Monday, May 12, 2008

Knowlton Declares War on Yard Sales

Staple of summer in the Eastern Townships threatened by new bylaw restricting garage sales that aims to keep community from looking “junky”

Alex Roslin
Sunday, May 11, 2008
The Montreal Gazette

As the mercury soars and hockey season draws nearer to an end, Canadians are getting ready for that other great national pastime: the garage sale.

Perhaps nowhere has that tradition been stronger than the Eastern Townships village of Knowlton, a favourite destination of antiquing tourists hoping for that rare find because of the many old farms and sprawling estates.

But now, residents say the tradition is threatened by a new town bylaw restricting the sales in an effort to keep the community from looking “junky,” in the words of Richard Wisdom, the mayor of Lac Brome, the amalgamated municipality that encompasses Knowlton.

The bylaw has sharply divided this ordinarily tranquil, mostly rural municipality of 6,000, where country friendliness has suddenly been replaced by bitter recriminations.

The debate, for some, highlights a rich-poor divide in this tony enclave that used to be the weekend retreat of Montreal’s blue-blooded anglo elite but now has a more diverse population and is struggling to revive its flagging economic base and attract young families and new businesses.

The dispute started in January when the town announced it would adopt a bylaw limiting yard sales to two weekends each year—in May and September—with a permit required to put on a sale and hefty fines for scofflaws.

Wisdom said the bylaw was motivated by “numerous” complaints from a “silent majority” of residents and that the town was merely mimicking other Townships communities like Magog and Bromont that have restricted yard sales, too.

“We’ve got to clean up,” he said.

“We want Knowlton to be a nice place where people can walk around without poles being littered with crap.”

He said some residents had sales every weekend and were essentially operating unofficial flea markets, while failing to remove signs from community hydro poles.

“The town would be peppered (with posters). Sometimes, there would be three on a post,” he said.

“We were getting criticism of how junky the town was looking.”

While many residents agree the posters were getting out of hand, the proposed bylaw provoked an angry response in an area where yard sales are a popular seasonal ritual—a time to drop in on neighbours, bump into friends and renew community bonds after a long winter.

The tradition is so engrained some aficionados get together to visit several sales as a group, plotting optimal routes to maximize browsing time.

Even the colourful signs for the sales have a quirky tradition of their own, often adorned with glitter and balloons.

“Yawd Friggin’ Sale Knowlton,” reads a poster for one sale in a photo published on the website.

June Call, a lifelong Knowlton resident and health-care giver at a local seniors’ home, said the sales help poorer people pick up items they need and that the town could have responded with fines for errant posterers, instead of restricting everyone.

“It just made me think this isn’t right; it’s not fair,” she said.

“The whole community is super-angry about this,” said Sonia Fréchette, who moved to Knowlton four years ago to open the Brocante Casa antique store.

“I never heard a complaint. To the contrary, it seems to be part of the culture,” she said.

“My first reaction was: ‘What the #%^&!’” resident David Milligan wrote in a post on his website.

While Milligan agreed some yard sales are “downright creepy” and offer only “the most questionable of junk,” he called the bylaw “draconian.”

“With tourism hitting all time lows in Lac Brome, how could someone have thought it would be a good idea to make a great Canadian cultural event practically illegal?” he asked in his post.

“Are they trying to launch a death-blow to Lac Brome?... Knowlton is more than just wealthy estate owners in a land of gated domains after all!”

The yard sale clamp-down prompted dozens of angry residents to attend a town council meeting in March. Before they could voice their opinions, Wisdom announced the town had backed down and would revise the bylaw.

“We have listened to you,” he said, promising to propose a new bylaw at the next council meeting in May.

What happened next stoked even more controversy. In April, the town put up notices saying it would adopt a revised version of the bylaw at a special meeting the following day.

Bylaw opponents scrambled to mobilize residents to attend the meeting, and about 30 showed up, already suspicious because of the short notice. A shouting match erupted when details of the new bylaw were announced.

The new rules would allow yard sales on five specific weekends between May and September. If it rains, residents would have to wait until the next designated weekend.

