From tractor parts to prescription glasses, Canada Post cuts on Lower North Shore affect everything
Crown corporation has scaled back delivery to 3 times a week in one of Quebec's most remote regions
People living on the Lower North Shore, one of the most remote regions of Quebec, know what it feels like to be isolated. Only a few generations ago, letters and parcels were delivered to their small coastal towns in the winter by dog sled.
Now cuts to Canada Post service have residents worried they're going backwards, jeopardizing timely access to essentials they depend on — from grocery staples to mechanical parts to prescription drugs.
The Crown corporation has scaled back its mail and parcel delivery pick-up and drop-off service from five times a week to three, in line with schedule changes by the local air service provider, PAL Airlines.
On a coastline where the weather conditions are often unstable, in practical terms, that could mean deliveries could dwindle to once a week, warned Kimberley Buffitt, the director of programs for the Coasters Association, a citizens' committee for English-speaking people in the region.
"We feel like the Canadian government that's in charge of Canada Post just brought us back to the 1920s," said Buffitt.
With no permanent road connecting the communities, towns are only accessible in the winter by plane — or the Route Blanche, the snowmobile highway that runs along the coast. So far this year, there hasn't been enough snow to open it.
"It's ridiculous, especially where we don't have a road, and we don't have all of those services that other people have across Canada," said Buffitt.
Canada Post said PAL Airlines' schedule changes have left it with no choice but to reduce its deliveries and pick-ups to Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, instead of Monday to Friday.
"If an issue causes the Thursday flight to be cancelled, such as bad weather or mechanical problems, we would make an attempt on the Friday," said a spokesperson for Canada Post in an emailed statement to CBC.
That isn't enough for the local Bloc Québécois MP, Marilène Gill, who argued Canada Post "must have a plan B."
"People on the Lower North Shore and the Minganie aren't second-class citizens," Gill said in a statement. Postal service is even more critical to people in the region than it is for others in the rest of the province, she said.
"They pay outrageous prices to have access to the service," said Gill. "This is blatantly inequitable."
Gill, who represents the riding of Manicougan, said she is working with Canada Post to find solutions, and she intends to put pressure on federal Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef to underline the relevance of "this essential service."
Canada Post said it "will be monitoring the schedule and mail delivery very closely over the next few weeks to ensure that we continue to provide residents with reliable postal service."
Never-ending wait for extension of Highway 138
News of the Canada Post service cuts comes just as political pressure is mounting on Quebec to improve transportation options for people in the region.
On Tuesday, close to 200 people, including coastal town mayors, held an early morning protest that blocked the Transport Ministry office in Baie-Comeau, on the North Shore, 420 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.
The group behind that protest, Coalition 138, is demanding to know when the extension of Highway 138 will be finished and what's happened to plans for a bridge across the mouth of the Saguenay River near Tadoussac.
Later the same day, dozens of communities on the Lower North Shore held a regional video conference to discuss how to get the government to address their needs.
Roderick Fequet, the mayor of Bonne-Espérance, a municipality of 700, called the meeting unprecedented and a "historic moment," only made possible by the new high-speed Internet network now being rolled out throughout the region.
"Finally the Lower North Shore is getting a digital highway, which is critical for our future development," he said. "Unfortunately, the physical highway is still not being built."
Calls for the completion of Highway 138, which now ends in Kegaska, Que., 370 kilometres shy of Bonne-Espérance, have gone unanswered for decades, said Fequet.
That isolation has led to "the erosion" of essential services, he said, which he believes will only get worse unless the federal and provincial governments step in and make significant investments.
"People are fighting for their lives," Fequet said on CBC Quebec's Breakaway.
That might sound alarming, he said, but Fequet has seen the region's population shrivel by half — down to around 5,000 residents.
"The populations of the Lower North Shore will decline to a degree that other government services will not be viable to be maintained — such as airports, clinics, hospitals and maritime transport."
"I'm afraid the outlook for us is is rather bleak, and people are very concerned."
With files from CBC's Breakaway and Radio-Canada