Closeup/The Nation

Islands off the stream

Time hasn’t stood still. It’s run out

David Thomas July 25 1977
Closeup/The Nation

Islands off the stream

Time hasn’t stood still. It’s run out

David Thomas July 25 1977

Islands off the stream

Closeup/The Nation

Time hasn’t stood still. It’s run out

David Thomas

They rise discretely from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, low and humpbacked like a pack of lazy whales warming their hides under the sun of an early summer. Fifty miles northwest of Cape Breton and six hours by ferry from Prince Edward Island, the Iles de la Madeleine form a delicate archipelago, miles across the sea and generations away in time from mainland Quebec to which they belong. The islands are the purest remaining reserve of French Acadia and, at the same time, an isolated sanctuary for 950 descendants of British wanderers and seamen washed up from the wrecks of old sailing ships trapped by the Madeleines’ sandbars.

It is only 30 years since bridges and causeways were built to close the gaps in the long dunes linking all but one of the seven populated islands, and the quick, musical Acadien of the 12,000 Frenchspeaking Madelinots changes pitch and pronunciation from one to the next. The island chain nurtures unique and precarious balances of life whose only defense is isolation.

Now, for the Iles de la Madeleine, the outside is intruding. An accidental branch in the country’s tree of evolution is cracking under the weight of predators tearing at the Madeleines’ dependence on the sea, ripping into their mineral rich belly and hacking away at the fragile diversity of their inhabitants. Nowhere is that diversity more exotically evident than on tiny Entry Island, a plop of melting sandstone cut off from its neighbors by five miles of water and two centuries of history. All unilingually English, Entry’s residents hardly seem closer to their Madelinot neighbors than the passengers of a foreign steamer churning by through a thick fog.

Cecil Atkins isn’t sure just how many persons share the island with its storms and seagulls. And Atkins really ought to know since he’s the mailman, carrying over the stained, grey postal sack everyday from Havre-Aubert. His boat digs deeply into the chalky green sea, pressed down by the weight of an unexpected passenger and four 50-gallon barrels of gasoline. The fuel is for Entry’s 14 fishing boats and 50 cars and trucks which clack through the 2V2 miles of dirt troughs passing for roads.

Once his craft is secured to the jetty, the boatman points up toward the centre of the island, advising the curious visitor to check the population size at the Council House. Nothing distinguishes the Council House from any other, except its stout mistress who is part-time municipal secretary as well as a fisherman’s wife.

“Okay, let’s see,” she says, sweeping back the freshly peeled potatoes dampening the oilcloth on her kitchen table. A scrap of used envelope is flattened into the humid surface and the council secretary starts rhyming off names and numbers with the familiarity of a sports announcer: “Up the road, there’s Bruce and Herman and Joyce and Gary—that’s four.” The figure is carefully marked on the envelope, soon to be patterned with six neat columns, one for each micro neighborhood nesting on the south slope of Entry Island. There’s Gull Point, back on the hill, down in the valley, up the road, out the road and in the road. They seem delimited more by notions of community than topography and appear, to the stranger, unnecessary geographical precisions for a settlement whose total population, as the secretary’s addition reveals, is only 171. And that’s including the nurse and school teachers who,

she cautions, should perhaps be excluded because they’re “from away.”

It’s a distinction dripping with distrust and it reminds the woman that she is dealing with an outsider. “I don’t want my name in no magazine,” she insists, cutting off talk. “I seen too many times where everything gets all twisted.” She refuses to explain but no doubt she, like all Madelinots, has been wounded by lacrimose journalists who come each spring to cry over the hunt for newborn seals, exposing the islanders as savage killers. The seal season means the first time in months the men can forgo unemployment insurance cheques and, a fact the reporters never bother with, Madelinot fishermen are closer to extinction than the seal herds.

But, for the moment, life is good. The seals and journalists have migrated away, the lobster season is at its peak and six or seven chunky plow horses pluck at the green shoots poking through the stubble spreading down from the dainty Anglican Church to Entry’s storybook lighthouse, balanced like a juggler’s cane where the island’s red cliffs drop to the sea.

Fences have long tumbled and, with no trees to replace them, private fields have melded into a sort of agricultural common. But by June first, under a bylaw passed to ensure a hay supply, the animals must limit their grazing to the upper reaches of the island, up behind Ivan Quinn’s store.

No sign identifies the store, stocked with just enough to qualify it as a grocery and, under Quebec law, make it eligible to sell beer. A beer permit might well promote a healthy change in habits on Entry Island where the absence of bars, combined with long stretches of winter isolation, has made vanilla extract a basic staple—and not for

flavoring milkshakes. “When Entry Islanders drink,” says a Madelinot from one of the French islands, “they smell like a baking cake.”

For visitors, the welcoming Quinn keeps a bottle of liquor store rum under the counter.

Quinn, it turns out, is also mayor of Entry and can surveyjust about the whole settlement from his small, 95-year-old home,' the oldest on the island, which he shared with his mother until her death last winter. A bulging St. Bernard flops down to flow over the floor of Quinn’s kitchen as he enters to heat coffee. A scarcity of ground common to the islander and his visitor cripples conversation but, after several false starts, Quinn grabs the initiative: “Here, by, I’ll show you something you’ve never seen before.” Leading the way to the sitting room, he points toward a collection of browning photographs clinging to the wall. Out of focus soldiers in new uniforms look out across time and death from many of the pale photos, snapped by the troubled wives and mothers of the 50 young men who left Entry to fight, 14 of them to be taken at Hong Kong and eight to perish as prisoners of the Japanese.