They would also be allowed to put up a single poster on their property and up to two others on neighbours’ properties, if they have permission.

Violators of the bylaw would face fines of $300 to $1,000. The new bylaw was adopted by the town council despite protests from residents, who said the restrictions were still too onerous and made it difficult for those living on isolated roads to attract customers.

“We were furious,” said Michele Brunt-Martel, a local daycare owner who has lived in Knowlton five years.

“People were yelling ‘dictator’ and ‘referendum.’ There was shouting, but there was reason for it.”

Brunt-Martel said she had wanted to hold a yard sale this summer to earn some needed pocket money and get rid of a few unwanted things.

But she said the restriction on postering means she’s unlikely to get much traffic on her isolated street, where she typically sees half a dozen cars pass in an entire day.

June Call is in the same position, living on a road with few passers-by. She said she rarely has garage sales herself, but doesn’t want to lose the ability to have one. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

Other critics said the bylaw will hurt tourism in a community already struggling with a decline in visitors after the recent construction of large box stores in nearby Bromont and Cowansville drew traffic from Knowlton’s smaller boutiques.

The town is studying how to revitalize its downtown, which is marred by several shuttered storefronts.

Fréchette, the antique store coowner, said the bylaw won’t help. “It will reduce tourism. Tourists like the sales. Knowlton is renowned for that,” she said.

She said the town would do better to focus on revitalizing. “Empty businesses dissuade tourists more than garage sales do.”

More reading:

Maclean's scribe Martin Patriquin blogs about the controversy here and The Gazette publishes this letter and editorial note about Knowlton's yard sales brouhaha. Plus, here's David Milligan's post about all this on his website (scroll down).

[TAGS: Knowlton, Eastern Townships, garage sales, yard sales]

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

Tasting maple syrup is all in a day’s work for sensory analyst working on grading system

Alex Roslin
Friday, April 25, 2008
The Montreal Gazette

Jacinthe Fortin has a dream job for anyone with a sweet tooth—tasting maple syrups. She is a sensory analyst at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Food Research Centre in St-Hyacinthe, and she has smacked her lips on lots of syrup in order to study differences in their flavours.

Her conclusion: syrups have almost as much variety of tastes as wine. “It’s almost scandalous to sell syrup in a can. It has notes that resemble cognac or scotch. There are almost as many different subtleties and interesting notes as wine,” she said.

Now, Fortin’s cavity-inducing research is helping pave the way for a major North American-wide reform of the grading system for maple syrup.

The current grades, in place for decades, are based on the colour of the syrup, with the lightest, most uniform product considered the best. Some producers say that system doesn’t reflect the full variety of syrups and reduces the incentive to create more flavourful, premium varieties.

The revision effort could include a wide range of new syrup classifications based on flavour and artisanal production methods, like the old-fashioned approach of evaporating sap under a wood fire.

“When someone uses a very artisanal approach, the taste is certainly more refined,” said Bernard Perreault, marketing director at the Quebec Maple Syrup Producers’ Federation.

The new classifications will likely draw on a Maple Syrup Flavour Wheel that Fortin helped develop, which identifies 13 “flavour families” for syrups like vanilla, floral and fruity, plus 91 sub-categories, including firewood, roasted dandelion root, marshmallow, butter and honey.

Consumer taste-tasting to identify the best new flavour categories is expected to start this fall, with new classifications possibly ready by next year, said Perreault.

The reform is also aimed at creating a single grading system for Canada and the U.S. At present, different classifications are in place in Quebec, the rest of Canada and various U.S. states.

The reforms are being spearheaded by the Syrup Research, Development and Technology Transfer Centre, which is affiliated with the provincial agriculture and natural-resources ministries.

TAGS: Eastern Townships, maple syrup, sugar shack

Sap Season Not So Sweet

Maple Syrup
Harvest in Quebec this spring is suffering from weather extremes

Alex Roslin
Monday, April 21, 2008

The Montreal Gazette

The sunny days of spring might be a happy time for most Quebecers, but André Pollander is glum.

