working, ”she says, unperturbed by the small cries of Adèle who is sitting to leave on her lap.

The situation has consequences for the professional and family life of the mother of three children. She had to quit a job that required too long daylight hours. As a CEGEP teacher, she only accepts course workloads in the evenings and at weekends when her husband can take over.

Another problem is the lack of specialized health services. Étienne has been waiting two years to be seen by a speech therapist for his speech delay. Several times a year Mme Tremblay and her husband have to drive up to six hours for their other two boys, Benoit and Eliott, to have their allergology and gastroenterology follow-ups.

“Last year we each took at least 10 days off for doctor appointments at our expense. That costs us a lot of money,” she regrets, and suggests making more use of telemedicine for customers in her region.

Leave the region

Despite her ties to Chibougamau, her hometown, Ms.me Tremblay considers leaving her for Mauricie, where her husband grew up. And many people have taken action, if we are to believe the latest Statistics Canada censuses, as the city’s population grew from 7,504 to 7,233 between 2016 and 2021. North-du-Québec is also one of the 5 out of 17 regions. that had negative net interregional migration in 2020-2021.

The situation is even worse in smaller towns, according to James Bay Regional Administration (ARBJ) director-general Marie-Claude Brousseau. In Matagami and Lebel-sur-Quévillon, 1,402 and 2,091 residents respectively have to travel hundreds of kilometers and change administrative regions to visit a dentist, optician or take driving lessons.

“If the only supermarket in your village closes at 8pm now, there is no other choice to get milk. It has psychological effects on the population,” explains Mme Brousseau.

The James Bay Regional Health and Social Services Center (CRSSS) has 26% vacancies. President and CEO, Nathalie Boisvert, believes this summer is “the most difficult time” in the company’s history.

The latter would like her human resources department, which is also suffering from staff shortages, to be supported by the Ministry or other bodies to develop recruitment strategies and expand telemedicine. “We had four HR managers in four years,” adds the CEO.” The lack of manpower therefore prevents the deployment of solutions that would make it possible to … compensate for the lack of manpower.

Worsening housing shortage

The glaring lack of rental housing is hampering the settlement of new residents in Chibougamau. According to the ARBJ, the vacancy rate in the region is close to 0%. For decades, no apartment building was built. Many apartments are taken over by workers who commute to companies rather than residents.

Unable to find affordable and suitable housing, many newly hired employees from other regions or cities turn to the Office Municipal d’Habitation (OMH) de Chibougamau-Chapais, even if their salary is too high to meet the usual criteria – rental apartment. Such was the case with Ruben Aghomo, a new administrator at the CRSSS. The apartments he found on the private market were either too small for his family of three, extremely expensive, or in poor condition.

“If you want to buy a house, it’s easier. But I don’t need that because I don’t know if I’ll stay here long,” he says.

OMH is struggling so much to meet demand that its chief executive, Guepsly Florvil, is asking for additional budgets to renovate dozens of homes that are too run down to be occupied.

solutions in sight

Residential construction projects should bring some relief. For example, 40 residential units destined for the rental market must be delivered in 2024 with Quebec’s financial participation. But according to some speakers, this amount will not be enough.

The ARBJ calls for targeted measures to stimulate the occupation of this territory, whose economy is based on forests, mines and hydroelectric power plants.

“The Northern Action Plan does not contain many specific measures for Jamésiens,” regrets Marie-Claude Brousseau. We want to see commitments in this regard in the next election campaign. ” Mme Brousseau is thinking in particular of tax and financial incentives to offset the high cost of living and discourage commuting. She also wants the planes used by Hydro-Québec and certain mines further north to stop more frequently in North-du-Québec cities.

“Someone in our region who wants to travel 200 km from home to a mining project sometimes has to travel 300 km to get to an airport in Abitibi that will take them to the mine site,” she regrets.

It’s a sense of urgency that drives the Matagamienne. “We need to reverse the trend because as communities continue to disintegrate, they become small villages with no services where no one wants to live. »

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