Our pandemic projects

Below, Louise’s 8 x 10-foot squirrelproof veggie bunker under construction. Above, my Colin Angus Expedition rowboat.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that keeping busy helps keep one sane and grounded..

My 2020 began with a resolution to have my book on Quebec’s 1970 October crisis out in time for the 50th anniversary. This would be on the heels of a writers’ anthology due out in May.

David Sherman’s Fish Wrapped: True Confessions of Newsrooms Past was published by Toronto’s Guernica Editions at the height of the first lockdown. Absent any possibility of a book tour and the usual hoopla, the book and my contributions to it went nowhere.

At the same time, the town council I sit on was having to make pandemic-related decisions regarding staff layoffs and shutting down public amenities such as the town beach and public pool in the midst of the hottest July on record. As a result of several confrontations, I developed symptoms that required that I be tested. The results took four days to confirm I didn’t have it. It was the warning I needed to get serious about mask wearing, distancing and who we were comfortable being around.

Meanwhile my non-fiction October Crisis project was going nowhere. After losing key segments of my manuscript to sloppy file management, I realized I had forgotten how it feels to write instinctively. I was utterly defeated by the thought of having to press on with the project now in its fifth year. I walked away from my publisher and stopped communicating with my sources. I was overwhelmed by a sense of failure and shame and stopped answering phone calls and emails.

At the same time I found myself pulled in a dozen directions by picayune calls on my time. We had sold our beloved Herreshoff Nereia in September 2019 to an American in Buffalo, but he couldn’t cross the border to get it (eventually he had it shipped by truck). In the meantime I had to babysit a boat that was no longer mine. We tried to maintain a semblance of family life with outdoor visits with my daughter and son and their families, but they had their own challenges. Town business occupies at least a week a month, what with quick meetings on Teams and regular/special council deliberations on Zoom. The lack of public consultation — decreed by the Quebec government — generated angry recriminations from people I respected and liked.

The vege-bunker in operation. The silver-coloured sheet of corrugated steel barn siding slides into the open doorway to that bees and parasitic wasps can pollenate the flowering plants. So far, the bunker has proved itself impregnable to squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs and other rodents. We still need to treat for white fly, slugs and Japanese beetles and other potential pests, but the proof of concept has been a success.

I decided I would self-isolate emotionally, filling my time with achievable projects. First, I built a vege-bunker and vertical trellises, a pestproof garden centre in our back yard where Louise spent the summer growing tomatoes, beans, cukes, squash, greens and herbs and learning farmer’s tricks from the internet, books and pros like Peter Robinson. I had an excellent reason to get the backyard farm done quickly. Unbeknownst to Louise, I had ordered an expedition rowboat kit from Colin and Julie Angus, a Victoria B.C. couple who had designed and built two prototypes to voyage from Scotland to Syria. Over the course of the next two months, I rushed to get the thing out of the garage and teach myself how to row a sliding-seat craft with feathering oars. We biked or we walked when I wasn’t building the boat or working on town files. It was a summer of daily excursions and tiny expeditions. We figured out how to sleep comfortably in the back of the SUV. I figure the summer of 2021 will be similar.

When one’s hands are busy, one’s mind has the opportunity to wander off to play by itself. Once I was no longer agonizing over The Book I found it kept coming back in flashes of insight into how it should be structured and improved. The October Crisis 50th anniversary brought the expected crop of derivative rehashes by the usual hacks but it has also prompted comment from principals who had remained silent until now. They allowed me to make plausible deductions to fill gaps in what I knew. I’m back to writing with enthusiasm I haven’t felt in months — proof of that adage that when you want something done, ask a busy mind.

Mission: build a boat in two months

July 2/20: UPS delivers the rowboat kit.
Short lengths of copper wire pull the bilge strakes and floor together.
Laminating the sheer strakes to the top hull panels.
Installing the three bulkheads.
Epoxying and reinforcing the joints from inside and outside
Prep sanding prior to applying fibreglass cloth layer to hull
Ready for glassing
Verifying symmetry and fairness.
Hull glassed and epoxied
Decks glassed and epoxied.
Hatches cut and lips added.
Hatch supports provide final contours
Hatches in place, our outrigger takes shape
Final hand sanding and five coats of UV-blocker polyurethane applied.
Varnishing the decks
Prepping the hull for timting stain once we decided against painting.
Designing the sliding seat system
Three-kilo sliding seat comes together with the help of master craftsman Jamie Sage and carbon-fibre tube sections from Nancy’s Curling Masters championship broom handle. (Thanks ever, Nancy!)
Finished cockpit, with unidirectional carbon-fibre roving floor and coaming reinforcement.
Ready to launch. Like so many other recreational products, used boat trailers were suddenly in short supply last summer. We found this well-maintained 40-year-old trailer cheap north of Brockville and added new bunks and LED lights. Tows beautifully.
Maiden voyage, Hudson’s Jack Layton Park, August 28/20.

