General Articles

The Isles At the Edge Of the World

On the bare, lonely Magdalens live 10,000 hardy, happy souls who still ride around in surreys yet get all their letters airmail

IAN SCLANDERS December 1 1947
General Articles

The Isles At the Edge Of the World

On the bare, lonely Magdalens live 10,000 hardy, happy souls who still ride around in surreys yet get all their letters airmail

IAN SCLANDERS December 1 1947

The Isles At the Edge Of the World


THE WIND always blows in the Magdalen Islands. It blows over walrus bones and the bleached timbers of wrecked ships. It buffets the red cliffs and the white fish sheds and snatches the caps off the great sand dunes.

It whisks across golden beaches and blue lagoons and the nesting grounds of gannet—giant birds with a six-foot wingspread.

It whistles past the loneliest lighthouse on the Atlantic coast. It rocks hundreds cf small boats in a score of small harbors and wheezes through the rigging of sealing schooners.

In the summer it carries the fragrance of fantastic fields of wild flowers far out to sea. In the winter it stirs the encircling ice floes.

And all year it sings around the chimneys of 10,000 of (he most contented people in the world.

Half these people have never seen a train or a street light or paving or a skyscraper and have never heard the roar of traffic. Until a year ago they had no newspaper, no picture show.

They exist without benefit of bakeries, dairies, electric power, laundries, ice companies, beauty parlors, drug stores, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, electric ranges or water taps. Each November many of them have to lay in enough provisions to last until June.

But nobody seems to miss the conveniences of modern life.

The women don’t complain about drudgery. They are happy. They let their husbands wear the pants—so much so that when you want to photograph one of them she will usually shrug and say, “You must ask my man.” (He invariably turns out to be miles away, jigging mackerel or digging clams or “black-ducking.”)

Go to the Magdalens-— Iles de la Madeleine, as most inhabitants call them—and you enter a sort of never-never land. Even the shape of the archipelago is queer. About 60 miles off the northeast tip of Prince Edward Island, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it looks, on the map, like a tremendous sea serpent with a litter of young.

The islands which form the curved body of the serpent have an over-all

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On the bare, lonely Magdalens live 10,000 hardy, happy souls who still ride around in surreys yet get all their letters airmail

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I length of 80 miles, point northeast toward Newfoundland, and at places are less than a mile wide. Several of them are joined together by sand bars which are submerged at high tide but used as roads when the tide is low.

On the fringe of the archipelago are a number of little islands-—the serpent’s litter. Some are mere rocks, almost hidden by a swirl of white birds.

They Won’t Go Away

Battered by the elements, the

I Magdalens are constantly changing.

I Gales shift the dunes. The restless waves, dissatisfied with the shore line, are eternally tearing away a bit here and adding a bit there. At Grindstone, the main community, the edge of a cliff moves relentlessly toward a clump of buildings, which now perch precariously on the brink, although, when constructed, they were in t he fields.

Once the Magdalens were thickly forested, but hardly a tree remains, and firewood, like coal, has to be brought from the mainland. Yet the lack of t rees does not detract from the unbelievable beauty of the scenery.

The Madeleinots, at times, have been terribly poor. But they have such a deep and abiding love for their islands that they would rather starve than be exiles.

In the 1930’s, when fish markets collapsed, their suffering was acute. 1. he government of Quebec (the Magdalens are politically, if not geographically, part of that province) stmt experts to survey the situation. The experts decided that the Magdalens with only HO square miles of arable land, were incapable of supporting the population. They pointed out that no other section of North America had a rural population density of 200 to the square mile.

So (he government offered farms and financial aid to those who would migrate to Northern Quebec. But only 50 families were persuaded to leave and most of them have since returned.

As if developed, World War II proved the experts at least temporarily wrong by bringing an undreamed of measure of prosperity to the islands. A man could earn $200 to $300 killing seal in March and a few hundred more catching spring mackerel. He could pick up $3,000 fishing lobster in June and July and could add $1,000 to his income by harvesting cod, flounder and herring when the lobster season ended.

“The experts forgot the wealth that swims in the sea,” a merchant told me. “We can’t live by farming, no. But by fishing, yes—if we can sell our fish.”

The future of the Magdalens hinges on that “if.” Can the fish—and in particular the lobster, which is the chief “cash crop”—be exchanged for sufficient money to feed, clothe and shelter the 10,000 Madeleinots? The answer is uncertain. Already, prices have dropped, the canning factories have curtailed their output, the wartime affluence is vanishing.

