Prairie Messenger Header

Magdalen Islands a refuge from life’s tempests


By Donald L. Telfer


“Let’s all sink with the king.”

When Shakespeare described the shipwreck in “The Tempest,” he may well have used the setting of the remote, windswept and magical Iles de la Madeleine for the classic play. Situated in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the hook-shaped Madeleines (Magdelines to the minority of English-speakers or just “the Maggies”) are the final resting place for hundreds of ships that ran aground on the reef-ringed archipelago.

Remnants of the sleeping giants are scattered throughout the string of islands, islets and sandbars, some of the longest, widest and quietest expanses of white sand imaginable. And where the only sunbathers are flocks of rare and exotic birds.

A weathered gray plank from a shipwreck, supporting a computer at a popular bistro, Les Pas Perdus, is a recent relic from the deep. The cathedral-like St. Pierre de la Verniere Church, the most prominent landmark on the island of Cap Aux Meules, is built largely of shipwrecks. The latest vessel to meet its untimely end is the Duke of Connaught, a floating drydock that broke in two, its rusting hull left to count down the ages near the towering copper-red cliffs at Cap Savage.

“The landscape changes every year,” said Pauline-Gervaise Gregoire, a tour guide whose family has lived on the islands for years. “The constant pounding of the sea and wind carves magnificent shapes out of the soft, sandstone cliffs.”

While the Maggies claim untold numbers of ships, many crew and passengers survived, thanks to heroic efforts of islanders. A survivor was John Savage from the Isle of Jersey who established a general store in 1880 that in recent years has become a popular restaurant. Over one of Café de la Grave’s specialties, delicious clam chowder in a bread bowl, I felt as though I was stepping back in time as pianist Jean-Marc Cormier entertained on the century-old upright.

The pebbly beach behind the restaurant is the historic site where Acadians came ashore in 1755. Deported by the British from what is now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, the early French settlers moved to the Magdalens. They later were forced to pay rent when King George III gave the islands to a Capt. Isaac Coffin, subjecting Magdaleners to seigneurial tenure, a tax on estates granted by royal decree to the Acadians.

The islands began to prosper in the late 19th century when Quebec legislation enabled islanders to buy back their land. Yet the Maggies were still a family fiefdom, privately owned by the descendants of Coffin, who lived abroad. For the princely sum of $50,000, Quebec bought the islands in 1949, entitling islanders to become part of Canada when Newfoundland entered confederation.

“We even had our own currency,” Sebastian Cummings said proudly. Cummings is an energetic businessman who, among other endeavours in the off season, escorts group tours from Paris and sells truckloads of Christmas trees on a street corner in New York City. “And we islanders are very resourceful.”

The mainstay of the economy is fishing, and bounty from the sea is evident throughout the islands. Fishing boats bob gently in the protected harbours. Herring not used to bait lobster are hung out to dry in smokehouses. Rows of lobster traps are lined up neatly beside houses lavishly painted in shades of yellow, mauve and copper red. The striking colours are an Acadian tradition, begun as navigational aids for fishermen.

Not everyone with a fondness for the sea is engaged in fishing. Following a near-drowning accident while fishing for lobster, Claude Baurgeois gave up earning a living from the sea and created a remarkable open-air museum. Adjacent to a fir and white spruce forest, Le Site D’Autrefois describes fishing, farming and the first lifeline to the mainland, the telegraph.

Near the northern end of the English-speaking island of Grosse Isle is Holy Trinity Anglican Church. The tiny church contains stained-glass windows behind the altar with the inscription, “And I will make you fishers of men.” The central figure is Jesus, wearing rubber boots and dressed in a fisherman’s sweater and blue jeans.

Tourism has become an increasingly important source of income. Travelling by ferry from another jewel in the gulf, Prince Edward Island, visitors come to bask in the beauty and civility of the islands. Unlike Shakespeare’s island of turmoil, the calm, tidy and isolated Maggies are a grand place to disappear from the hassles of civilization. A summer refuge to escape the tempests of life — author Farley Mowat had a cottage in one of the only English-speaking communities, and visitors were former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and his wife Margaret – the affair is injected with non-stop advances of extravagant landscapes, velvety seas of waving wildflowers, and an unending selection of fine French cuisine.

A bounty of seafood such as fresh mussels, crab and lobster dominates island restaurants. To my surprise, seal meat was on the menu. With images of cute baby seals, I was hesitant to dig into a dinner of the marine mammal so championed during the anti-seal fever.

The Seal Interpretation Centre on the adjacent island of Grand-Entrée describes the four species of seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The exhibit outlines the exploding population since the seal pelt trade went into decline and the devastating effect it had on the fishing industry. Before anti-seal groups championed their cause, there were some two million of the mammals in the sea. Now, many millions feed on the all-important cod.

“The overpopulation has had a devastating effect on our economy,” said Pascal Arseneau of the Iles de la Madeleine Tourism Association. “The seal pelts were sold for fur and fat for oil. And the seal meat is still a delicacy for Islanders.”

Just the stuff for another Shakespearean saga.

Former editor and publisher of the Humboldt Journal, Donald L. Telfer has contributed to over a hundred newspapers and magazines in Canada, the U.S. and abroad such as the Globe and Mail, Edmonton Journal, New York Post, Dallas Morning News, CNN Traveller London, and Time Warner Hong Kong.