A tale of one community’s life-changing adaptation through innovation and co-operation

Kirsten Hathaway

Among the many observations and lessons learned through the COVID-19 crisis, the most effective responses on a global scale have been those that have equally engaged public, private and civil society sectors to collaborate and find innovative solutions to the acute challenges being faced by governments, communities, institutions, businesses and citizens.

This tripartite model, at first glance, makes common sense. Why wouldn’t all three sectors aim to work together to identify solutions to common challenges? It must be happening all the time for our society to function properly.

The fact is, it rarely happens, and no formal, easily replicable model exists. The Community Economic Development and Employability Corporation (CEDEC), based in Quebec, is actively working to bridge the three sectors by building a model that integrates all three equally and confers the benefits to all accordingly. This type of tripartite collaboration organized around an opportunity can generate sustainable economic benefits that balance the needs of the whole community, especially in rural areas that tend to feel the impact of external economic forces more severely.

A current working example, as outlined in this article, highlights how this type of collaboration model can affect a community, particularly when its creation and execution pivot on the essential role of a central facilitator, such as CEDEC.

Learning and earning at Mont Sutton

Mont Sutton is a key economic driver in its namesake Quebec town, drawing tourists during the winter and summer seasons, and generating secondary business activity related to hospitality. Like many businesses across sectors, the province and the country, Mont Sutton faced a critical labour shortage that affected its ability to operate at full capacity for several consecutive seasons. Since the mountain serves a bilingual customer base, the business also required a certain number of bilingual employees in key roles, adding an additional challenge given the small labour pool.

A CEDEC-led action plan rapidly aligned Mont Sutton, the Eastern Townships School Board and Services Quebec around an integrated workforce training model. The region’s first “Earn as You Learn” francization program targeted English speakers and provincial newcomers and was designed to help both existing and potential Mont Sutton employees develop business-specific, French-language customer service skills that would enable them to work at Mont Sutton during the 2019-2020 winter season.

“It took some time to bring the three sectors around the table but when everybody was on board with the same vision, we had to find innovative ways of then moving [the program] forward,” recalled Nina Kim, CEDEC Project Manager.

“This type of tripartite collaboration organized around an opportunity can generate sustainable economic benefits that balance the needs of the whole community.”

Equally creative strategies would be needed to ensure success. So, during the off-season, the partners developed a plan to integrate program candidates into Mont Sutton’s workforce through pre-season essential skills training, with jobs ready and waiting for them before the ski centre’s peak period.

All partners recognized the innovative nature of the endeavour. “Francization is already offered through the school board,” said program teacher Marie-France Argouin, “but adapting it on such a level for a [specific] workplace as such was really new … real innovation.”

For Mont Sutton, which had the added value of having the training onsite, the benefits were clear, as their HR Co-ordinator, Veronique Dumont pointed out: “As soon as the season starts our employees are already qualified, trained; they know the jargon, they know the mountain, because the whole program was developed around our operations.”

Eleven participants completed the first cohort of the remunerated 10-week/300-hour francization and training program in November 2019. Graduates, in turn, became ideal ambassadors and coaches for onboarding new recruits to the program, as well as prime candidates for continuing their Mont Sutton employment experience in the summer tourism season ahead. The ski centre is now looking forward to a mutually rewarding second phase.

Perhaps the experience is best summed up by program graduate Arley Guzman [translated from French]: “For me, this training was like a door opening. Once we enter, we can do anything we want in life,” adding that his enhanced French language skills have opened him up to Quebec culture outside of work as well.

But CEDEC’s work, like the project itself, was just beginning. While CEDEC is considering how the model can be adapted to other sectors, Sutton partners are exploring how the program can be adapted to meet the tourism sector’s needs year-round.

Meanwhile, back in town

As the Town of Sutton witnessed this early exciting win with a key economic player in the region, officials were eager to engage in public-private-civil society collaboration, too. With the ultimate goal of increasing the town’s tax base to provide community services, conversations always come back to the imminent need of workers to fill labour gaps, affordable housing for those workers, and a high quality of life to attract and retain them. CEDEC delivered an objective, evidence-based economic portrait of Sutton to help inform dialogue between the municipality and stakeholders.

The partners are continuing their exploration of opportunities both in and beyond the original three focal areas (workforce development, agri-foods and affordable housing). Subsequent meetings with local entrepreneurs have moved projects forward. In particular, this has mobilized stakeholders around agri-food opportunities through the creation of a local food transformation “hub.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges, the use of video conferencing technology combined with the collective goodwill and motivation of the partners to forge on has mitigated the loss of momentum.

Mont Sutton, after gearing up its staff for the winter season, suffered dearly due to its forced closure early on in Quebec’s response to COVID-19. However, through ongoing engagement in the partnership, it is already mobilizing to rehire employee/trainees for the summer season both at the hill and in partnership with a nearby summer hospitality tourism business.

“Our tripartite partnership with CEDEC, the school board and the provincial government has remained strong during the COVID-19 crisis due to our consistent communication and the solid relationship we’ve developed over the last year. This relationship has enabled us to get through the pandemic with our feet on the ground while planning ahead for the start of Phase II in June,” said Dumont.

Sutton’s success story demonstrates the many positive outcomes of public, private and civil society collaboration: this model has generated greater worker mobility within Mont Sutton; increased the capacity of the local tourism sector due to increased bilingualism and customer service skills; and it is giving one of the region’s major employers (350 employees) a fighting chance to recover in the “new normal” post COVID-19.

Kirsten Hathaway has led the CEDEC communications department since 2004 and is committed to the organization’s evolution as it mobilizes public, private and civil society sector collaboration around economic growth opportunities and generates tangible benefits for communities and individuals. To learn more about the model and other collaborations such as in Mont Sutton, consider attending the Creating Inclusive Economies: Building Bridges Between Public, Private and Civil Society Sectors Conference, co-hosted by CEDEC and the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation (CRRF) planned for Fall 2021 in Rimouski, Quebec.