The weather has changed too fast from winter cold to spring warm, and Pollander’s sugar bush in the Eastern Townships has just about given up the ghost for the season.

Pollander’s 500 maple trees on his 20-acre farm have produced just one-third of their usual production this year before the sap has stopped flowing.

The cupboards are nearly bare of syrup in the boutique of his log-cabin-style Cabane à Sucre Pic Bois, nestled in the forest in Brigham. The harvest is so poor he won’t have a single jug to sell to retail customers after he sets aside what he needs for his restaurant and family.

The story is the same across most of Quebec, which produces 76 percent of the world’s maple syrup.

Spring temperatures must hover around freezing for a few weeks for the sap to run best, ideally alternating between 6 degrees Celsius during the day and -6 degrees at night.

The period when that happened this year was cut short by an extra-long winter and the quick rise of the mercury in April. Quebec’s 7,500 producers were also hurt by a massive winter snowfall that left some areas inaccessible, while ice storms froze the ground and tree roots, reducing sap flow.

Dianne Rhicard, coowner of the Owl Hoot Maple Farm in Stanbridge East, said production at her operation was only 470 gallons of syrup this year, instead of the usual 600.

It’s the same sour story at the Gaby-Pierre Maple Farm in Sutton, where coowner Gabrielle Tanguay said the harvest is 30 percent below the usual 1,500 gallons.

After an equally miserable harvest in 2007—one of the worst in 40 years—Pollander has a radical solution he thinks could help solve the industry’s misfortunes: recognizing hand-made, old-fashioned syrups like his own as a special brand.

He advocates a new industry-accepted “hand-made” or “produit du terroir” label to meet a fast-growing demand for premium maple syrup and related products like maple butter and pie.

Pollander said his own sales of such products have grown 20 to 25 percent annually for the past eight years, and such labeling would encourage many other small maple farmers now producing for personal consumption to sell their wares on the market and make up the supply shortfall.

Go to most large maple syrup farms across the province, and you’ll see long plastic tubes crisscrossing the forest to collect sap from thousands of maple trees. The sap is filtered and distilled by high-tech devices like reverse osmosis membranes and microfilters in order to boost the sugar content from two or three percent at the outset to 67 percent in final syrup form.

Mostly gone are the days when maple farmers would lug pails full of sap and stoke wood fires to evaporate it.

But some hardy souls stick to the old, labour-intensive method, and they say it pays off dramatically in taste.

“People who have never tried it say, ‘Wow, wow. What about that!’” Pollander said.

Indeed, his product has a light body with hints of flowers and almonds, while a store-bought brand is distinctly thicker and has a sharp, smoky taste. “The real maple flavour has been lost,” he said of syrups produced by the modern method.

Pollander is a fifth-generation maple farmer whose great-great-grandfather settled in the Eastern Townships in 1813. His sugar shack was named second-best in the province in a La Presse review.

He said maple syrups can come in as many different flavours as wine, influenced by region, climate, rainfall, soil conditions, type of maple tree, even the direction the tree is facing. Pollander thinks producers can benefit by promoting those differences.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Quebec’s agriculture ministry agree. They sponsored a study of syrup flavours by “sensory evaluation experts” and came out with a Flavour Wheel for Maple Products. It identifies 13 “flavour families” like vanilla, floral and fruity, plus 91 sub-categories, including firewood, roasted dandelion root, marshmallow, butter and honey.

The wheel also offers tasting tips akin to those for wine aficionados: “First, smell the syrup by taking three quick sniffs.” It advises a “small sip,” swirling the syrup in the mouth and concentrating for “about a minute” on the full range of flavours.

“It’s very similar to wine,” said Roger de Winter, an organic maple farmer in Sutton. “(The flavour variety) is just incredible.”

Pollander said today’s mass-production method depletes syrup of much of its flavour. Reverse osmosis, for example, is used in order to save energy costs by drawing out water before distillation is completed in oil-fired evaporators.

Some producers believe the process affects the flavour. “Osmosis removes the taste. The product doesn’t taste like anything,” Pollander said.

