The Magdalen Islands

(Special thanks to Laura Byrne Paquet for her article and the Internet)

(I am taking the liberty of changing course here and straying away from Cape Breton and bringing in the Magdalen Islands for your reading pleasure. I am doing this because so many Cape Bretoners went to the Magdalens during the 1770s when the British chased them away. Many of them returned to the Maritimes later and many to Cape Breton. – CAPER)

As the native Indians referred to the Islands, “Brushed by the Waves”. The islands’ leading industry, fishing, has been battered by declining stocks and plummeting lobster prices. Tourism is the second largest source of employment but, like fishing, offers largely seasonal jobs. And the third-largest industry, salt mining, is hard, unglamorous work.

Yet most Madelinots – the name given to the islands’ inhabitants – wouldn’t live anywhere else but on this rocky, sandy outcropping perched on a massive geological salt dome.

With only 12,500 people scattered across roughly 200 square kilometers and seven inhabited islands, there’s plenty of elbow room. The maritime climate features cool summers and mild winters, and the fewest annual frost days of any spot in Quebec. Every bend in the road seems to open up another vista of red sandstone cliffs, sandy beaches and low-lying hills dotted with candy-coloured wooden houses. Everyone who last eyes on the place seem inspired to rhapsodize. The Mi’kmaq, who came here centuries ago to fish and hunt, called the islands Menagoesengo-“islands brushed by the waves.”

Lots of Rugged Beauty along the Magdalen Shores

When Jacques Cartier showed up in 1534, he raved, “We found lots of beautiful trees, meadows, fields of wild wheat and flowering peas, as many kinds and as beautiful as any I have ever seen in Brittany.” Even the islands’ French name, Iles de la Madeleine, is melodic.

More important to Madelinots than the captivating scenery, however, is their close-knit society. Residents consider themselves a people set apart. “We are more Canadian than Quebecker.. But more than that, we are Acadian,” says Sebastien Cote, co-owner of eco-adventure company Vert et Mer.

Madelinots speak frequently of “going to Quebec” as though Quebec was a separate province, and it might as well be: the islands are closer to Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island than to the nearest point in Quebec, the Gaspe Peninsula.

Francophones from elsewhere in Quebec often remark on the Madelinots’ distinctive dialect, which includes archaic French words. The Magdalens are even in a different time zone, Atlantic Time, from the rest of the province.

Magdalen Lighthouse

Until the advent of air travel and regular ferry service, Madelinots led a largely isolated life where they had to make their own fun, fiddlers, step dancers and storytellers delighted their friends and relative. These days, kitchen parties still enliven the long, grey winters. A few surnames belonging to families who have lived here for centuries – Arseneau, Boudreau, Leblanc, Clark – pop up repeatedly on street signs and mailboxes. And houses, boats and business pass from generation to generation through complex networks of in-laws, cousins and grandchildren. “We’re still close to all our family, even our grandparents.” Says local high school teacher Hugues Petitpas, who supplements hi income by working as a tour guide each summer.

The Magdalen Islands (French, Îles de la Madeleine) form a small archipelago in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence with a land area of 205.53 square kilometers (79.36 sq mi). Though closer to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, the islands form part of the Canadian province of Quebec.

The islands form the territory equivalent to a regional county municipality (TE) and census division (CD) of Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine. Its geographical code is 01.

The islands also form the urban agglomeration of Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine, divided into two municipalities. These are Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine (2006 census pop. 12,560), the central municipality, and Grosse-Île (pop. 531). The current mayors are Joël Arseneault and Christopher Clark.

Geography – There are nine major islands: Amherst (Havre Aubert), Brion, Grand Entry (Grande Entrée), Grindstone (Cap aux Meules), Grosse Île, House Harbour (Havre aux Maisons), Île aux Loups, Entry (Île d’Entrée) and Bird Rock (Rocher aux Oiseaux). There are numerous islets as well.

Loading Coal at Burchell’s for the Magdalens – 1930s-1940s

(Picture courtesy of Eric Simm)

Looking at the old Lower Canaler loading coal at Burchell’s in Bras d’Or reminded me of when my cousin, Russell Fraser, during the War sailed on some of these coast coal boats plying between The Gut and the Magdalen Islands with coal. Russell could imitate anything and anyone so he would make the sound of the diesel engine from starting them up to them idling. Many Cape Bretoners never said Magdalen but rather Mad-il-leens and many of them still do today. For example, “She married a Frenchman from the Madilleens bye.” CAPER

History – Jacques Cartier was the first European to visit the islands, in 1534. However, Mi’kmaq Indians had been visiting the islands for hundreds of years as part of a seasonal subsistence round, probably to harvest the abundant walrus population. A number of archaeological sites have been excavated on the archipelago.

