Turning berries into gold: Quebec Lower North Shore village shifts from cod to cosmetics

The town of Bonne-Espérance, Que., is drawing on local plants and know-how to launch a nature-based cosmetics industry and revitalize the region, which has seen a slow decline since the collapse of the fishing industry.

Bonne-Espérance to expand local foraged-food co-operative, creating 40 permanent jobs

48 harvesters along the Lower North Shore region gather berries that are labelled and frozen, before being transformed into purees, syrups and jellies. (Julia Page/CBC)

Built on the back of the cod-fishing industry, a village on Quebec's Lower North Shore is now focusing its energy on developing an entirely different kind of product based on local plants and know-how — cosmetics. 

Bonne-Espérance, a community of 730 people, sits roughly 60 kilometres west of Quebec's border with Labrador.

The road that links the town to Quebec's most easterly point winds past waterfalls, rock formations and hidden coves.

Established as a fishing outport in the late 1800s, Bonne-Espérance fell on hard times when cod stocks collapsed. The federal government declared a moratorium on cod fishing in 1992, followed by a second moratorium on snow crab in 2003.

Nearly 200 residents lost their livelihood.

Lower North Shore Bioproducts Solidarity Co-operative President Kimberly Buffitt, left to right, Bonne-Espérance Mayor Roderick Fequet, Coun. Shelley Fequet, youth intern Chenelle Lessard and boreal forest researcher Shae-lynn Roberts stand in the lot where the new warehouse is to be built. (Julia Page/CBC)

Searching for other sources of revenue for their town, a group of women turned to another abundant resource in the region: berries.

"We really had to go back and see what was done traditionally, which plants people were using, because a lot of that knowledge was dying," said Kimberley Buffitt, president of the Lower North Shore Bioproducts Solidarity Co-operative.

With the input of local elders, the co-op started developing products from indigenous plants like Labrador tea, marshberries and cloudberries.

"Once you started the conversations in these villages, it was like, 'Oh yeah, my grandmother used to make this,' or, 'My grandfather still drinks juniper tea,'" Buffitt said.

CBC reporters Peter Tardif and Julia Page were aboard the Bella Desgagnés in July, stopping along the ship's route. 1:34

Over the ensuing decade, with government support, co-op members started gathering berries all along the coast, transforming the tart fruit into jellies, syrups and purées.

Close to 50 harvesters from across the Lower North Shore now deliver their pickings to Bonne-Espérance. 

The warehouse, built to the highest standards for food production, is about to be expanded for the next phase of the project — the production of cosmetic products made from the leftover skins and seeds.

'Superberries'

The vitamins and antioxidants extracted will be transformed into face creams, shampoos and facials masks, "a multi-billion dollar market," said Buffitt.

The first shipment is to be sent to co-op's business partner in the U.S. in September.

"We found that they were superberries, [with much higher levels of antioxidants] than the pomegranate or blueberries," she said.

Once the expansion is complete in the fall, the co-op will be offering 40 full-time jobs, in a town stuck with a 50 per cent unemployment rate.

"When we did the first co-op opening, I think everybody found it kind of hard to believe," said Buffitt.

The co-op is located in St-Paul's River, one of three villages that make up the municipality of Bonne-Espérance, Que., near the Quebec-Labrador border. (Julia Page/CBC)

Other towns along the coast are benefiting from market spin-offs. In the neighbouring town of Saint-Augustin, for example, they're extracting birch water, which will be mixed with berries to create a new line of beverages.

The cosmetic products, which are 90 per cent water-based, will also be enhanced with the natural enzymes the birch water contains.

"The potential for growth in terms of our employability in the region is immeasurable," said Shelley Fequet, a co-op board member and municipal councillor in Bonne-Espérance.

She sees the project as a model for other towns along the coast.

"The region is in need of growth, is ready for growth, and I think now is the time for us to move forward to keep the Lower North Shore alive."

Bringing youth back home

The mayor of Bonne-Espérance, Roderick Fequet, is counting on local initiatives like the co-op to attract new residents, but also to bring back young people who have moved away to pursue post-secondary education.

"We need a professional work force in the region," said Fequet, who recently moved back to the region himself.

In addition to creating manufacturing and construction jobs, the co-op is spurring the need for people trained in scientific research, development, innovation and marketing.

"It's about creating an economy that wasn't there before," Fequet said.

Shae-Lynn Roberts didn't expect to find this kind of career in her hometown.

"Growing up, we were always told 'If you want to move back on the coast you're either going to be unemployed, or you'll be a teacher or a nurse'," said the McGill University graduate.

Shae-Lynn Roberts, who grew up in Bonne-Espérance, says she is excited to be contributing to the growth of her community. (Julia Page/CBC)

Now a boreal forest researcher who works in the bio-development and innovation department with the co-op, she is encouraging more young people to find work in their own backyard.

"The opportunities are really endless, and it's really what you make of it," said Roberts, who concedes nonetheless that she's chosen a challenging road.

"You grew up here, you're really proud of where you're from, and it is a lot more fulfilling in my workplace to be able to support and bring up the local communities rather than just be part of a big machine."

CBC Reporter Julia Page joins us from onboard the Bella Desgagnés, after a week talking with people about life on the coast. 12:21