De Winter, who uses osmosis himself, agreed it “probably changes the flavour” if used too much on a batch of sap. “But with the cost of energy, I don’t think people have much choice if they are a large operation.”

Also affecting the flavour, Pollander said, is the widespread use of tubes to bring sap from trees—another labour-saving technique. He said the tubes are difficult to clean, and residue from past seasons and soap sometimes remains.

Pollander acknowledges his idea of premium labels is likely to be a tough sell to the handful of large producers that supply most of the Quebec’s swelling export market—worth $217 million last year. They buy and blend syrup from dozens of smaller farms and aren’t likely to be interested in a more complex classification system, he said.

At present, syrup in Quebec is graded only by its colour—with the clearest “extra-light” syrup qualifying as highest grade and commanding the top price.

The lightest syrup is generally produced early in the spring when sugar content in the sap is highest, which means it doesn’t need to be boiled as much to bring the ratio up to the required 67 percent.

Sap tapped later in the season can have 50 percent less sugar, which means extra boiling is needed. That, in turn, tends to leave the syrup darker and more caramelized, Pollander said.

Yet, he said many new customers prefer the lower-grade, darker variety because it has a more pronounced flavour, but he explains that taste is actually caramelized sugar, not maple. “They don’t know what they’re tasting,” he said.

Will Pollander’s idea catch on? De Winter said industry recognition of old-fashioned production techniques would be “very difficult to manage,” but he agreed the present system is flawed.

“That’s what mass production is. It lowers the cost but at the expense of quality.”

[TAGS: Maple syrup, Eastern Townships, André Pollander, cabane à sucre]

Magog’s World Crumbles

Bitterness and recrimination follow when Quebecor World closes down the town’s most important job provider

Alex Roslin
Saturday, April 19, 2008
The Montreal Gazette

Pierre Goulet had a feeling something was up when he went to work at the Quebecor World printing plant in Magog on Monday, March 31.

He never imagined the bright chilly spring day was his last working at the plant where he had been hired 27 years before as a lift operator at age 16—the first and only job he had ever had.

Instead, what he expected was the beginning of bargaining season on a proposal a new union contract. The existing contract was set to expire in June, and Goulet, the husky 43-year-old president of the plant’s union, was the man who had to negotiate a new one on behalf of the plant’s 380 employees.

To say things were up in the air was an understatement. Quebecor World had filed for bankruptcy in the midst of a financing crunch, the slowing U.S. economy and a soaring loonie.

What’s more, the company had just lost a big contract with Rogers Communications Inc. involving 70 titles like Chatelaine and Maclean’s.

The math was simple, and Goulet was under no illusions. “There is less product to print, and we had too many printing presses. We know that,” he said over a beer in a café in the community of 24,000, which sits on the shore of picturesque Lac Memphrémagog at the foot of the Mont Orford ski hill.

Just the same, Goulet was hopeful the contract talks would go well. The lost printing jobs weren’t handled at Magog, and the last two contracts in 2001 and 2006 had been negotiated amicably, he said.

In fact, the Magog plant was anything but a hotbed of union-management strife. It was widely known in the community that labour relations at the plant were excellent. The union rarely filed official grievances, and everyone seemed to get along like family.

In many cases, family is exactly what they were. Goulet’s wife worked at the plant 25 years as a press feeder. His two brothers had gotten jobs there after being laid off at other plants in the region that had closed in recent years—part of a wave of 2,000 manufacturing job losses to hit the community of 24,000 in the past three years.

A dozen other members of Goulet’s extended family also worked there. “Almost everyone was the same. It was a family at Quebecor World Magog.”

Many employees had been at the plant since the beginning in 1971, when Quebecor Inc.’s founder, the late Pierre Péladeau, built the ultramodern Magog facility, enabling his then-fledging firm to land its first U.S. magazine printing contracts and helping to launch the company as a media conglomerate.

With good salaries by standards in the region—averaging $17 to $18 an hour—Goulet said, “It was the job in Magog. We would tell people, ‘Hey, I work at Quebecor.’”


