Murdochville looks to tourism to shake ghosts of mining past

Like many small communities that once dotted Quebec's landscape, Murdochville was born a company town, built on the back of a mining boom.

Rich in copper ore, the mine was in operation for more than 50 years, an exceptionally long run compared to the average life span.

But when the mining company pulled out more than a dozen years ago, the town’s economy crashed.

Now many believe the community’s future lies in another natural resource: the nature that surrounds the Gaspé Peninsula town.

Scars of the past

The mono-industry community has at least once been on the brink of becoming a ghost town.

It was served blow after blow when the open pit mine shut down, then the underground mine, and finally the smelter in 2002.

In two referendums, a majority of unionized workers, then residents, voted to shut down the town.

Those results scarred the towns history.

When Audrey Lévesque-Lecours, a high school human sciences teacher who has been living in Murdochville for five years, visits her family in Baie Comeau, people are surprised to learn the town still exists.

“There isn’t much publicity” she says. “And when we do hear about Murdochville, it’s always negative.”

To this day, many Quebecers believe the town was abandoned; however, it’s still home to about 725 people.

Murdochville's working population is mostly employed either by the windmill industry or at a local call centre for the provincial automotive insurance board (SAAQ).

Lévesque-Lecours responds without hesitation when she's asked where she thinks the future of the community’s economy lies: “plein air” or outdoor sports and recreation industry.

“We really have potential here,” she says.

Gaspesian with a dream

The town is surrounded by some of the highest mountains in Quebec, the Chic-Chocs, renowned for heavy snowfall.

The networks of lakes and rivers are popular for fly-fishing and hunting.

It’s the mountains that attracted Douglastown-born Guillaume Molaison and his partner Eloise Bourdon to Murdochville eight years ago.

They’ve since built a family and a business that includes a youth hostel for skiers and snowboarders.

They also offer different packages to take riders who are looking for power into the mountains.

The most popular is a Snow Cat package, which includes transportation in a tank-like machine that clanks up the mountainside to carry about a dozen skiers at a time to the top.

“I've seen all the big industries in the Gaspé Peninsula— the [forestry], the fisheries, the mining— crash,” Molaison says.

“It was hard for me to accept that situation, so I had to find a way to make that better for the kids, because I’m really proud to be from the Gaspé.”

Molaison says his business, which struggled to secure financing for years because of Murdochville’s past, is finally taking off.

This winter they sold 1,200 days of Snow Cat skiing so far — a 40 percent increase over last year.

Molaison’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed by residents.

“Now that Mr. Molaison has his skiing… it’s bringing more people into town.” says life-long resident, Valerie Baker.

“We are seeing more activity with the out of bounds skiers. We are seeing more activity with the snowmobilers. So that’s good for the economy in town.”

'Union Mentality'

Richard Jinchereau is a new resident in Murdochville who works from home as a translator. The mountains also brought him to Murdochville and, after renting in the winter for a few years, he finally bought a house three years ago.

He volunteers as the new president of the board of directors at the local not-for-profit ski hill, Mont Miller.

Jinchereau says he’s noticed what he calls a “union mentality” in the Gaspé, where many people rely on employers or the government to provide for people.

“This whole mentality of ‘We need a big industry to come in so we can have jobs,’ has slowly changed to people going ‘Hey, let’s save ourselves — stop waiting for the government and build something,'" he says.

Guillaume Molaison from the Chic-Chac says he noticed a similar attitude when he was starting his business too.

“When I came here and tried to work hard, harder than everyone else, I wasn’t welcome, because I was working too hard” he says.

Molaison, also part of the regional tourism board, says the Gaspesian attitude towards Murdochville is changing. He feels people believe in the town more than before.

Town still needs help

Deliska Ritchie-Roussy has been the mayor of Murdochville for 10 years.

She took the job when the former mayor quit following the province's decision to keep the town open, against the will of 65 percent of the town's residents.

“We survived the crisis of the closure, and we proved we are able to live in Murdochville” she says.

The mayor says the biggest file on her desk right now is securing financing to refurbish the local sports complex.

She says it costs about $150,000 in energy each year to run the arena, which has forced the town to run a deficit.

The mayor says with a million dollar investment to change the ice and insulate the roof, they could cut those costs to about a fifth of what they pay now.

“If we close the arena and we have nothing. We’ll be less attractive to young families,” Ritchie-Roussy says.

Ritchie-Roussy says she hopes the province will agree to pay for half the work to refurbish the sport complex, but says she knows her town needs to do its part.

Tune in to Quebec AM on Monday morning for Marika Wheeler's full report on Murdochville's efforts to revive the community.