But the people themselves are not worried. Experience has taught them to be thrifty. Their sudden prosperity was not accompanied by wild extravagance, although they did indulge their fondness for horses and buggies. Today the vehicles on the gravel roads of Grindstone and Amherst and Old Harry and Grosse Ile and the other islands run the gamut from oldfashioned racing sulkies to surreyswith-the-fringe-on-top, bought secondhand from P.E. 1. and Nova Scotia. The

odder they are, the more their new owners like them.

This is typical of the Madeleinot, who delights in being different.

It is also typical that while June is the month for weddings in the rest of Canada, October is the month in the Magdalens—October, when the fishing is over, and the serious work of the year is done, and the cold lazy winter is approaching.

And what weddings the Madeleinots hold! If the reception at the home of the bride’s parents does not continue for four days and nights, the affair is a dismal flop. A first-class reception stretches through a solid week.

When one fiddler is exhausted, another replaces him. When EL keg of “little dog”—a potent beverage brewed from molasses and potatoes—is emptied .mother appeEtrs. Women bustle around refilling the food platters. The clergymen of the Magdalens, Catholic and Protestant alike, hEive been condemning nuptial revelry for years without results.

At any rate, the spiritual leaders have the satisfaction of knowing that, after the fun is over, Magdalen marriages last.

As a rule, families are large. If e\ woman hasn’t more than four children her neighbors feel sorry for her. Hundreds receive more today in family allowance cheques than they were able to earn in the tough 1930’s.

The co-operative movement, promoted by the Catholic Church, has taken a strong hold. Madeleinots save through credit unions. They sell the bulk of their fish through co-operatives, buy their groceries through co-operatives, own fish-processing plants cooperatively.

They’re a Healthy Lot

But welfare workers from the mainland, who have attempted to preach the modem gospel of vitamins and calories, have met with scant success. From the middle of December to the middle of Mtry, the Magdalens are walled off from the rest of the world by ice. There is a plane which carries mail and passengers—but a whole fleet, of Eiircraft would be required to transport fresh provisions for 10,000 people.

So the winter diet on the Magdalens remEiins E\S much out of balance as ever, with this exception—that the Madeleinots will now eat carrots, which they formerly grew only for their horses.

In spite of nutritional deficiencies, the Madeleinots have healthy bodies, beautiful teeth, sptirkling eyes. And they generally manage to live to a ripe old age. In one issue of Le Phare, the fortnightly newspaper on Grindstone, the obituary column recorded deaths at 94, 93, 83,80 and 61.

A 100-bed hospital on Grindstone, erected just before the war by the government of Quebec, has yet to be fully occupied. And there are oldtimers who maintain that it is a silly newfangled idea and a waste of money, which simply encourages illness .

They remember when there was net even a doctor on the Magdalens, íet alone a big hospital. Dr. J. F. Salomon WEIS the first physician. Now 76, he Mas been practicing medicine and olaying the organ at the Grindstone Camelia Church for 53 years. Annually, folks all over the islands celebrate his birthday—Eind no wonder! Of the 10,000 Madeleinots, he helped 5,000 into the world. Dapper, rosy-cheeked, witty and kindly, he still goes his rounds with his little black satchel, but lately he has been able to take things easier. There are five other doctors these days.

Doors are seldom locked on the Magdalens because theft is unknown.

In recent yetirs the Magdalen Islands’ jail has had exactly one prisoner—an obstreperous drunk. During the depression a storekeeper who gave them too much credit was forced into bankruptcy, but as soon as fish prices rose his old customers pEiid every cent they owed him and put him back on his feet.

Madeleinots are not only honest, but temperate—except at weddings. They have no liquor stores, no cocktail lounges, no taverns.

No Polio, No Gas Tax

The islanders escape lots of things which plague mainlanders. They have no mosquitoes, no potato bugs, no hciy fever. No child has had polio. The common cold is uncommon. It is caught by associating with germ-laden mEiinlanders, who are few Eind ftir between in the winter when colds are prevalent.

They have no gasoline ttax. Authorities concluded thEit it would be a waste of time to try to collect this on the archipelago, where everybody is entitled to tEix-free gasoline for his fishing boat, and where there are not more than 200 or 300 automobiles Einyway.

They missed the annoyance of food rationing. It wouldn’t work where the folks had to buy a whole winter’s provisions in the fall.