The Fleet circa September 2020. Bert, the tubby little dinghy on the left, was acquired as a tender in 1998 but had been sitting behind the garage for the past several years before I converted him into a sailing dinghy in between stages in the rowboat’s construction. Another pandemic brainfart.

Bert’s first test sail as an eight-foot sportboat with a boardsailing rig and deep daggerboard and rudder. It was like dropping 500 horsepower into a Corolla. Unbelievably fast for its size, seriously unstable — and laugh-out-loud fun. We had Bert almost sold to a couple who had a cottage on a lake up north. The deal died in the ruckus after some fool tried to drive his car across the Jack Layton Park footbridge to squash a cyclist he claimed had ripped him off on a drug deal. Another offer came in and Bert is now the star attraction on a private pond in the Eastern Townships.

SQ rebates: $600k windfall for Hudson

Sûrèté du Québec officers and agents hosting a Volunteer’s Night supper at Hudson’s Community Centre: the 20-year experiment that would see the SQ provide community policing to replace our municipal police forces has not held up with time. It has proven to be a distant, mostly absent drag on municipal budgets. Whose fault is it? (Hudson Gazette photo)

Seventeen MRC municipalities, including Hudson and St. Lazare, will be getting significant refunds on their 2020 Surêté du Québec bills — and the promise of a more equitable assessment system in the future.
Besides receiving a $610,000 rebate sometime this month, the budgeting change means Hudson’s taxpayers will see the annual cost of the town’s SQ bill ($1,750,000 in the 2021 budget) reduced by roughly a third.
The new deal was approved by a double majority (two-thirds of 23 mayors representing 55% of the MRC’s total population) at a special meeting Wednesday, but not without some argument.
They were voting online on a proposal — first presented to them in November — that would return the overpayments made in 2020 to 17 MRC municipalities, part of a Quebec-wide subsidy framework approved with the signing of the MRC’s first SQ contract with the Public Security ministry in 2005.
The mayors of 11 municipalities — including the six that benefited from the current assessment structure — supported an amendment that would have delayed application of a more equitable sharing structure until the 2022 fiscal year. It was narrowly defeated.
By making the bylaw retroactive, those six municipalities now have to find savings in their 2021 budgets to reimburse the 17 others for their 2020 SQ policing services — Les Coteaux $115,500; Pincourt $113,717; St. Zotique $135,700; Pointe-des-Cascades $24,809; Vaudreuil-sur-le-lac $13,468 and Vaudreuil-Dorion $1,788,389.
Voting on the original resolution, Vaudreuil-Dorion’s Guy Pilon and others opposed a proposal for a more equitable sharing of the costs of SQ services across the MRC. In 2019, the MRC’s total SQ bill was $25,972,945, including a MAMH subsidy which resulted in a collective overpayment from the 23 MRC municipalities of $7,470,008.
The current formula for sharing that rebate includes a municipality’s richesse foncière uniformatisée, or RFU. In the November presentation, it was explained that Hudson’s RFU is the driver behind inequitable SQ costs. Hudson, with a 2020 SQ bill of $1,850,000 paid by 5,300 residents, has an RFU near $1.4 billion. Ile Perrot, with more than twice the number of people (11,298), paid a 2020 SQ bill of $1,624,616.
[RFUs, as well as other numbers useful for comparison, are available for every municipality in Quebec on the MAMOT website.]

SQ Sgt. Det. Daniel Thibaudeau and Citizens Action Committee moderator Gilles Boudreau planning a Slow Down for Patricia traffic awareness campaign in St. Lazare. Thibaudeau transferred to Parthenais headquarters and Boudreau is retired and living in New Brunswick. Their dream was to see CACSP chapters throughout Quebec; if one still exists, none live in Vaudreuil-Soulanges. Ask MRC mayors why that is. (Hudson Gazette photo)

How much did it cost us? 

We may never know. We do know we don’t have the policing we used to. Ever since Hudson lost its 12-member municipal police force 20 years ago next year, our town has failed to receive the level of community policing we were guaranteed when the PQ government of the time forced Vaudreuil-Soulanges mayors to choose between a regional police force or the SQ. 

