lac saint jean is not far away from here

Quebec Highway 155 takes you from the edge of the St. Lawrence River at Trois Riviéres through the deep woods of the Mauricie up to the edge…

Quebec Highway 155 takes you from the edge of the St. Lawrence River at Trois Riviéres through the deep woods of the Mauricie up to the edge of Lac Saint-Jean.

Last week’s trip also took me from spring back in to winter’s last gasps.

Trees have already budded in Montreal and leaf sheaths litter the sidewalks there.

But the more than 30-kilometre wide Lac Saint-Jean still shone an icy white as we made the turn through the flat dairy lands bordering the lake at Chambord for the city of Alma.

Alma has a population of around 31,000  — not far off our territorial mark. The area’s resources have been the economic lifeblood of the region since the Hudson Bay Company traded for furs from the Ilnu or Montagnais people there.

By the late 1850s, the region’s thick pine forests fed markets in England. The coming of the railroad in the 1880s opened the area for agriculture with cheese and blueberries becoming its hallmarks.

A real economic push came in the early 20th century when a US entrepreneur, James Duke, realized the hydroelectric potential of the Grande-Décharge tumbling down from Lac Saint-Jean past Alma to form the Saguenay River.

The first dam, completed in 1926, turned a sleepy town serving the agricultural community and summer tourists after the ouananiche, an eastern version of our land-locked Kokanee salmon, into an industrial hub.

Hydro-electricity powered the rapid growth of pulp and paper mills, and huge aluminum smelting plants.

Economic entrepreneurs may spark industrialization but it’s the social entrepreneurs that keep the local community on an even footing.

They remember the people left at the margins of economic growth.

They create the ability of a community to weather the ‘boom-bust’ cycles that afflict all resource based industries.

Monique Besson is a social entrepreneur. She co-ordinates La Cignogne, a multifaceted, mutual aid service organization in Alma.

“The erosion of family support, the breakdown of the extended family, the lack of financial means and facilities trap poor families,” she said.

 The parents of the nearly 1,200 families that La Cignogne assists, especially single parents “experience exhaustion and depression” from this lack of support.

“At its extreme, this can lead to neglect or violence.”

For the social assistance and unemployment insurance recipient and low-income families it serves, La Cignogne provides a wide range of services.

They run several day-care centres for two to five year olds plus offer a free baby sitting service.

They lend out car seats, conduct parenting courses along with other ‘formation’ courses that range from cooking nutritious family meals to strategies for how to stop smoking.

La Cignogne also runs a non-profit food store which sells non-perishable goods at wholesale prices along with prepared frozen meals.

For a modest $5 a month La Cignogne clients can access as well the Moisson d’Alma, the area’s food bank, for fresh foods. It is located just down a flight of stairs from their small store.

La Cignogne doesn’t do it all. Along with another local organization they host several community kitchens where people cook meals together and — for the modest fee of $1 a portion — take family supper home with them.

As well I had time to visit the volunteer-run La marmite fumante or the Steaming Pot soup kitchen, which has served 40 to 60 lunches a day since 1992.

Louise Morissette, who showed me around its kitchen, alerted me to yet other anti-poverty initiatives in the community. Regrettably I just didn’t have the time to visit them all.

The social entrepreneurs I met in Alma surely recognized other unmet needs. Food and child-care supports alone are not the whole answer.

Other factors such as social housing, alternative employment, educational support, recreational needs and accessible health care could be added to a community ‘to-do’ list in Alma as well as here in the Yukon.

When you look at what has to happen to deal with the problem of poverty, the challenges facing the folk in the Lac Saint-Jean region are not that different from here.

Local actions aren’t enough though. They have to be coupled with territorial and national initiatives as well.

Currently Campaign 2000, which the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition supports, is asking people concerned about child poverty to sign on to a letter at www.buildchildcare.ca by May 2.

It calls on Prime Minister Harper to protect and enhance progress on child care in the up-coming federal budget.

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