Quebec's remote Lower North Shore villages call for exemption from tough new snowmobile law

Quebec is set to adopt stringent new rules that would require people to be at least 16 years old and to have a driver's learner permit before they could use off-road vehicles or snowmobiles. But residents of isolated communities on the Lower North Shore say snowmobiles are a fact of life for them.

Isolated communities ask how their children will get to school

People on the Lower North Shore say children learn to use snowmobiles safely at a young age. (Submitted by Lisa Woodland)

In the isolated villages that line Quebec's Lower North Shore, children often learn how to power up a snowmobile at the age of 10.

Villagers say they have no choice. About a dozen communities near the Labrador border do not clear their streets of snow during the wintertime, rendering regular road vehicles — including school buses — useless.

"You can't carry your four kids on a Ski-Doo," said Colin Shattler, a Blanc-Sablon municipal councillor, whose own daughter learned to handle a snowmobile at 12.

Although younger children catch rides with their parents or older siblings, hundreds of older students drive themselves to school. Snowmobiles are lined up like cars in a parking lot outside school buildings, Shattler says.

"All of our kids on the coast, they've grown up with this over the years. It's almost like a right of passage," Shattler said.

"Everyone basically from 12 to 60 is going around on a Ski-Doo. That's the means of transportation."

Many isolated communities do not plow their roads in the winter time, and people rely on snowmobiles to get around. (Nicole Monget/CNW Group Voyages CoSte)

While his municipality does clear its roads — his daughter drives a snowmobile in order to travel within the region with her family — in some places students would otherwise have to walk up to 10 kilometres through unpacked snow to get to class.

Now, the Quebec government is forging ahead with what it says will be the toughest legislation in Canada for off-road vehicle use, including snowmobiles.

New law will include high fines

The province is in the process of passing bill 71, which would require anyone who wants to grip the handlebars to not only be 16 and have taken a theoretical training course, but also to have at least a learner's permit to drive a car.

Fines for youths who break the rules will more than quadruple, from $100 to $450-$900.

Transport Minister François Bonnardel said the clampdown on off-road vehicles should have happened long ago.

"The road safety record is disastrous for off-road vehicles, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles," he said, after tabling the bill last month. Nearly 600 people in Quebec have died in accidents involving them in the past 10 years, he said.

Last January, people across the province began paying more attention to snowmobile safety after six people died in an accident near Lac-Saint-Jean. The French tourists had driven over thin ice, plunging into a frigid channel of water. Their local guide also perished.

Randy Jones, warden of the MRC du Golfe-du-Saint-Laurent, understands people's safety concerns, but says on the Lower North Shore, both children and adults spend so much time on the machines, they quickly master the use of them.

"The children have been raised with snowmobiles. It becomes basically a part of their body," he said.

Both Jones and Shattler say provincial legislation should include an exemption for their area. The proposed law already includes some.

Bill 71 rules would not apply to youths working on farmland, and the bill also states that it can be overridden by an agreement with any of Quebec's Indigenous peoples, specifically those in the north.

Jones says the Lower North Shore will likely want the same deal the province would make with Northern Indigenous communities.

"Those communities are in the same boat as we are," he said. "If they can make exceptions to the rule for Indigenous communities then they must be able to do for the communities of the Lower North Shore."

Snowmobiles, not cars, fill up parking lots in winter on the Lower North Shore. (Submitted by Fay Collier)

While minors under 16 are already not legally allowed to drive the vehicles, the law is rarely enforced on the Lower North Shore.

The communities that do not have winter roads also do not have any roads connecting them to the rest of the province, and the Quebec provincial police do not have anyone permanently posted there.

The area also has no snowmobile clubs, which have the power to patrol snowmobile trails elsewhere in Quebec.

The transport minister's press secretary, Florence Plourde, said in an email this week that the minister is aware of the area's reality, and the government could consider it as the bill proceeds to the next step in the legislative process. Amendments are possible, she said.