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Coun. Mathieu Fleury: Let's keep Le Droit to its Ontario roots

 Coun. Mathieu Fleury.
Coun. Mathieu Fleury.

With an estimated 30,000 subscribers, most of them in Gatineau, Le Droit occupies an odd place in the world of Canadian journalism.

It is Ottawa’s largest French-language daily newspaper but also one of six regional papers in Groupe Capitales Médias — the bankrupt firm founded in 2015 by Martin Cauchon, a former justice minister in the federal government of Jean Chrétien.

The other five are Le Soleil of Québec City, La Tribune of Sherbrooke, Le Quotidien of Saguenay, La Voix de l’Est of Granby and Le Nouvelliste of Trois-Rivières. That, of course, makes Le Droit the only Ontario-based newspaper in the group.

This might matter in the days ahead as the newspapers — now formed into a co-operative — prepare to emerge next week from the protection of the court following four months of reorganizing. Each newspaper has or will form an independent co-operative. However, all six will draw on common office services — pay, information technology, advertising — of a corporate entity that will serve as a kind of new parent company. This arrangement is expected to save costs.

Equally important, the Quebec-based newspapers have access to a $10-million-a-year fund announced last year by the François Legault government to support local journalism.

In order to claim its part of this support, Le Droit has been mulling establishing its co-operative in Gatineau. Although Le Droit formed its co-operative Friday, the decision about where to locate it has yet to be made.

Patrick Duquette, president of Le Droit’s union local, said last month that Le Droit would continue to maintain a presence in Ontario, noting that the newspaper was formed in 1913 to protect the rights of Franco-Ontarians. “We would never deny our roots,” he said.

Nevertheless, Duquette added Friday that moving a certain percentage of Le Droit’s 65 employees to Gatineau might be necessary to qualify for Quebec tax credits and other forms of assistance.

Pierre Bergeron, the newspaper’s publisher until 2002, agrees Le Droit may little choice but to shift employees from its current offices in the ByWard Market.

“The move to Gatineau, if it happens, will be because that’s where the money is,” Bergeron said. “Whatever happens, Le Droit has to survive so it can continue to serve readers on both sides of the river.”

The possibility of shifting resources to Gatineau concerns Ottawa city Coun. Mathieu Fleury, who represents the strongly francophone ward of Rideau-Vanier. “Le Droit is a very important newspaper for coverage of local affairs in French, especially provincial affairs, which we don’t get elsewhere,” he said.

Last week, Fleury tabled a notice of a motion asking council to acknowledge the importance of Le Droit for Ottawa and to encourage the newspaper to collaborate with the local community in a hunt for ways to keep Le Droit in Ontario. The motion is to be considered in January.

Even before the financial difficulties of Le Droit’s parent firm, GCM, became apparent last summer, Fleury had been concerned about the newspaper’s disproportionate coverage of Gatineau compared with Ottawa. “It’s too heavy on Gatineau at the moment,” he said.

It has been that way for some time. Bergeron said that, when he stepped down as publisher in 2002, about three-quarters of Le Droit’s circulation — about 40,000 at the time — was on the Québec side of the Ottawa River.

It’s possible the balance could have shifted somewhat in favour of Ottawa since then. According to the national census, the number of people with working knowledge of French increased nearly 57,000 between 2006 and 2016 in Ottawa, compared with a jump of 40,000 in Gatineau.

There are also more potential readers in Ottawa, where 393,000 residents claimed working knowledge of French in 2016.  In Gatineau, the total was 302,000.

It’s not clear how well Le Droit is doing financially, though Fleury was advised that the operation was at least breaking even on operations.

If true, that would make Le Droit one of the group’s better performers. According to a Quebec Superior Court ruling in connection with the bankruptcy filing, the six GCM newspapers collectively saw revenues fall 12 per cent per year between 2015 and 2018, producing net losses of $8 million and $25 million in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Losses are expected to continue next year before, optimistically, returning to profits in 2021.

As of Nov. 19, GCM’s liabilities topped $45 million, far outweighing $16 million in assets.

Among the casualties of the transformation from GSM to a co-operative will be the newspapers’ retirees, who face 30-per-cent cuts in their pensions as of Jan. 1.

Here, at least, Le Droit retirees should catch a break. They are eligible for assistance of up to $1,500 per month from Ontario’s Pension Benefits Guarantee fund.

Quebec does not offer comparable protection.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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