Paradise in the forest, except for the traffic jams: The pros and cons of life in lower Laurentians
Saint-Colomban is attracting young families but lacks sewers, public transit and other infrastructure
Axel Denault steps out onto the back deck of his home in Saint-Colomban, Que., nestled in the lower Laurentians, 65 kilometres northwest of Montreal. He looks out at the wall of deciduous trees that line his yard.
"That view is one of the big reasons we chose this house," says the 26-year-old father of two.
A few metres away, his two-year-old daughter, Ève, plays in a sandbox, scooping and sifting its contents.
Denault and his wife Jessie Bérubé moved here two years ago, before Ève was born — drawn by the forest and affordable housing. Now Ève has a sister, Kelly, born just two weeks ago.
They're not unlike so many other relative newcomers to this town of about 17,000, says Saint-Colomban's 37-year-old mayor, Xavier-Antoine Lalande.
"People come here to get peace," Lalande says.
Saint-Colomban is among the fastest-growing communities in Quebec, with a population that's more than doubled since 2002. Lalande expects it to reach 20,000 in the next 10 years.
Roots as an Irish settlement
The town was founded by Irish settlers — among them, Patricia Cooney's ancestors. Cooney spent her childhood weekends and summers in the community and moved here for good 33 years ago. She now works at the local library, which sits on the very land her family owned.
"I think it's perfect," says Cooney. "It's great to get out of the city."
Still, she used to be able to count every house in the town, "but now the houses are growing up all over the place."
She doesn't mind the population boom, but it doesn't sit well with everyone. Jasmine Léger, 28, grew up in St-Colomban and has fond memories of neighbours checking in on one another, especially during power outages.
"We had that sense of community," said Léger.
She doesn't know many of her new neighbours and finds they often don't share the same attitude. For the first time, last year, she considered moving away.
Lots of elementary schools, little infrastructure
There is room for big houses in Saint-Colomban — and bigger than average families.
Newcomers tend to be young and fertile: the average age in the community is just over 36, according to the Institut de la statistique du Québec, and in 2018, 211 babies were born here.
Women from Saint-Colomban who are in their childbearing years are nearly seven per cent more likely than the average Quebec woman in the same age bracket to be having babies.
All those babies mean the community now has four elementary schools. The newest opened just last year. But there is no high school within city limits — and there won't be in the near future because of the lack of adequate infrastructure.
"One of our main challenges is that we don't have a municipal sewage system," explains Lalande.
Instead, the town has teamed up with the neighbouring municipality of Mirabel to present the province with a joint proposal for a new high school there.
The lack of a sewage system also means the town doesn't have a grocery story or anything in the way of industry.
"There are small shops, but you cannot do your groceries without driving five, six, ten minutes," the mayor says.
"It's not normal for a town of 17,000 people."
It may be the greenery and the rural setting that attracted young couples like Denault and Bérubé. But when one has to hop in the SUV to do most things, life in Saint-Colomban is very reliant on vehicles and fossil fuels.
No real public transit system means most households have at least two vehicles.
There are only two roads out of town, and the mayor says a total of 22,000 vehicles go out and come back on them each day. Lalande is frustrated when he hears cities and towns that have extensive public transit lobby for better service.
"We feel abandoned," he says. "They have a lot of ways to transport themselves, and they want it better, they want it bigger. But here we have nothing."
The municipality does subsidize a taxi service: users only have to pay $5 a ride, but they have to reserve at least the night before and must be at the stop 30 minutes before their scheduled departure.
It's insufficient and not adapted to people's expectations, says Lalande. So people use their cars.
A well-planned commute
Axel Denault and Jessie Bérubé only have one car, but their daily commute is a model of finely honed planning.
Both work in Montreal, and before baby Kelly's recent arrival, they would leave the house together at 6:30 a.m. with their toddler in tow, drive to Saint-Jérôme and take the commuter train to Montreal, where Bérubé would drop Ève off at her workplace daycare before heading to her office.
The trio travelled home together at the end of the day, rarely arriving back in Saint-Colomban before 7 p.m.
"Even though it's a long time, we spend that time together as a family," Denault says "We can eat on the train. We can do all sorts of things, which really affects how we live our family life."
Denault and his wife are "confident" and "happy" with their choice of having moved to Saint-Colomban, and he says as the community continues to grow, he wants the community to maintain its "deep-in-the-forest impression."
"As long as that balance is kept, and we don't become too much of a suburbia, I'm really all for the development," Denault says.