A lot of them don’t own their land but rent it, even though their families have lived on the same farm for generations. This is because the whole archipelago was granted to Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin in 1788. The doughty old sea dog visited his miniature kingdom in 1806 and WEIS furious when Acadian squatters refused to accept him as lord and master. But he WEIS appeased

when they promised to pay him an annual rental of salt cod.

Coffin’s heirs sold the Magdalens to Eastern Canada Fisheries, Limited. Subsequently the land rights were acquired by Maurice L. Roy and others of Montreal. The inhabitants were offered the property at $1.50 an acre and many bought. Others lacked the ready cash and remained tenants. The rent, collected annually, is now money instead of fish 20 cents an acre.

There are no towns on the Magdalens

just scattered communities with here and there a group of stores and fish plants strung along the dirt road.

About 9,500 of the inhabitants are French-speaking, the rest Englishspeaking. There is no friction between the two races and their relations are friendly enough, but the English slick pretty much to themselves.

Entry Island, for instance, is all English. It had a remarkable war record. Of its 200 residents, more than 50 joined the armed forces. No male between Ihe ages of 17 and 50 was left at home. And when Hong Kong fell there were no dry eyes on Entry, because 14 of the men, including four brothers, had been captured by the Japanese. Eight of the 14 died.

In the winter Entry is even more isolated than other islands. I asked Gordon Welsh what he and his neighbors did for excitement in the icebound months. “That’s the best time,” he chuckled. “You just eat and sleep. It’s great.”

There is an English-speaking settlement on Grindstone. There is another at Old Harry, which dates back to the early 1800’s when a British man-of-war hove to and some sailors were sent in to pick blueberries fora pie-loving captain. One of the sailors, named Clark, was so

preoccupied with his berrypicking that he lost track of the passing hours. The ship sailed without him. He found a wife and populated Old Harry.

The French of the Magdalens are descended from Acadians who took refuge there after the expulsion. They speak the French equivalent of Elizabethan English. It is good French, pure French, but it isn’t twentieth-century French.

Their ancestors, as the first white settlers, did a thriving trade in ivory, for great herds of walrus descended on the islands periodically. The huge beasts were slaughtered for their tusks and blubber, until, at last, they came no more. Piles of walrus bones are often uncovered when the sand dunes shift and in dozens of homes there are tusks handed down from father to son.

Because of lighthouses and radio beacons, comparatively few ships are wrecked on the islands now, hut once the Magdalens competed with Sable Island as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The Madeleinots can say truthfully that some of their best families were washed up by the waves.

Since 1929 the Magdalens have had air mail in the winter—at ordinary postage rates. Of recent years they have also had summer air mail. The postal service to the Magdalens now costs about $40,000 a year; the revenue is less than $2,000.

The Madeleinots are now air minded. Mrs. John D. Buck of Grindstone was 86 when she took her first flight. She says she wouldn’t travel any other way.

And lobster fishermen are looking to aviation for better markets. Last June and July a considerable portion of their catch was flown alive to Boston. Loger T. Bourque, the mayor of Grindstone and the manager oí the Gros Cap Co-Operative, told me that more lobsters should he shipped by plane next year because “it delivers them faster and in better condition.”

The Bravery of Allen Clark

There are two characteristics which the islanders have above all others courage and kindness. It shows up in hundreds of ways, hundreds of incidents. But the best way 1 can explain what I mean is to tell how Allen Clark won the Carnegie medal for heroism and how Paul Chennell lost his fingers.

Chennell and Rube Welsh set out from Entry to Amherst in a motorboat in December. Their engine failed. After 48 hours of buffeting in heavy seas, they reached the Magdalen coast, but they couldn’t get ashore because they were both half dead and because weak ice had formed.

Allen Clark and Jack Keating saw them from shore. They found two long planks, then Clark tied a rope around his waist. Keating stayed on solid ground holding one end of the rope, to try to save Clark if worst came to worst, and Clark started over the thin ice, using the planks to keep him from breaking through. 11 was a slow, nerveracking business, hut after covering a quarter of a mile he reached Chennell and Welsh. Somehow, with the aid of the planks, he brought them in safely.

Big, rugged Paul Chennell was in very had shape. He had to he carried most of the distance. And, later, his frozen fingers had to he amputated.

You see, Rube Welsh war. a little fellow -just a kid. To keep him warm during the agonizing days and nights, when the temperature dropped below zero, Paul forced Rube to wear Paul’s thick mittens and heavy coat.

That’s how people are in the Magdalens, where the wind always blows.