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    Categories: FeaturedTravel

THE LAST REMNANT OF FRANCE IN NORTH AMERICA

TRAVEL: by Eric Mackenzie Lamb

For those of our readers who are genuinely interested in off-the-beaten-track destinations, there’s some good news. Even in this age of modern communications and ease of travel, there are still a handful of destinations which, although requiring some additional time and effort, are well worth a visit.  And they can be much closer than you think.
Located only about sixteen miles as the seagull flies from the Canadian province of
Newfoundland, the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon definitely fit into this category.
Now a largely autonomous overseas territory of France, yet 2,373 miles from its mother country and with a population of slightly over 6,000 inhabitants, it nevertheless has an amazing history far beyond what you’d expect for such a tiny archipelago located practically in the middle of nowhere. What follows is only a part of that history.

So let’s begin.
The islands were reportedly first discovered in 1520 by a Portuguese sailor and explorer, Joao
Alvarez Fagundes. Sixteen years later, it was formally declared a French possession by Jacques Cartier in the name of the King of France. Even then, there were already a handful of  seasonal inhabitants, consisting mostly of indigenous people and Basque and Breton fishermen.
Permanent settlements, however, didn’t take place until the end of the 17th century. By that time, there had already been a number of conflicts instigated by the British Navy in an effort to remove all French influence from the islands, with the result that, by the early 1700s, the
archipelago was again uninhabited. St Pierre Miquelon was then formally ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of Spanish Secession in 1713.
But the region’s stability was not destined to last. In 1763, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, France was obliged to cede all its North American possessions except for St Pierre Miquelon.
The territory  was returned to France and still retained its fishing rights off the coast of
Newfoundland.

Flag of St Pierre and Miquelon

Then came the American Revolution. Furious that the French had allied themselves with the
forces of George Washington, Britain invaded St Pierre and Miquelon in 1778, razed it to the
ground, and forcefully deported its entire population of around 2,000 inhabitants back to France.
This was followed by unsuccessful attempts to replace the banished French with British settlers, but to no avail. Then, in 1796, the French pushed back. Now it was their turn to punish the British by sacking the colony. What went round, came round.
But it didn’t end there. In 1802, under the Treaty of Amiens, Britain formally returned the
islands to France but reoccupied them only a year later as hostilities re-emerged. Then came the Treaty of Paris (islands given back to France), followed by the Hundred Days’ War (taken back by Britain). All in all, the archipelago changed hands no less than five times. These constant back and forths  continued until 1816, when France was finally left alone to resume the islands’ Gallic colonization.

It was only during the 1800s that fishing became St Pierre and Miquelon’s major industry, a
development which finally brought some semblance of prosperity to the islands and their
inhabitants.
But it didn’t come without a price. Along with Newfoundland, St Pierre and Miquelon are
located in the path of some of the world’s most ferocious storms and tempestuous seas. There are more than six hundred known shipwrecks around the islands, the majority of them from the era of sailing vessels. In fact, the surrounding waters could be so dangerous that the narrow strait between the islands of St Pierre and Langlade became commonly known as the Mouth of Hell.

Aftermath of a violent storm in St Pierre in the 19th century. (Courtesy of St Pierre Miquelon historical archives)
The rugged coastline of St Pierre Miquelon on a calm day. Image by the author.

Even today, almost all outdoor activities, including construction and other related projects, come to a virtual halt between the months of December and April. During stormy weather, few people even venture out from their homes due to the risk of being knocked off their feet by savage gusts of wind whose strength can easily attain speeds of eighty miles per hour or more. And that’s not even taking into account the sheer difficulty of moving around after a severe snowstorm.
To make matters even more challenging, these same months also bring with them almost
perpetual gloom and darkness, which, in common with Scandinavia, Siberia, and other high-
latitude regions, has been proven to contribute to acute mental depression and, in extreme cases, even suicide.

Courtesy of St Pierre Miquelon historical archive

By the early 1900s, the once-thriving fishing industry had already begun to decline, largely due to over-fishing, especially of cod. This situation was further exacerbated by the fact that many of the islands’ inhabitants had emigrated to Nova Scotia and Quebec. Then came the First World War. All males aged eighteen or over were subject to military draft, with about four hundred men sent to Europe, a quarter of whom were to die in battle. This effectively crippled the fishing industry as there were no longer enough experienced men to operate the boats. The recent introduction of steam trawlers had also drastically reduced employment opportunities.

