Saguenay at a crossroads: 6 candidates say they're the best mayor to shift economy toward the future

Saguenay is experiencing its largest ever race for mayor. Who wins could impact whether the city maintains its economic reliance on industrial activity and logging, or moves toward greener initiatives.

Tradionally resourced-based economy could change, as greener ideas surface

Saguenay residents will have a record-number of candidates for mayor to choose from when they go to the polls on November 7. (Gilles Munger/Radio-Canada)

A record number of people are running for mayor in Saguenay this year. With six candidates, including four women, it's the largest race for mayor the city has ever seen. 

Until recently, Saguenay's municipal politics have been relatively stagnant. The city had the same mayor, Jean Tremblay, for more than fifteen years before incumbent Mayor Josée Néron took office in 2017.

"I think some people wanted transformations to happen a lot faster, and that's why there's such a strong interest for the position," explained France Devin, a political science professor at the CEGEP de Chicoutimi. 

The stage was crowded with mayoral candidates (from left to right) Jacinthe Vaillancourt, Serge Simard, Claude Côté, Catherine Morissette, Julie Dufour and Josée Néron at a recent debate. (Roby St-Gelais/Radio-Canada)

The six candidates offer very different visions for the future of Saguenay, a city of nearly 150,000 people that spans an area more than twice the size of Montreal. 

Who wins could impact whether the city maintains its economic reliance on industrial activity and logging, or moves toward greener initiatives.

The diversity of options is a welcome change from Tremblay's administration, which ruled the city unopposed for many years, according to Christian Bélanger, a social sciences lecturer at the University du Québec à Chicoutimi.

"It offers people a choice, a choice between different types of projects," he said,.

Balancing the environment, economic growth

Saguenay's economy relies heavily on logging and industrial activity such as aluminum production, but some candidates want to change that. (Titouan Bussiere/Radio-Canada)

The main election issue in Saguenay this year is creating conditions favourable for growth and development, Bélanger said. 

The city is recovering from an economic slowdown caused by the pandemic. Its ability to attract new investors was shaken in July when the province decided to cancel a controversial $14-billion project to build a liquefied natural gas facility in the region.

The decision was a blow for Néron, who supported the project and had been touting Saguenay as an investment destination. 

Seeking re-election, Néron and her party Équipe du renouveau démocratique are proposing to diversify the economy, for example, by developing the information technology sector.

Incumbent mayor Josée Néron, from the party Équipe du renouveau démocratique, is seeking reelection in the Saguenay municipal election. (Lynda Paradis/Radio-Canada)

But candidate Serge Simard says more needs to be done to develop the economy. "As we speak it's been four years that nothing's happened," he said, adding that he plans to invest in big commercial projects if he is elected.

The former Quebec Liberal MNA said he is notably eager to work with mining group Rio Tinto on replacing one of their aging aluminum smelting plants in the Arvida neighbourhood.

But for Claude Côté, the 32 year-old leader of the new party Unissons Saguenay, it's time to move away from industrial production.

"Yes, economic development is important," he said, but he added that it couldn't be used as a reason to implement projects like the scrapped LGN project. "For us that's like a catastrophe for the environment."

Claude Côté, leader of the municipal party Unissons Saguenay, said he is the only candidate for mayor in Saguenay that truly addresses environmental issues. (Radio-Canada)

Instead, he wants to focus on sustainability and environmentally-friendly initiatives like building more bike lanes.

Sustainable development is also a priority for independent candidate Catherine Morissette, who is keen to develop Saguenay's tourism industry.

Candidate Jacinthe Vaillancourt wants to boost the city's revenues by finding solutions to its aging and shrinking population. She said she will focus on retaining some 2,200 students who come from abroad and elsewhere in the country. 

"I want to see how we do a plan to integrate them ... and to interest them to establish themselves in our beautiful city," she said.

Building a unified city

The future mayor's hardest task will be to bring a sense of unity to the many boroughs that make up Saguenay, said Bélanger.

Saguenay was created in February 2002, when the provincial government merged Chicoutimi, Jonquière, La Baie and three additional small towns. 

Although the amalgamation happened years ago, people still have a strong sense of belonging and attachment to their former towns, said Bélanger.

As a result, residents scrutinize how much the mayor pays attention to their borough, said political science professor Pierre Turcotte, who teaches at the GEGEP de Jonquière.

"When an infrastructure is set up somewhere the other boroughs go 'Well why is infrastructure set-up again in Chicoutimi, why is it [in] Jonquière and never at La Baie?'" he said.

Independant candidate Julie Dufour has been doing well in the polls and is likely Néron's toughest opponent, according to local political science professor France Devin. (Lynda Paradis/Radio-Canada)

Changing that culture of division is one of Julie Dufour's goals. The candidate said she wants to help redefine the city's identity.

"After the fusion in 2002, Saguenay lost a bit of its essence," she said, adding the city's pride took a bit of a blow.

Winning the hearts of the boroughs

Recent polls show Dufour and Néron as the two front runners, said Devin, who has been following the elections with her students. Dufour has more support in Jonquière while Néron is doing well in Chicoutimi. 

To win, the two women will have to snatch the votes of La Baie residents from Simard, she said.

That's no small feat when there are so many candidates to choose from, she said. "It dilutes the vote." 

She added it's especially hard in Saguenay, where voter turnout is very low. Residents go to the polls on November 7.