World News

A Quebec Resort Town Hopes the Group of 7 Will Revive a Glorious Past

Posted June 7, 2018 5:30 p.m. EDT

LA MALBAIE, Quebec — Ever since Rosaire Tremblay bought a candy-cane-colored house overlooking the St. Lawrence River two years ago, tourists have trampled on his land to photograph the spectacular view, gawk at the beluga whales or reach the imposing Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu hotel, perched on a nearby cliff.

Then came the fence.

Canada is hosting world leaders, including President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain and President Emmanuel Macron of France, starting Friday at a two-day Group of 7 summit meeting in this picture-perfect resort town. The leaders are to discuss, among other things, job creation, gender equality and climate change.

Tremblay's house is the only home in town in a high-security “red zone” near Le Manoir Richelieu, where the world leaders will stay. Suddenly, his modest red and white home is protected by a nearly 2-mile-long steel security fence affixed with lights and cameras, making it among the most secure and impenetrable fortresses in the country.

Now, Tremblay, 63, a jovial retired factory owner and avid consumer of political news, has to pass through security checks to get to his own house. And the fancy hotel is off limits, so the best he can hope for is to spot his favorite leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, as she flies overhead by helicopter.

But Tremblay is good-humored about the hassle. Like many residents here, he hopes the summit meeting’s global exposure will restore some glamour to this sleepy village of 9,000 in the Charlevoix region, which once attracted Hollywood stars but has since seen tough times. “I am hoping the leaders will at least help put Charlevoix on the map,” he said.

A senior official involved in the selection process said the choice of where to hold the meeting came down to, among other places, Charlevoix and Kelowna, British Columbia, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada had chosen Charlevoix because of its secure location and natural beauty.

British Columbia would have been a politically troubled choice because of a festering feud over a proposed $7.4 billion extension of a pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to Vancouver. The issue has pitted environmentalists in British Columbia against industrial interests in Alberta and has put Trudeau in a difficult position. In late May, the Canadian government announced that it was buying the pipeline for $4.5 billion Canadian, or about $3.5 billion, putting the government squarely on the side of industry. Trudeau’s office declined to comment on whether Kelowna had been a contender.

Charlevoix was also seen as an ideal location because the St. Lawrence River creates a natural border, and its remoteness makes it easier to secure than a larger city. The town, about 90 miles northeast of Quebec City, once hosted vacationing U.S. presidents and luminaries such as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. In 1916, when President William Howard Taft bought a luxurious villa in La Malbaie, he described the air of Charlevoix as “intoxicating like Champagne without the next day’s hangover.” But the region has since struggled with unemployment, brain drain and poverty, as tourism sputtered.

The Canadian government has spent $465 million to host the summit meeting, money that some critics contend would have been better spent on roads or public health. But Michel Couturier, La Malbaie’s 49-year-old mayor, argued that the investment was worth it since Charlevoix’s rare moment in the spotlight would reverberate for decades.

“The G-7 is the Olympics of politics, and 100 years from now we will still be talking about this summit,” he said. “We hope that heightened profile will draw tourists as well as attracting companies that have been reluctant to invest here.”

The event will give the town a high-tech lift, including the introduction of high-speed internet and improved cellphone coverage that more than 2,500 homes and businesses will be able to subscribe to. To provide those services for the world leaders, the Canadian government has spent almost $16 million to help build 13 cellphone towers and install about 60 miles of fiber-optic cables.

Mayor Michel Couturier said he was both surprised and elated when he received a call last summer from Trudeau, telling him he had chosen the region to host the summit meeting because of its “hospitality tradition.”

That tradition emanates from the region’s terroir, which has made it a foodie’s paradise known for local products such as its grain-fed Charlevoix lamb, creamy Migneron de Charlevoix cheese and Omerto, a Charlevoix aperitif made from tomatoes.

If the food doesn’t sway them, local residents say they are confident that world leaders will be seduced by their region’s uncommon beauty, including 2,300 square miles of valleys, fjords, steep mountains and rivers, originating about 350 million years ago when an asteroid landed here and left a 34-mile crater. When the French colonized Quebec in the 17th century, Samuel de Champlain, the founder of New France, gave the town the name Malle Baye (Old French for La Malbaie), whichmeans “poor bay.” Local historians say de Champlain was apparently influenced by his struggle to find a place to anchor his ship.

Charlevoix went on to draw a jet-set crowd, and for decades La Malbaie was a particular favorite of luxury cruise ships, including many filled with well-heeled Americans. Le Manoir Richelieu was built at the turn of the 20th century to accommodate the upmarket guests.

“They were coming here to enjoy the landscape and feel the cold breeze that comes from the St. Lawrence River,” said Serge Gauthier, president of the Société d’Histoire de Charlevoix. But when the luxury cruise industry collapsed in the mid-1960s, he said, the local economy was hit hard and never really recovered.

For world leaders parsing economic policy, Charlevoix offers many diversions. There are whale-watching cruises on the river and winding bike paths and homemade chilled cider on the isolated Isle-aux-Coudres.

Among the jewels in the region is the Jardins de Quatre-Vents, a 37-acre, exquisitely wrought private garden created by Francis H. Cabot, a U.S. financier and horticulturist, with sculptures, reflecting pools and exotic Asian plants. (The garden is open to the public only four times a year.)

Organizers are hoping the serenity of Charlevoix won’t be disturbed by the raucous anti-globalization protests that have buffeted past summit meetings. Canada will deploy thousands of police officers at the event, and local authorities have built a temporary prison about 6 miles out of town.

Canadian security forces have also created a designated “free speech area” in La Malbaie — in an area the size of a small parking lot overlooking the river. Protesters aren’t impressed. Dominique Daigneault, president of a Montreal-based union federation that is protesting the summit, said the area designated for protests was laughably “microscopic.”

She said the group had decided to organize protests at a bigger alternative venue in Quebec City.

Even before the meeting was to begin, protest groups such as the G7 Resistance Network were railing against it. “Misogynists will talk about women’s equality; militarists will speak of peace; capitalists will talk about ecology,” it said in a statement.

As for Tremblay, the meeting has already brought benefits.

In return for putting up with all the inconvenience, security services officials cut down four trees in his front yard, making his stunning view of the St. Lawrence River even better.

“I don’t think the leaders will solve the world’s problems in a weekend,” he said, smiling.