The most spectacular view in Trois-Rivières is one that the majority of its residents have never seen. On a bright June afternoon, from an elevated point on the edge of downtown in this historic city midway between Québec and Montréal, the dark iron-rich waters of Rivière Saint-Maurice can be seen swirling like a watercolour wash into the green flow of the St. Lawrence River. A sandy beach fringes Île Saint-Quentin, at the mouth of the Saint-Maurice, and crisp white sails punctuate the river’s three channels, which form a delta and long ago inspired a French captain to give the area its misnomer, Trois-Rivières (“Three Rivers”).
Few Trifluviens, as the residents of Trois-Rivières call themselves, have enjoyed this vista, since it can be viewed only from a vacant industrial site that is closed to the public. As we drive along a rutted path, Michael Hiller, a city manager, and Marie-Line Sauvé of the Société de développement économique de Trois-Rivières point out that for more than 150 years, this 34-hectare plot of land was a bastion of heavy industry, most notably the Canadian International Paper Company (CIP) mill. Now the land is owned by the city.
Little remains of the mill, known as Tripap when it closed in 2000, save for an old pumping station and heaps of crushed brick and concrete left over from the demolition. A section of a tall brick wall near the site’s entrance serves as a tangible reminder of the barrier that, for generations, fenced off the mill and separated the people of Trois-Rivières from the banks of the two mighty rivers at the core of the city’s existence.
Sauvé recalls the story of a colleague who grew up by the mill but only recently had the opportunity to walk onto the site and see where the two mighty rivers meet. “He walked out alone to the point — he was crying,” says Sauvé, still moved by the scene. “He had lived his entire childhood beside the ‘monster.’”
Here, at the confluence, is where Trois-Rivières’ story began 375 years ago. And it may be where the future of Quebec’s second oldest city lies. As it celebrates its milestone this year, Trois-Rivières is banking, in part, on the redevelopment of this parcel of wasteland to shed its tarnished and outdated image as an industrial city in decline.
Trois-Rivières retrouve ses rives is the city’s slogan for the $400 million development plan to reclaim the riverbank and turn it into a prime piece of riverfront real estate. Known as Trois-Rivières sur Saint-Laurent, it will feature the largest outdoor amphitheatre in Quebec, a dock, public gardens, walking and cycling paths and a pulp-and-paper-industry interpretation centre. Half the land will be sold to developers for condos, a hotel and a technology-based business park. Due to be completed over the next 10 years, the project is being promoted as the legacy of the city’s 375th anniversary. Moreover, it is a symbol of how Canada’s first industrial city is attempting to reinvent itself after centuries of making a living off the Mauricie’s forests and iron deposits.
Trois-Rivières is a city that was born from its connection to the St. Lawrence River,” says Normand Séguin, a historian and professor emeritus at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, during an early-afternoon break at a café along rue des Forges, a bustling historic street lined with more restaurants than stores. “We are just now rediscovering it.”
In 1535, Jacques Cartier travelled up the St. Lawrence and planted a cross on Île Saint-Quentin.He wasmet by aboriginals, likely the Algonquin, whose ancestors had traded in the region for millennia. It wasn’t until a century later, though, in 1634, that the French, under the command of the Sieur de Laviolette, built a fort atop a high plateau atTrois-Rivières for the fur trade and for protection against the Iroquois.
If the 17th century belonged to the fur trade, the 18th was marked by the arrival of heavy industry inTrois-Rivières. On boulevard des Forges, 20 minutes north of downtown, a National Historic Site commemorates the establishment of Canada’s first foundry and industrial community in 1738. The Forges du Saint-Maurice were built on the high-quality iron ore extracted from surrounding bogs and swamps. Most of the bar iron produced was shipped to France for Royal Navy ships. Production at the forge would last for 150 years, signalling the beginning of Trois-Rivières’ industrial era.
Two blocks from the St. Lawrence, rue des Ursulines is one of the few streets still lined with a handful of buildings from that period. It has the feel of Vieux-Québec, without the throngs of tourists. At any moment, one might expect to hear the clatter of hoofs or the creaking of wagon wheels. The Manoir de Tonnancour, completed in 1725 as the residence of Trois-Rivières’ Crown attorney René Godefroy de Tonnancour, is among the city’s oldest buildings. The three-storey mansard-roofed dwelling now houses a contemporary art gallery. Dominating the other end of the street is the convent of the Ursuline order of nuns, its graceful cupola rising above quiet, shaded grounds. This is where the Ursulines founded the city’s first school and hospital after their arrival in 1697. Today, about 80 nuns — all retired teachers — live in the monastery, whose oldest surviving walls date back to 1699. Collège Marie-de-l’Incarnation, which the Ursulines founded more than 300 years ago and ran until June 2007, continues to operate on the convent grounds as a private girls’ school.