It was named in 1663 by the seigneur of the island, François Doublet, after his wife, Madeleine Fontaine.[1] In 1755, the islands were inhabited by French-speaking Acadians. When the British expelled the Acadians from the rest of what are now the Maritime Provinces of Canada, they did not come as far as the Magdalen Islands. To this day, many inhabitants of the Magdalen Islands (Madelinots) fly the Acadian flag and think of themselves as both Acadians and Québécois.

The islands were administered as part of the Colony of Newfoundland from 1763 until 1774, when they were joined to Quebec by the Quebec Act.

And yet, for all the challenges of island life, people stay. For those who have a job, the cost of living is one of the primary attractions. “It’s really cheap here,” says Sebastien Cote, who moved here from eastern Quebec. The average house price at the time of the last census was $96,000. Residents can even use their homes to generate income; come summer, it’s common for Madelinots to move into campers and rent their scenic homes to visitors for around $1,000 a week.

As well as being affordable, life has its pleasure. In summer, when fisher head out at 3 a.m. six days a week to check their lobster traps, seafood is plentiful and delicious. Madelinots enjoy superb restaurants like La Table des Roy, where a phenomenal bouillabaisse has been on the menu for over 25 years. For those seeking entertainment, there are artsy coffee shops, a bowling alley and a cinema that’s open seven nights a week (as well as rainy afternoons). Doughnut hounds can get their fix at the sole Tim Horton’s.

Of Course there is always a Timmy’s – Magdalens

Until the 20th century, the islands were completely isolated during the winter, since the pack ice made the trip to the mainland impassable by boat. The inhabitants of the island could not even communicate with the mainland. In the winter of 1910, they sent an urgent request for help to the mainland by writing many letters and sealing them up inside a molasses barrel (or puncheon), which they set adrift. When this reached the shore, on Cape Breton Island, the government sent out an icebreaker to bring aid. Within a few years, the Magdalens were given one of the new wireless telegraph stations so that the inhabitants could at least have some communication in the winter. The puncheon is now famous, and every tourist shop sells replicas.

At one time, large walrus herds were found near the islands but they had been eliminated due to overhunting by the end of the 18th century. The islands’ beaches provide habitat for the endangered Piping Plover and the Roseate Tern.

Demographics – A segment of the population are descendants from survivors of the over 400 shipwrecks on the islands. The islands are the location of some of Quebec’s oldest English-speaking settlements, and although the majority of Anglophones have since been assimilated with the francophone population or migrated elsewhere, there are still English-speaking settlements at Old Harry, Grosse-Ile, and Entry Island. As well as the English-speaking settlements, the islands are known for their world famous children’s French camp. Activities include sand-castle competitions and a night alone in the woods.

Lobster Fleet at Rest – Magdalen Islands

Lighthouses were eventually set up, and this reduced the number of shipwrecks, but there are still many old hulks on the beaches and under the waters.

In the 2001 Census, the archipelago was found to support a population of 12,818, down from 13,991 in 1991 – the official 2006 census figure is 13,091 – whose main occupations include lobster fishing.

Fisherman Sorting his Catch of Lobsters

Out in the cold clear water of the St. Lawrence can be found the Magdalen Islands, blessed with sublime beauty and the best lobster in the world. They are a little known gem and a must visit for anyone with an artistic eye and a taste for great seafood. It is claimed they are the best tasting lobsters because the cold water they are in is a mix between the Atlantic salt water and the flow of fresh water from the Great Lakes coming out of the St. Lawrence River. Hard to dispute the taste – it is distinctive. CAPER) 

Tourism – Tourism is now a major industry in the Magdalen Islands, as in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, partly because of the depletion of the fish in the area. The islands are particularly appealing to French-speaking Québécois, who can enjoy the ocean and speak their native language. The islands have many kilometres of white sand beaches, along with steadily eroding sandstone cliffs. It is an excellent destination for bicycle camping, sea kayaking, windsurfing and kitesurfing. During the winter months, beginning in mid-February, eco-tourists visit to observe new-born and young harp seal pups on the pack ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence surrounding the islands.

Snug Harbour – Magdalen Islands

(One of our more prominent Alder Pointers, Captain John Arsenault, came from The Magdalens as did many others. – CAPER)


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Bette (Ryan) Turnbull on January 23, 2011 at 21:35

    I love these informative posts George. Thanks!


    • Thanks Bette – when you think of something. Send your ideas along to give me something to research.
      By the way, you might not remember me but I remember you, in fact all of you.


  2. Posted by Bobbi on January 25, 2011 at 00:02

    thanks for this – I’m making plans to visit Magdellans this summer


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