A memorial in St Pierre dedicated to the hundreds of fishermen who disappeared. (Image by the author

St Pierre and Miquelon’s unexpected salvation turned out to be America’s imposition of
Prohibition in the 1920s. Almost overnight, the smuggling of alcohol into the United States
became St Pierre Miquelon’s major industry, far more lucrative than fishing. According to
available records, 1,815,271 gallons of whisky alone were successfully smuggled into American ports within a single month, often in the cover of darkness and skillfully hidden beneath legitimate cargo in  the ships’ holds.
So important did this trade become that even availability of temporary storage space for these illicit shipments soon reached crisis level. Warehouses, former fish processing factories, docks, even abandoned buildings were filled to capacity with cases of Johnny Walker, French Cabernet Sauvignon, Mumm’s champagne, Tanqueray, and just about any other brand you could think of.

Translation: Street of Smugglers

Eventually, the situation became so acute that some private home owners agreed to store the smugglers’ contraband liquor in their own basements (for a hefty fee, of course) whose entrances were then skillfully camouflaged. During this same period, some criminal organizations soon weaned themselves covertly into the new industry-which was inevitable, considering the profits to be made- mostly through shell companies and local front men, which could then serve as a legitimate import/export agency. One prominent visitor to St Pierre was none other than the legendary gangster Al Capone. (You can be quite sure that he came on business, not as a tourist).

Al Capone. (Courtesy of St Pierre Miquelon historical archives).

But, as the saying goes,  no good things last forever.  The islands’ own good fortune came to an abrupt end when America finally lifted Prohibition in 1933. For St Pierre and Miquelon, The
consequences were both drastic and immediate. The territory was plunged into an economic
recession, one from which it has never fully recovered, even to this day.

Then came World War II. Despite initial opposition from Britain, Canada, and the United States, Charles deGaulle, then in exile in Britain, secretly sent two military ships to St Pierre and Miquelon with orders to seize the territory from Vichy France, whose government was
considered a puppet of Hitler. Another of DeGaulle’s concerns-and indeed not without reason-
was the possibility of the islands becoming a base for German U-boats, from where they could then prowl the northern Atlantic. Fortunately, the exercise turned out to be a bloodless coup d’etat. A referendum was held the very next day in which the population overwhelmingly endorsed the islands’ takeover by Free French forces.
Even after the war ended, difficult times still lay ahead for St Pierre Miquelon. Already in
decline, their fishing industry was severely impacted by a 1992 moratorium sponsored by
Canada, which prohibited any party from further cod fishing due to a drastic depletion of natural stocks. Needless to say, the French were not pleased, especially after the arbitration panel gave St Pierre and Miquelon an exclusive economic zone of just 4,768 square miles-only 25 percent of what the territory had requested. Even now, more than thirty years on, a few of the islands’ older residents still express a certain degree of resentment toward Canada for what they consider its unjustified action-one which, they claim, took away their livelihoods.

Today, St Pierre and Miquelon’s survival depends to a large degree upon Metropolitan France’s
traditional largesse toward its overseas possessions. This is largely in the form of subsidies, low taxes, universal health care, improved infrastructure, and generous pensions for government employees- many from Metropolitan France- as well as for local retirees. Still, it’s difficult to see how St Pierre and Miquelon’s dependence on financial aid from Paris, which comes to millions of Euros each year, could ever be completely eliminated. But, at the same time, we should give the French government the credit they deserve.  The truth is, they’re trying  to create as genuine an example of social equality as possible-and in one of its most remote possessions- particularly when many other countries would be hard pressed or unwilling to make the same commitment.
That said, another benefit of being a French overseas territory (formally known as a Collectivite) is the fact that tiny St Pierre and Miquelon, with a total area no larger than Brooklyn, NY, can now boast of having its own airline-Air Saint Pierre, which operates an ATR-42 (similar to LIAT’s own aircraft)-connecting the archipelago to the major transAtlantic hubs of Halifax and Montreal. The carrier also operates a  Cessna 406, a smaller twin engined turboprop aircraft with a capacity for nine passengers, which is used primarily for scheduled flights between St Pierre and the sparsely populated islands of Miquelon and Langlade, which together have slightly over 600 inhabitants. It also doubles as an air ambulance for emergency medical flights.