Rue des Ursulines was one of the few original streets spared by the great fire of 1908, which razed much of the downtown. It was sparked on June 22, when a young boy struck amatch to find his ball in a dark shed.The match fell into a pile of hay and wood chips, igniting a fire. Fuelled by a strong, dry wind, it tore through the wood-shingled roofs of the 18th- and 19th-century structures of the old city. When it was over, what remained were the charred carcasses and chimneys of 800 buildings, including 215 homes and businesses, mounds of smoking rubble and a displaced and bewildered population. Remarkably, only one person died.
The man tasked with rebuilding Trois-Rivières after the fire was Louis-Philippe Normand, a physician and surgeon and the father of 10 children, who was elected mayor three weeks after the disaster. On a sunny afternoon last June 27, a century after the fire and on the 80th anniversary of Normand’s death, 75 of his descendants — from as far away as Honduras and France — gathered at City Hall to unveil a plaque in his honour. It has since been mounted on a granite monument in the adjacent Parc Champlain, where victims of the 1908 fire found temporary refuge and piled what belongings they had saved from the flames.
Antoine Normand never met his grandfather Louis-Philippe, but the 68-year-old retired journalist and communications consultant, who lives in Gatineau, Que., was born in the private hospital his grandfather had owned. He grew up in Trois-Rivières “à l’ombre du clocher,” he says, his hands drawing the shadow of the steeple of Cathédrale de l’Assomption, a neo-Gothic basilica that towers over the bourgeois quarter where Louis-Philippe and many members of the Normand clan once lived. Antoine first learned of his grandfather’s extraordinary accomplishments when his mother gave him documents, some 50 years ago, detailing Louis-Philippe’s life. He was twice mayor of Trois-Rivières (from 1908 to 1913 and 1921 to 1923), he owned two pharmacies, and he was president of the Privy Council, appointed by Prime Minister Arthur Meighen in 1921.
“You can’t help but wonder how a man who was so busy accepted the task of rebuilding the city,” says Antoine, shaking his head at the thought. In 2004, he approached the City of Trois-Rivières about hosting an event in 2008 to commemorate Louis-Philippe’s role in the city’s reconstruction. Last June’s civic ceremony launched a weekend-long Normand family reunion, the first in 30 years.
The Normand family tree is closely intertwined with the development of the city. When Antoine’s great-great-grandfather Édouard Normand arrived from Québec in 1833 with his wife and infant son, Trois-Rivières was a commercial and industrial town of about 3,100, with a growing role as the administrative centre for the region. Édouard built the first bridge over Rivière Saint-Maurice, linking Trois-Rivières and Cap-de-la-Madeleine. His son Télesphore-Eusèbe became a notary, a politician (also serving two terms as mayor of Trois-Rivières and later elected to Quebec’s Legislative Assembly), a newspaper publisher and an entrepreneur who helped build the Port of Trois-Rivières and the first railway, in 1879, to support the burgeoning lumber industry. With his wide network of business contacts, Télesphore-Eusèbe was instrumental in helping his son Louis-Philippe rebuild the city after the fire of 1908.
“The Normands were modernizers,” says historian Normand Séguin. Within four years, under Louis-Philippe’s leadership, a modern city centre grew out of the ashes, with wider streets and a uniform architecture reminiscent of the large boulevards popular in many North American cities. The reconstruction gave impetus to the drive to attract industry to Trois-Rivières, wherein, in the words of elected officials, “lies the future and the salvation of our city.” The abundant forests up the Saint-Maurice provided some of that salvation, the river serving as a transportation corridor for logs and as a valuable source of cheap hydro. With the construction of one of the first power-transmission lines in Canada along the Saint-Maurice at the turn of the 20th century, pulp-and-paper mills, textile factories, foundries and aluminum smelters multiplied at a dizzying pace in Trois-Rivières, as did its population, more than tripling in the first three decades of the century. Labourers moved in from the country with their families, crowding into rows of long, narrow multi-level dwellings connected by a maze of balconies and staircases, which still line the streets of the city’s working-class neighbourhoods.
