Quebec Crees demand better access to driving schools

Would-be drivers in isolated Cree communities say they are effectively being denied the right to get their permits, since the nearest driving school is often hours away.

Nearest mandatory lessons located an hour drive away

People in Mistissini have to drive for about an hour to attend mandatory driving classes. 2:12

A Mistissini woman eager to become a licensed driver in Mistissini is demanding better access to driving school, since the nearest one in her Cree community is located about an hour away in Chibougamau.

Theory and practical driving lessons have been mandatory in Quebec since 2010, but Lisa MacNeil says anyone in a remote community where no school exists is effectively denied the right to get a licence.

MacNeil, who is originally from Waskaganish but lives and works in Mistissini, nearly 780 kilometres north of Montreal, says the province's automobile insurance board (SAAQ) has offered little help in finding a solution for her and others in her situation.

Lisa MacNeil said the SAAQ told her to find a ride to attend driving lessons nearly an hour away from her town. (Lisa MacNeil)

"They suggested that I organize myself and find a ride," said MacNeil. "I mean, I might be from a small town, but I have enough street smarts not to get into a car with a stranger and drive on an isolated highway."

"Taking a taxi round trip would cost me $400," she said. "That would be $400 each time I wanted to attend a class."

She estimates the cost of attending all the mandatory classes before obtaining her permit would total at least $10,000 — or more than ten times the cost to a driving student in an urban centre.

SAAQ aware of the accessibility problem

MacNeil has been back and forth with the SAAQ via email for months.

Last December, the board said it would exempt MacNeil from the mandatory driving classes, requiring her only to pass the driving theory test in order to earn her licence.

A SAAQ representative then called her back in January and retracted that offer, saying a mistake had been made and there would be no exemption.

MacNeil said the whole experience has been frustrating.  She's convinced the only recourse for now is for the SAAQ to simply lift the requirement for classes if the nearest school is beyond people's reach.

"I just figured that they overlooked how their new requirements would affect such isolated areas, and they didn't realize the impact and the detriment that it was causing to people," she said.

SAAQ spokesman Mario Vaillancourt said the board is aware of the problem, and the situation is not unique to Cree communities.

"In some regions, some projects were already initiated to give people the chance to take classes as close as possible to their residences," he said.

He said the driving school in Chibougamau is interested in offering lessons in Mistissini sometime this year.