That Monday morning at the plant, Goulet sensed something was wrong right away. The normally cordial managers seemed to be avoiding him.

Finally, he was invited into a room where senior Quebecor World executives told him the plant was closing. “When?” he asked. “Immediately. We’re in the middle of stopping the equipment.”

Goulet headed to the cafeteria, where the rest of the employees had been gathered and told the news. Some came up to him later and wept, he said. “It was a very painful day to see people 50, 55 years old come to your office and cry.”

The news hit Magog like an avalanche. “They had good salaries,” said Yvan Morin, a Magog electrician whose father used to work for the plant as a subcontractor.

“People are talking about it a lot, especially with what’s happened lately with the other closings. It just doesn’t end.”

Luc Lepage, a vice-president at the Magog Ford dealership, said one of his employees has two kids who lost their jobs at the plant and 30 to 40 of his clients worked there. “It’s hard for them to stay in the region and find a similar job,” he said.

“It affects us much more than the closing of a tourist operation, where there are a lot of minimum-wage jobs. We need something else to support the economy or we will transform slowly into a town only for retirees, which is already what’s happening.”

At a Subway restaurant neighbouring the plant, where many employees were regulars, employee Jonathan Leclerc said only a handful have popped in since the closing. “I know some people are disappointed and others are angry because the company didn’t give any notice. People learned about it that morning,” he said.

The next day, Magog Mayor Marc Poulin held an emotional press conference at which he said he was “extremely frustrated” with the company. He said the Memphrémagog regional development centre, of which he is president, had tried unsuccessfully to meet Quebecor prior to the closing in order to discuss ways to help the plant financially. He said the offer had been rebuffed.

“Pierre Péladeau, who believed in Magog, today must be turning in his grave and crying,” he said.

“The first reaction was a feeling of desolation and eventually frustration toward the company,” said Denis Roy, a retired RCMP officer who is interim president of the 400-member Magog-Orford Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“They didn’t respond to the community.”

Two days after the mayor’s press conference came a sharp retort from Pierre Karl Péladeau, the son of the Quebecor patriarch and currently president of Quebecor Inc.

In an open letter to the mayor published in the Sherbrooke Tribune newspaper, “I was surprised to read and hear your comments,” he wrote. “Your references to my father are in bad taste.”

Péladeau went on to blame the closing on the plant’s union. The company had approached it in 2004 and 2005 in order to renegotiate the union contract. In exchange for upgrading an older printing press, he wrote that the company had wanted to cut the number of operators at the plant’s four printing presses.

“The union didn’t want to hear about it. Faced with this refusal, the managers of the company decided to make the investment elsewhere where it would be profitable,” he said.

“You would have rendered a much greater service to your community if you had used the prestige and influence of your office to denounce the organizations that render it impossible to make the investments essential to the survival of our businesses.”

Péladeau also said it wasn’t true that the company had ignored the community, noting that the plant’s director, Patrice Asselin, had indeed met the head of the regional development centre, Ghislain Goulet, to discuss the community’s suggestions.

Péladeau’s missive set off another bomb in the region. Ghislain Goulet (no relation to the union boss) retorted that the company didn’t respond to any of the community’s proposals.

“They didn’t look at solutions before closing the plant. The plant hadn’t seen much investment in years. We were open to discussing technological assistance, tax credits, acquiring the building and renting it back to Quebecor World,” he said.

“Both sides—management and the union—told us labour relations were very good. That’s why we were so surprised by Mr. Péladeau’s letter.”

Back at the union, Pierre Goulet said he was devastated. He said the company hadn’t needed the union’s permission for the proposed layoffs.

As well, he said other Quebecor plants that had attempted to reduce the number of operators on the printing presses had found themselves with manpower shortages.

“Because they couldn’t lay off a few people, they laid off nearly 380?” Goulet asked in disbelief. “They needed an excuse.”

What also irked Goulet was media coverage suggesting the Magog plant had been inefficient and aging.

In fact, he said, only one of the plant’s four presses needed an upgrade, while low employee turnover over three decades had honed a skilled workforce. Many employees had been proud to share their knowledge within the company, he said, with 20 percent joining various workplace committees devoted to improving operations.