By the late 1920s, Trois-Rivières was known as the pulp-and-paper capital of the world, a title it boasted until the early 1960s. At the industry’s peak, four mills rolled out tonnes of newsprint — and equal amounts of pollution. François Normand, Louis-Philippe’s great-nephew and a chartered accountant involved in organizing the 375th anniversary festivities, remembers the thick coal dust belching from the smokestacks of CIP’s pulp-and-paper mill in the 1960s and early 1970s, near his home on rue des Ursulines. “No car paint could withstand it,” he says. “If we left the windows open, the dust crunched under our shoes as we walked through the house.
“But it was also a prosperous period,” he adds. “Salaries were high, and there were lots of jobs. Young people were hardly educated. They left school at a very young age because they could get a job at the mill after grade eight. So they started working at the mill and immediately bought a new car. There were Trans Amclubs. People used to parade to the docks in their Trans Ams.”
Today, the emissions may be cleaner, but the acrid, sulphurous smell of pulp production at times still fills the air in Trois-Rivières. Its two remaining pulp-and-paper mills, Kruger Trois-Rivières and Kruger Wayagamack, employ a combined workforce of about 1,500. But they have fallen on hard times, says Denis Lafrenière, general manager of the Kruger Trois-Rivières mill, built in 1922 along the St. Lawrence just west of the city’s historic quarter.The decline in demand for newsprint throughout North America (a 10 percent drop a year since 2005), due, in part, to the rise of the internet, has shaken the industry. On several occasions over the past two years, and particularly since the onset of the global recession, the Kruger Trois-Rivières mill has had to temporarily shut down part of its operations. While 90 percent of the mill’s production is still destined for the United States, says Lafrenière, Kruger is working on developing exports outside North America, where the market for paper is healthier.
Both mills are rare survivors of the deindustrialization that hit Trois-Rivières in the 1980s and 1990s. Thousands of Trifluviens lost their jobs, as manufacturer after manufacturer closed their doors, victims of globalization and changing markets. Trois-Rivières was left with the unenviable title of unemployment capital of Canada (unemployment rose to about 14 percent in the 1990s) and with a decaying city centre full of boarded-up businesses. Over the past decade or so, as in the aftermath of the great fire of 1908, Trifluviens have had to pick up, rebuild and redefine their city.
Walking along the picturesque main streets of Vieux-Trois-Rivières, it is easy to forget the city’s not-so-distant struggles with industrial decline. Cafés, restaurants, art galleries andmuseums have given new life to refurbished centuries-old buildings. Workers are busy setting up stages near the port, in parks and on streets for FestiVoix de Trois-Rivières, a 10-day music fest that will usher in the 2008 summer-festival season and attract 320,000 visitors. The walls of buildings throughout downtown, from heritage homes to a funeral parlour, are adorned with poetry verses, a nod to the Festival International de la Poésie to which poets from around the world have been flocking over the past 24 years. These are but a few of the events that have helped shape Trois-Rivières’ dynamic cultural life and revitalize its downtown, earning an award in 2005 from the Washington, D.C.-based International Downtown Association. More recently, Trois-Rivières has garnered the Canadian Heritage designation as the 2009 Cultural Capital of Canada for cities of 125,000 residents or more.
With a population of 129,000 (up from about 50,000 before its amalgamation with five neighbouring municipalities in 2002), Trois-Rivières is still small enough to maintain a community feel and a slower pace. Mayor Yves Lévesque, looking fit in a crisp, dark suit, apologizes for arriving 20 minutes late to an interview. While he was out for a midday jog, parents in a nearby park asked himto chat with their children, and he was happy to comply. In the boardroom, however, Lévesque is an unabashed promoter, working aggressively to develop and diversify the city’s economy.
“We have everything here to perform well on the economic front,” says the former merchant marine captain, who chose to live in Trois-Rivières after working in Germany and throughout his native province, from Montréal to Rimouski. “We have many advantages, including our geographic location. We are in the heart of Quebec, close to the large centres of Montréal and Québec, and we have a university and a port.”
Attracting a young, skilled and loyal workforce will be the city’s main challenge over the coming years, says Lévesque. He hopes that the planned technology park at the confluence of Rivière Saint-Maurice and the St. Lawrence—which will specialize in clean energy, ecological industrial cleaning products and telecommunications— will do just that.
“People who work in techno-parks are highly educated and are looking for a certain quality of life,” says Lévesque. “Often, techno-parks are located in industrial parks or along highways. Ours will be on one of the most beautiful properties in Quebec, on the water, near parks and near Vieux- Trois-Rivières.”
