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Quebec’s winter mantra: Let it snow (profits)

It is a screeching sound known to all in Montreal. Nothing gets Montrealers out of their beds quicker than the heart-arresting wail of the tow truck that precedes snowplows – think of a French police siren on speed.

With a coat thrown hastily over their pyjamas, they will hurtle down the spiral staircases to drive their car out of harm's way. Yet as much as Montrealers dread this siren, they now yearn for it. This means that their street was not forgotten. This means that their life will take on a semblance of normality after a week of trench wars to keep the parking hole they painfully dug. It is a white jungle out there.

It has been nine days since Montreal received 45 cm of snow, a 12-year record on top of which the sky has since powdered another 10 cm. City officials hope to clean all the streets before Monday morning.

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The beauty of all this snow is lost on those who don't ski, snowboard or whisk off on a snowmobile.

As impossibly high as the snow banks are, this whiteout is a godsend for the regions that earn their living from winter tourism such as the Laurentians or the Eastern Townships.

Urbanites have little appreciation for the snowmobile or skiing industries, but they rack up impressive numbers.

Snowmobilers, including some 30,000 tourists from outside the province, spent $940-million in 2011 to zoom around on Quebec's 32,000 km of trails. If you include the grooming of the trails as well as the sale and fabrication of snowmobiles and related equipment, essentially done by Bombardier Recreational Products, the economic activity tops the $2-billion mark, according to a study by Zins Beauchesne & Associates.

For its part, the skiing industry was an $800-million a year business in 2008 (excluding real estate), according to the Transat Chair in tourism at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

Yet these industries have fared inconsistently with the yo-yo weather of recent years. This was evident last winter, one of the worst on record: it started late, ended early, with a lot of thaw in between.

Quebec's ski resorts saw an 8-per-cent drop in visitors, a fall that was however less severe than the ones observed in Ontario (11 per cent) and in the northeastern United States (20 per cent), according to a study by UQAM professor Michel Archambault.

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While weather extremes produce stellar and lacklustre years, the underlying trend of warmer winters is undeniable – and especially hurtful in the fall, when skiers and snowmobilers plan their season.

The snowmobile industry can do little about it. The skiing industry, however, can produce snow, especially before the crucial Christmas holiday, which accounts for between 20 and 30 per cent of skiing revenues.

Astonishingly, Quebec is ill-equipped to do so. Because it used to have snow in abundance, its ski resorts invested little in snow-making equipment. "We would have to double our snow-making capacity to reach the Northeastern average," says Claude Péloquin, CEO of the Quebec Ski Area Association.

And then there is the cost of electricity, another paradox. Because of Hydro-Québec's rate structure, which penalizes short-term winter consumers, ski resorts pay high rates, which can fluctuate between 15.5 and 20.5 cents per kWh. Mr. Péloquin's association long lobbied the provincial Liberal government for lower rates, to no avail. Now, it has to start all over with a new PQ government that is counting on extra Hydro-Québec profits to balance its books.

"We are not asking for a subsidy," Mr. Péloquin insists. "We just want to pay a rate that is competitive with the ones paid by ski stations in neighbouring regions."

For Mr. Péloquin, this would represent a long-term investment in an industry that employs up to 13,000 seasonal workers in regions where work is often hard to come by. Better snow coverage on slopes would attract another kind of snowbird to Quebec, as warmer weather proves harmful to the roughly 150 ski hills that dot the Eastern U.S, from West Virginia northward.

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Environmentalists will likely cringe at the ski resorts' somewhat cynical way of seeing things, but if you can't stop global warming, you might as well profit from it.

And at least with mechanically produced snow, there are no wailing sirens to be heard as there are on the streets of Montreal.

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About the Author
Chief Quebec correspondent

Sophie Cousineau is The Globe and Mail’s chief Quebec correspondent. She has been working as a journalist for more than 20 years, and was La Presse’s business columnist prior to joining the Globe in 2012. Ms. Cousineau earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from McGill University. More


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