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Quebec region steeped in history and hardship Add to ...

Before the blaze struck, it was the only three-storey building in town. The reason why is across the street, off in the middle distance.

The austere, rocky sweep of the St. Lawrence River is the defining landscape of the Bas-du-Fleuve region, one of Quebec’s oldest, both historically and demographically. Residents of this stretch of eastern Quebec can be forgiven for thinking that tragedy and hardship take up more room in their region than most.

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While the cause of the blaze remains under investigation and the search for victims continues, the shocking loss of life in the fire that destroyed the Résidence du Havre this week has shaken a community and resonated across the province and beyond.

The area, where Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain are said to have spent time, has been in steady decline for decades. And in a broad sense, according to one of the region’s best-known literary figures, the hurt in L’Isle-Verte compounds a calamity afflicting large swaths of rural Quebec. Put simply: rural depopulation, especially of young people, and the relentless erosion of traditions and culture as the elderly die off.

“Our societal fabric is being ripped apart. It’s being pulled from both ends; we put our children in daycares all day, we leave our old people in old-age homes all day, so we’re left with what? A broken society,” said Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, an author, screenwriter and polemicist who lives just up the line, outside the village of Trois-Pistoles. “It’s an absurdity that our society has seen fit to create. … We are bringing our elderly into death’s ante-room, where we leave them to wait.”

The average age in the Bas-du-Fleuve is over 60 – the median age is nearly 50 – and the region has a higher proportion of residents aged 65 or older (one in five) than all but two of Quebec’s administrative districts.

“I’m not worried about the hollowing out of this region, I’m living it,” said Mr. Beaulieu, who is 68 and once ran for premier as an independent candidate. “The local high school here was built for 2,000 students, and there aren’t even 600 today.”

The area around L’Isle-Verte, inhabited by Basque whalers as far back as the early 1500s, has the violent – and colourful – history that one would expect of one of the country’s oldest settled regions: from the French explorers who first colonized the area through the decades of seigneurial rule, the Irish potato famine (L’Isle-Verte was a way station) and industrialization.

That history has spawned some of Quebec’s grandest literary works (Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska, a classic of the province’s canon, is about an 18th-century love triangle that turns bloody) and inspired authors like Bealieu (whose historical fiction series l’Héritage tackled the theme of incest) and visual artists like Pierre Gauvreau and Jean-Paul Riopelle.

“People who live there are very strong, and its beauty in summer truly makes it universal. I think National Geographic once said it has the most beautiful sunsets in the world,” singer and poet Chloé Sainte-Marie told Radio-Canada this week.

Ms. Sainte-Marie has deep ties to L’Isle-Verte – she and her late husband, the filmmaker Gilles Carle, had a house on the small island for which the town is named – and is an outspoken advocate for the rights of the aged. She and Mr. Carle ended up selling their property in 2004 to pay mounting health-care bills – he had Parkinson’s disease – but she recently purchased a small lot where, she said, she hopes to live out her life.

“We live by the tides, not by the clock. We live on the rhythm of the tide, fog and wind. You feel like you’re apart from the world while being, deeply, a part of the world,” she said.

The economic decline of the Bas-du-Fleuve region isn’t a new story. At the turn of the 20th century, many people in L’Isle-Verte turned to harvesting eelgrass, a marine plant used for padding car upholstery and insulation. The work, which could only be done when the tide was low, paid so well many who did it abandoned their fishing or farming jobs. The good times didn’t last. Blight wiped out the species, and the people returned to the woods and their boats.

“It was an industry that came and went, just like that,” said Daniel Gauthier, a forestry technician who lives in the L’Isle-Verte area and was visiting the local church.

Some of the catastrophes that the people of the Bas-du-Fleuve have endured had human causes.

Most of Rimouski, about 70 kilometres to the east, burned to the ground in 1950, when a fire that started with a ripped electrical wire in a huge lumber yard. Somewhat amazingly, no one died, although more than 300 homes, a church and a hospital were destroyed. In the same way that Hébert was able to turn tragedy into literature (Kamouraska was also adapted into a feature film by legendary Quebec auteur Claude Jutras), the Rimouski fire inspired a well-known stage play by Denis Leblond.

In the late 1960s, nearly 40 seniors perished in a fire at Le Repos du Vieillard, an old-age home in Notre-Dame-du-Lac, a village on Lake Témiscouata that lies about 40 kilometres from L’Isle-Verte.

“I was only a child when it happened, but in the past couple of days I’ve had people who were there tell me about the Havre fire ‘that’s us,’” said Jean D’Amour, the provincial MNA for Rivière-du-Loup and the city’s former mayor.

Mr. D’Amour said, “We have big hearts, and that’s something nothing can take away. When we go through difficult times like this, we link elbows and stick it out. This isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but in the last two days I’ve lived through the most intense moments I’ve ever experienced. But we’ll get through it.”

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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