The flagship of the city’s new economy is Marmen, a company that manufactures and services metal parts for the energy sector, including oil and gas, metals andmining, pulp and paper, forestry and wind energy. The family-run business was started in 1972 as a small machine shop by Fernand Pellerin, who was raised in Cap-de-la-Madeleine. Three of Pellerin’s five children now manage the company, which employs nearly 1,000 people in five plants in Trois-Rivières and Matane, on the Gaspé Peninsula. Marmen ranks among the top three manufacturers of wind towers in North America, supplying such corporate giants as General Electric.
Everything about Marmen is big. The soaring ceilings in its orderly plant in the Cap-de-la-Madeleine sector of Trois- Rivières were built to accommodate the jumbo parts it manufactures, whether for hydro turbines or mining equipment. In a hangar outside, a 30-metre freshly painted windtower section — one of three needed to build an average tower—is ready for shipping. And the company’s plans for the future are no less expansive. Conducting a tour of the factory, Annie Pellerin, Marmen’s vivacious vice-president of human resources and communications, explains how the company is planning to expand its wind-tower operations, which account for 55 percent of its production, to the American Midwest. (As this issue goes to press, Marmen has temporarily put those plans on hold due to the uncertainties of the global economy.)
“My father was audacious. He saw opportunities. He always said, ‘The train is passing by, jump on,’” says Pellerin in her rapid delivery, stopping occasionally to chat with a machinist or to check in with a technician. “In 2002, we made the leap into wind energy, for which we weren’t known. And now we’re among the best-known players in the industry.”
Despite such successes, Trois-Rivières is still grappling with the residual effects of its deindustrialization and its boom-and-bust history. A few blocks from the revitalized downtown are dilapidated neighbourhoods. Last summer, the Aleris International, Inc. plant, which manufactures aluminum parts for car radiators, was closed by its American parent company, putting 450 people out of work. Although it’s too early to tell how the current global economic situation will affect Trifluviens, who are all too familiar with the ravages of economic downturns, the collective mood remains guarded but optimistic.
“Despite the fact that Aleris closed, the city is managing relatively well,” says Yves Marchand, executive director of the Société de développement économique de Trois-Rivières. “Among other factors, the latest unemployment figures are reassuring.” Indeed,Trois-Rivières’ unemployment rate stood at 6.5 percent at the end of 2008, just below Canada’s 6.6 per-cent. Residential construction is booming, ahead of larger centres such as Montréal, Québec and Ottawa-Gatineau, and housing prices are among the lowest in the country.
For many Trifluviens, the quality of life in Trois-Rivières outweighs any swing in the economy. Marie Chartier, the great-granddaughter of Louis-Philippe Normand, grew up with her brother and two sisters in Trois-Rivières in a century-old house on the St. Lawrence, where a portrait of Normand, painted by the illustrious Quebec artist Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, hung over the mantel. Chartier and her sisters were schooled at the Ursulines’ Collège Marie-del’Incarnation. Other than a year spent at Université Laval in Québec and a few years working in Montréal, Chartier, who is the mother of two teenage boys and whose luminous smile is matched by her dynamism, has spent her whole life in the Trois-Rivières region. Over her career, the 46-year-old director of strategic planning for Bell Aliant, a telecommunications firm, has lost two jobs to company closures. But that’s not enough to make her want to leave her city.
“The city has been hit hard time after time,” says Chartier. “However, it’s always been a good place in which to live. Trois-Rivières is a beautiful city that has all the advantages of a big city without the inconveniences.”
Chartier and her 40-year-old sister Lucie, a civil engineer and mother of three who returned to Trois-Rivières after 11 years in the United States and Germany, rave about their 10-minute commutes to work in Trois-Rivières from their homes on the St. Lawrence’s south shore — not to mention the affordable housing and the proximity of the river, which has been in their blood since they were children growing up on its bank and sailing its waters. “The St. Lawrence River is majestic,” says Lucie, who attributes her love of the seaway to her father, a former commodore of the marina at Île Saint-Quentin. “It is a great treasure that we have.” For Marie, living along the St. Lawrence is “a constant source of regeneration.”
As Trois-Rivières reconnects with the rivers that shaped it—primarily through the planned development at the confluence of the Saint-Maurice and the St. Lawrence—it, too, may draw strength and a renewed vitality from returning to its source. No longer the workhorses of the industrial past, the waterways and their shores will serve as a place to gather, live and innovate, a starting point from which the city can forge a more sustainable future.