Why Shawinigan is no longer a ghost town

Shawinigan, “dead city.” The word still haunts conversations today. Factory closings that led to thousands of layoffs at the turn of the millennium extinguished the Energy City. Since then, the former industrial powerhouse has regained its luster, turned the page to a walled-up and downtrodden city centre. Quebec’s first hydroelectric capital has regained its momentum thanks to the ingenuity of its entrepreneurs…and the arrival of excellent immigration.

Nancy Déziel is from that generation of Shawinigan residents who watched their hometown slowly die, one move at a time. Today he carries the train of his resurrection. “Shawi was born from electrochemistry. It will be reborn from electrochemistry,” he says proudly.

He directs the National Center for Electrochemistry and Environmental Technologies (CNETE) and designs the processes that will manufacture the batteries of tomorrow. It is very much at the forefront of technology in the “valley of the energy transition”.

Shawi was born from electrochemistry. It will be reborn from electrochemistry.

She and her 84 researchers and students, a quarter of whom come from abroad. “I don’t have a center without them,” says the trained scientist. Chemistry is not one of Quebec’s strong points, he points out, and the inclusion of brains that don’t think like us plays an important role in the growth of this sector of the future.

“Each person has their own box. They arrive with different boxes”, boasts the one who also wears the hat of a municipal councillor. “Yes, sometimes we disagree, but it’s okay to disagree. This allows us to make sure that we have solved the problem. »

The latter did not arrive in Mauritius by chance. Nancy Déziel took a short tour of the world to understand what enabled companies elsewhere to attract these coveted talents. “In the end, they had nothing but us. They just did it. » Job offers are enough today to attract all these beautiful people from Russia, Iran or France, while achieving gender parity without any quota.

Thanks to these physicists, chemists and other specialists, Shawinigan has reached a “critical mass of knowledge” that hits the mark. Concordia University announced earlier this year that it would open its first branch outside of Montreal. Other centers of excellence and companies linked to battery chemistry are concentrated around it, which now form a real “laboratory without walls”.

The CGI “Snowball”

A few years ago, Shawinigan competed for the top spot in the sad ranking of Quebec’s oldest cities. To invigorate the workforce, a few pioneers have cleared the almost virgin territory of foreign worker-driven entrepreneurship.

CGI moved to the city center in 2015, the start of a “snowball” for the local economy, reports local director Michel Leclerc. Today, around 200 IT professionals work there, around 150 of whom come from abroad. How many different nationalities are driving the city’s economy? “I don’t count anymore. »

Quebecers or new Quebecers, they all go through the same hiring process, not without some (happy) surprises, says the administrator. Take the example of a group of Haitians who scored around 90% in the entrance exams. These stats beat “everyone else”. It is surprising, we say, when we know the state of the country.

So much success raises eyebrows. “They found a way to game the system,” management assumes. To find out, managers re-interview candidates with “hyper-specific” questions. The result leaves no doubt. “Well, no… They’re really good!” »

Michel Leclerc, this former Torontonian versed in cosmopolitanism, takes a lesson from it. “When you overcome your prejudices, you realize the richness that these people can bring,” he says in the form of advice.

He talks in terms of “returns” and has nothing but good words for his new teammates. “Sometimes we ask for tasks. They admit they don’t know what to do, but they tell us, “Give me two days, I’ll take care of it!” »

Accustoming these foreign professionals to the pace of employment in Quebec seems less difficult than getting them used to the not always easy climate of Mauritius. A brochure is distributed to employees each fall to prepare them for the harsh winter weather. You should not fill the window washer tank with water, for example…

Since then, the CGI model has bolstered other tech companies. It snowballed into local businesses. An Indian restaurant, a Lebanese one, and an African grocery store have opened their doors, often by the spouse of a CGI employee. “The rest of the family is doing something else. This is what brings the city back to life”, summarizes Michel Leclerc.

Supercharged development

Shawinigan hit rock bottom in 2013 when the last aluminum smelter in town closed for good. That same year, Mauricie competed with Gaspésie for last place among regions in terms of economic performance, according to UQTR researcher and professor Frédéric Laurin.

We suffered from “lunchbox culture,” he said in an interview. “It is the worker who goes to work for the large multinational with a very good salary, with very good working conditions and holidays. she work it is more or less guaranteed. No need to think, then no need to take risks. »

However, against all expectations, last year Greater Shawinigan surpassed the milestone of 50,000 residents and 1,000 immigrants. The housing vacancy rate, set at around 10% in 2015, fell last year to 0.7%, one of the lowest in Quebec.

The second life of this city, once considered the most prosperous in Canada, was born by focusing on small trade and openness to new things, observes the researcher.

“The reluctance that people might have had towards immigration is starting to fade naturally. out of necessity (…) There are problems of adapting to Quebec culture and the Quebec ways of doing things in companies, but in general, things are going much better than people could imagine. This is the feedback I get from entrepreneurs. »

Mayor Michel Angers’ speech goes along the same lines. “Immigration adds value to our quality of life,” he said bluntly in an interview. “(…) Companies are looking for workers at any price. And people who come from immigration are a source of exceptional jobs. I think people know that now. »

Promises to install hydrogen or battery factories promise a boost in an already hot job market. The return of big industry to the region raises fears among economic observers, such as Frédéric Laurin. “These big factories will arrive like spaceships. They will divert the entire workforce from SMEs and take us back to a development model that we wanted to leave behind in 2013.” Will we witness a return to the future that will unravel the human and industrial fabric that Shawinigan has been trying to mesh since then?

This report is supported by the Local Journalism Initiative, funded by the Government of Canada.

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