“The company’s most productive plant in Quebec is Magog, even with our older equipment,” he said.

“If they had said it was the economic situation, that would have been fine. But what makes people in Magog feel bad was to hear we were unproductive and obsolete. If they are bankrupt, it’s not because of the workers. The management is responsible for keeping the company afloat, and they didn’t have the vision.”

Quebecor World spokesman Tony Ross refused to comment on the Magog plant’s productivity level, saying only that the closing wasn’t related to productivity or any lost printing contracts. “It was part of a retooling and restructuring program that was started three years ago.”

He also praised the plant’s employees. “It was a very good workforce at the Magog facility. If there are openings at other Quebecor World facilities, we will consider hiring them.”

Ross wouldn’t say whether other plants will be closed as part of the restructuring, but noted the process will be completed this year.


After Péladeau’s letter, Goulet called an assembly of the plant’s union members. Now, he didn’t know if the close-knit town would pin the closing on him. “I have to see them every time I go outside in Magog,” he said. “My whole family lost their jobs. That’s a lot of pressure.

Nervous, he arrived at the community hall two hours early in order to prepare his speech. “I wanted them to be proud of what they had done, so they could walk with their heads high.” He said the meeting went well. “Working for these people was my honour.”

Meanwhile, the Quebec government has responded with a $1-million fund to help the local economy.

But days later, there was more bad news for the community when reports suggested CSBS, a 100-employee bed linen manufacturer in Magog that is also under bankruptcy protection, was now unlikely to reopen.

Goulet said he is optimistic employees have the skills to find new jobs. But most will have to leave Magog to find decent salaries, he said.

Goulet, who has been appointed to a local “revival” committee exploring ways to revive the region’s economy, is himself thinking of moving to Montreal with his wife and three kids to find work.

“I don’t know what will happen with the village of Magog.”

[TAGS: Magog, Quebecor, Eastern Townships, Pierre Péladeau]

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Green Dream Home

Spring/Summer 2008
[original story]

Green Dream Home
Photo: Marie-Eve Cloutier

MONTREALERS Alexandre Thibodeau and Marie-Ève Cloutier never imagined the yo-yo ride their life would become when they set out in 2006 to build their environmentally friendly dream home on a mountainside in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

They had fallen in love with the site’s breathtaking view of the Appalachians and optimistically figured construction would take six months, and then they would move into the house with their children, twoyear- old Léopol and newborn Mirek. But countless unforeseen challenges brought delays and budget overruns.

Thibodeau, who has a bachelor’s degree in architecture, designed the house to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the most stringent green-building standard in North America — applied so far mostly to large commercial and industrial buildings. His was the first house in Canada to be part of a LEED residential pilot program.

The first hurdle was building an access road up the steep mountain to the two-hectare site. Cost: $12,000, nearly double the contractor’s quote.

Finding “green” wood for the house frame also proved tougher than the couple thought: Thibodeau spent six weeks researching sources before he chanced on a local farmer who cuts trees in a sustainable way. Then, there was the problem of getting the large timbers up that mountain. Thibodeau’s solution: an elaborate set of pullies and cables hung from trees.

The 2,200-square-foot house, complete with creative touches like a two-storey kids’ bedroom and four rooftop garden terraces, will be heated with customized geothermal piping and an ultra-efficient masonry heater, fed with wood from their own lot. It will also feature straw-bale insulation, passive solar heat from a wall of south-facing windows, concrete floors to trap heat, and virtually no interior walls blocking heat flows.

As of January 2008, the young family had been staying with friends for nearly two years, but Thibodeau says they are finally close to moving in. Then, the inside finishing work will last another year. “It’s taken everything we have to get this far,” he says. “It’s taken all our capital — moral and financial.”

Despite their troubles, Thibodeau and Cloutier’s eyes light up during a tour of their green dreamhome-to-be. “Where we live changes how we live,” says Thibodeau. “I wanted to have an impact on the environment. It’s close to my heart.”