On certain days of the week, Air St Pierre’s ATR-42  also carries mail from Metropolitan France to St Pierre Miquelon, which is routed through Canadian airports like Halifax and Montreal. As part of the government’s established subsidy program for the territory, the French postal service  pays the airline for each passenger seat used to accommodate the mail bags.

The town of St Pierre. (Image by the author).

My own visit to St Pierre and Miquelon took place in late September, a special time of year
throughout eastern Canada thanks to its picturesque autumn foliage. But then, peering through the airplane’s window as we made our descent, I realized that maybe I hadn’t done my homework properly. Where, I asked myself, are all the trees?
Not that there weren’t any. But-at least from what I could see-most were pines and other
conifers, with  only a few colorful species in isolated valleys or along winding streams. Which,
as I was about to learn,  was understandable if one took into account the archipelago’s frequent high winds and extensive peat bogs.  St Pierre and Miquelon is also well known for its frequent fogs, as well as seabirds, seals, and even whales migrating to Greenland. Although not positioned near the Arctic circle, the islands still have many characteristics of the far north, including a strong sense of isolation. As evidence of that, even modern telephone service in the islands didn’t exist until 1979.

The capital and main settlement on the archipelago is the town of St Pierre, with a little over five thousand inhabitants. It’s also the islands’ principal sea port, from where a ferry operates on a regular schedule (weather permitting) to the neighboring island of Miquelon, which, in itself, is like a magnificent nature preserve and a refuge for gulls, puffins, geese, seals, and numerous other wild creatures.
Walking around the town, what struck me immediately was how different its architecture was
from similar settlements in neighboring Canada. Except for the church and a few government
offices, most of the buildings were constructed almost entirely of wood and old fashioned red
bricks.  Some of the older homes are quite ornate, with gingerbread lattice work which reminded me of a Caribbean chattel house. Even more interesting, as I learned later, was that much of the wood used in their construction originally came from the oak barrels and crates used for transporting  bootleg liquor during the Prohibition era. As the saying goes, Waste not, want not.
The streets themselves are well laid out but unusually narrow, which I guessed had something to do with the weather. There are also a number of very interesting shops with locally made handicrafts, including wild blueberry jam from the peat bogs,  as well as unusual souvenirs and distinctive hand knitted clothing intended for the tourist market.  As far as restaurants, however, there weren’t quite as many as I’d expected. But this was easily compensated for by the outstanding quality of food served by those which were open. After a glass or two of Cabernet Sauvignon and listening to the busy chatter and laughter around me, it didn’t take long to imagine that I was back  in the Left Bank district of Paris. No Québécois here, only French French.

I also noticed something odd when I happened to glance at the restaurant’s wall clock: it showed 7:30 PM while my own Apple wristwatch, which automatically adjusts itself to different time zones , read 7 PM. (I later learned that St Pierre Miquelon has its own unique time zone, thirty minutes later than neighboring Newfoundland. Logically, though, and from a geographic point, you’d expect the time to be earlier, or at least the same, as that in Newfoundland. (Still haven’t been able to figure that one out. And neither has the Apple Watch).

The author with Stephane Lenormand, President of the Collectivity of St Pierre Miquelon

“Unlike fishing, which has declined dramatically, developing sustainable tourism is now the
primary goal for our islands,” explained Stephane Lenormand, the president of the Overseas
Collectivity of St. Pierre and Miquelon, whom I met during my visit. “We’ve had a new airport
since 1999 which was recently refurbished, with a longer runway and updated passenger
facilities. Just this year, for the first time in our history, we had direct flights to and from Paris
over the summer. And we hope to continue them during the next tourist season”.
“ I’m very optimistic,” he added. “St Pierre and Miquelon offers a very different experience for
visitors, particularly in ecotourism. Some even told me that their stay was almost like going back in time, especially when it comes to the history of our islands and their natural unspoiled beauty.
That’s what we want-to be a different kind of destination. And always special.”
Who could  have said it better?
Hike, anyone?

Image by the author

(For further information about St Pierre Miquelon, please go to www.spm-tourisme.fr)

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