At that time, a majority of Vaudreuil-Soulanges towns already policed by the SQ got a cheap rate, so there wasn’t much enthusiasm for a likely more expensive regional police service, which had to include an investigative division and other specialized units.

In 2005, the county’s rural/urban split ensured the regional-police option couldn’t pass, and after the 2002 takeover of local police forces, some 100 SQ personnel assumed the policing of 850 square kilometres and fewer than 90,000 residents. (Today, Vaudreuil-Soulanges numbers 160,000 residents and will see its own 404-bed regional hospital opened in the fall of 2026. The MRC’s two detachments have expanded to maintain a ratio of one agent per 1,000 residents.)

The SQ of 2005 talked up that period’s buzz phrase — community policing — and what it would look like on the ground. Out here saw SQ families buying homes and enrolling their kids in school and becoming part of the community. SQ officers took an interest in the goings-on at our local schools and served lasagna at Comedy Night suppers. We saw our SQ help launch public awareness campaigns such as the ‘Slow Down For Patricia’ courtesy stops and a policy to ensure that qualified medical personnel are on call to mediate in mental-health crises. St. Lazare had a citizen’s public security committee. As the editor of Hudson’s iconic Gazette I got the impression that the SQ was doing its best to help us stop missing our local constabulary.

Until this technology lost in court, SQ patrollers didn’t have to leave their cruisers to issue a violation for an expired registration. (Hudson Gazette photo)

We knew we overpaid for SQ services. How much, I could never be sure. I was one of those locked out of the MRC meeting where the mayors reached agreement on their first SQ contract. I’ve been writing for years about how wealthy MRCs subsidize policing in have-not regions, but it was only last November when I learned that we were also subsidizing some of our own MRC colleagues to the tune of roughly $6 million a year. 

Just before Christmas, the local media carried planted stories of how much Sûréte du Québec policing services are costing our region compared to other parts of Quebec. 

Vaudreuil-Dorion mayor Guy Pilon led the tax revolt, using terms like ‘illogical’ and ‘almost illegal’ even though the current taxation formula has been in place since MRC mayors signed the deal — behind closed doors — in 2005.

What Pilon chose not to mention is that Hudson taxpayers were subsidizing SQ policing in Vaudreuil-Dorion and several other Vaudreuil-Soulanges municipalities to the tune of $610,000 in 2020 — and would have continued to subsidize V-D’s SQ bill for the foreseeable future. 

The formula under which the 23 member municipalities in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC are taxed for SQ policing is part of a Quebec-wide equalization scheme that has wealthy regions subsidizing the cost of policing in rural regions where sparse populations are spread out over vast areas. 

On average, Quebec municipalities policed by the SQ pay 53% of the cost, Quebec the rest. But wealthy MRCs (we’re one) are assessed approximately 112%. Under the original deal, individual municipalities were refunded half of the difference between 80% and 112%. 

Originally, each MRC municipality received and budgeted for SQ rebates. That was changed to the current system provincewide. Rebates are no longer refunded to individual municipalities but to MRCs, which distribute them on the basis of a formula which considers a municipality’s richesse foncière uniformatisée, or RFU, along with population and density. 

Holding cell at the eastern sector SQ detachment. The MRC is divided into two patrol areas covered by detachments in Vaudreuil-Dorion and St. Clêt. At any given moment on a quiet weekday night, there might be two patrol cars, each at the far end of their respective detachments. Legally, this satisfies the SQ mandate. Is it enough in practice?

Hudson, with about 5,300 residents and 37 square kilometres, has an RFU of close to $1.4 billion, a number based on the triennial property value assessments and registered real estate transactions. As a result, Hudson leads the list of generous donors to the cost of SQ policing in the rest of the MRC. 

On Nov. 30, I asked council to mandate the mayor to vote in support of the resolution in favour of a more equitable redistribution of the MRC’s overpayment of its annual SQ policing bill. I’m happy to say Mr. Nicholls voted for equitable sharing and against delaying it.  

The MRC did the right thing in turfing the current system. It makes no legal or ethical sense to maintain a system that burdens Hudson taxpayers with the cost of policing services they themselves don’t receive — especially when the lack of SQ presence in our municipality requires us to budget an additional $100,000 for private security over and above those inflated SQ costs. Until we know exactly how this happened, it bears watching closely to ensure it doesn’t creep back in.

SQ St. Clêt detachment holds Open House for residents. Try as the SQ did to replace our municipal police forces, there was never the buy-in from our municipalities. Again, whose fault is that? (Hudson Gazette photo)