by Mark Cardwell
Denise Verreault says she was at her wit’s end wondering how to light a fire under federal and provincial politicians who seemed unenthusiastic about her expansion plans for the drydock at her family’s famous shipyard in Les Méchins, Quebec. “This is fantastic project that will help to bring more work to a region that needs it,” said the President and CEO of Verreault Navigation. “But we need government funding to make it work (and) government just doesn’t seem interested.”
That’s what she says prompted her to come up with a funding approach that she believes is unique in the annals of the Canadian shipbuilding industry: an online petition aimed at whipping up public support for the $46-million project. “Please help us to inform the Quebec government of your endorsement in asking them to support us in our drydock expansion project at Les Méchins, allowing for the creation and maintenance of jobs as well as adding to the local economy,” reads the bilingual petition on www.change.org, which was launched in mid February with a stated target of 15,000 signatures. “It is for this reason,” it reads, “that we are asking for the endorsement of our employees, local merchants, suppliers and the general population in obtaining the conditions for financial support from the Quebec government that will allow us to accomplish this drydock expansion. “Presently the offers made by the Quebec government are insufficient to allow us to move forward with this project.”
According to the petition, the projected doubling of the shipyard’s drydock’s current width and adding 100 feet in length would make it the largest such facility in Eastern Canada and the Eastern United States. It would also “allow for the exploitation of a new, untapped market in Quebec – repair and maintenance of large-scale ships – (and) impact the economy in the order of $22.8 million during the 18-month construction period and $10 million annually during regular operation.”
The petition claims the project would also “require an estimated workforce of 280 employees during the construction period and 171 employees annually during regular operation,” and would “continue to employ local suppliers (87 per cent of our suppliers are from Quebec).”
Nearly 600 people had signed the online petition as of Feb. 28. According to Verreault, another 1,000 people have signed paper versions of the petition that are being circulated at the shipyard and in businesses around Les Méchins. She said that once the 15,000 signature target is met, the petition will be sent to Élaine Zakaib, Quebec’s Minister for Industrial Policy and the Economic Development Bank of Quebec, and to local MNA Pascal Bérubé. Both politicians are members of the governing Parti Québécois government, which is now preparing for a general election.
Verreault said the idea for the petition came to her last fall after someone recounted to her the problems her father had when he founded the shipyard 58 years ago. “It took my dad 24 years to get our drydock built,” Verreault told Canadian Sailings from the shipyard. “It was only when people and government took an interest in the project that it happened.” She is now hoping to repeat that success.
Despite having two ships in the drydock this winter, Verreault said she had to turn away work that an expanded facility could have accepted. “That reality is not lost on people here,” she said. “They are very aware that this project is not just for our benefit, but for the whole region.” Verreault said she is hoping to receive up to 60 per cent of project financing from the Quebec government, with additional funding from Ottawa. She said that support would be a drop in the bucket compared to what both governments have invested – and mostly lost – in the Davie yard over the past 20 years. “I find it inherently unfair and extremely frustrating to see government give money to foreign companies to come here and compete against companies like ours that have been here for generations,” said Verreault.
“Unfortunately, our arguments in favour of the project have fallen mostly on deaf ears,” she argued. “So I thought it was only fair that we give a chance to the people here to express their opinion on the matter. Here’s hoping the politicians will listen.”