The signs on fifth street read, “Parking limit 60 min.” No one remembers when the bylaw was last enforced. The street is awash in empty parking spaces. Still, the sign serves a purpose. Like the colourful murals of stuffed shop windows that have been painted over the boarded-up faades of once-prosperous stores, it creates the illusion of commerce–of life.
This is Murdochville, Quebec’s Potemkin village.
At one end of the street rises Mont Copper, a lunar-looking elevation scarred by the Noranda Inc. mine that was the town’s past. At the other end is Mont Miller, a verdant slope that could be the town’s future. Trapped between the two mountains, Murdochville’s citizens wage their little civil war. In a company town that no longer has a company, the battle is between those who want to shut down the place and those who want to rebuild it.
“It was a good place to live when it was livable,” says Jean-Aim Ct as he putters in his yard on Fourth Street, an “Ë Vendre” sign in the window. “But it’s no longer livable. The town is divided. When you can’t talk to your neighbours, it’s not pleasant. We’re getting out as soon as we can.”
That may not be soon at all. Ct’s house has been on the market for more than a year. Last year, one of the many abandoned homes taken over by the town–three bedrooms, finished basement–could be had for as little as $3,000.
In its heyday, Murdochville, nestled inland on the remote Gasp Peninsula almost 1,000 kilometres from Montreal, was a rich and vibrant community of more than 4,000 people. Today, the permanent population has dwindled to barely 600–and counting. Two of the town’s schools are empty and in disrepair; the third, the cole des Prospecteurs, has 90 students, from kindergarten to the end of high school, down from 216 three years ago.
Twice in 2002, a majority of the townspeople voted to ask the Quebec government to buy their houses–at big-city prices–and shutter the town. The then-Parti Qubcois government said no. “As long as there is no effort from the government to really revive the place–which would take attracting a sizable industry here–this is a town that will die a slow death,” says ex-mayor Marc Minville, a soft-spoken lab technician who analyzed copper samples at Noranda for three decades. “You want to know what I really think? I think that’s what the government wants in the end.”
Battle-weary, Minville surrendered last July. He quit as mayor and left Murdochville, his home of 34 years, for good. “Without money for decontamination, you can’t build a town on that soil,” says Minville, referring to the potentially high levels of lead, arsenic and copper in the ground around Murdochville (the Quebec Environment Ministry and Noranda have recently agreed on a cleanup schedule.)
It’s clear, though, that the soil’s not the biggest problem here. In Murdochville, it’s the air that’s poisoned–with above-acceptable levels of bitterness.
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