But the picture under Quinn’s aim shows three thin women of indeterminate age standing in a rigid row, their tinted bodies withering to white below the waist, severed by the faulty shutter of a primitive Brownie. “See that lady there, that one. That’s Lydia McLean,” Quinn announces, preparing for the revelation to come. “I was three years old when she was buried and I’m 49 now.” Quinn suddenly bends, seizes the leg of a chair standing below the photograph and, with a practised twist, swings it upside down to expose, fused to the frame, a burnished lump the size of a dime. “That,” he proclaims triumphantly, “is her gum. It’s been there 50 years. It’s going to stay there too,” promises the mayor, polishing the petrified bump with his thumb.

Only an islander, or an outsider privy to their anxieties, can understand the determination of Quinn’s vow to defend a spot

of dried chewing gum. Five years ago a team of development consultants dropped by, looked around and recommended Entry islanders be shifted off their uneconomical rock which, they decided, could more profitably be converted into a sanctuary for fowl and bird-watching tourists. The same actuarial whizzes were responsible for the Quebec government’s destruction of a dozen Gaspesian villages judged to be unjustifiable burdens to the state. Those razings have entered Quebec folklore as administrative Mylais, but no one from the government has bothered to tell Entry islanders whether they have been reprieved or should continue to suspect the intentions of every visiting official.

A forced move to the French Madeleines would brutally smash a tribal survival mechanism that, after two centuries of living next to and doing business with a majority 10 times their size, has kept Entry islanders purely, unilingually English. Every time an islander takes a Frenchspeaking mate, he or she quits Entry.

“You know as well as 1 do,” Quinn explains, “if an English married a French, well, you might as well commit murder.” French and English fishermen preserve a linguistic segregation impervious to the electronics that have wedded continents. French fishermen tune their CB radios to the universally accepted channel nine for emergency calls; the English restrict their emergencies to channel 11.

Bilingualism has been the burden of the French Madelinots who, until finally freed by Maurice Duplessis only 20 years ago, lived under English masters in North America’s last feudal state. As late as 1903, the whole Madeleine chain was sold, to Eastern Canada Fisheries Limited, by the Coffin family, descendants of a British officer. The islands and their inhabitants have been treated as prizes to be exploited since the first European traders came to exterminate the great walrus herds reported by Jacques Cartier, and then the flightless great auk. Once shaded by stands of spruce and scrubby pine, the Madeleines were shaved bald to provide wood for boats and

homes, and attempts to replant were washed away by winds so strong and constant that Madelinots are often treated foi hearing losses caused by the air whistling across their ears. The sea, too, is an implacable aggressor, clawing at the soft red sandstone supporting the islands. Arches, pedestals and caverns are carved, then crushed by the waves.

Life has not been much kinder to the Madeleines’ Acadians whose forefathers were bounced around the gulf from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and Labrador, before falling to the centre of their orbit, the Iles de la Madeleine. Their seigneurs remained British and English-speaking authority continues through the fish companies whose U.S. head offices decide who will work and how much they will be paid. General Mills decided last fall its fleet of six trawlers and the Madeleines’ biggest packing plant at Capaux-Meules were no longer worthwhile because of diminishing fish stocks. Quebec’s new PQ government was forced to buy the lot for one million dollars to keep the plant alive. Unemployment in the dead of winter is 90% and even at the height of the fishing and road patching season never ducks below 50%.

Part of the Madelinot economic malady may be traced to the stifling prohibition against their outright ownership of land

until 1958. Entrepreneurial initiative remains scarce and farming, once enough to sustain the island along with the sea, is declining. Fields go uncultivated while the supply of live meat and hay relies on traders like Henri and Cecille Marcoux. Overloading their old truck near Quebec City with seven steers, as many pigs, four ponies and a pair of young goats, the couple drives down through New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, floats across to Prince Edward Island, where they cover the load with 60 bales of hay and board the Madeleine ferry at Souris. “They could grow all they need on the islands,” says Henri who will sell the hay for as much as two dollars a bale, more than double its cost, “but nobody’s interested.” Cecille concedes that steady work is alien to the rhythm of Madelinot life and, with livestock transport banned by the ferry company during the peak of the tourist season and no boats at all in the winter, the Marcoux have adapted. “We never thought of taking unemployment insurance on the outside but here, well, you do like everyone else.”

The Marcoux, like most, scramble for a few months work, enough to win unemployment benefits, before the cold shuts down virtually all activity by jamming the islands in a pack of unbreachable ice. There is a certain freedom from ambition. But the dole economy has its weaknesses. At least a few weeks work are needed to qualify and this year the old General Mills plant leased by the government to the cooperative United Fishermen of Quebec doesn’t have the fish to employ workers long enough to collect the required stamps. The penury has destroyed part of the Madelinot social contract which, when the factories were busy from April to May, meant that jobs were rotated, each woman staying just long enough to earn unemployment for the winter.

Quebec is hoping to generate a spirit of initiative next year by turning a major

share of the plant over to ownership and management by the fishermen and other Madelinots, but everyone realizes the traditional fishery is gasping its last. The one sea resource already harvested more like an annual crop than a hunted prey, lobster, is the last lucrative catch for the islanders and, with its reputation in New York and Boston as the planet’s best, a lure for tourists who repress any preference for Holiday Inn convenience.

From May to July in Havre-Aubert, steam rises from the National Sea Products plant as crates of lobster are winched to the factory wharf. There clawing animals are snapped in two by men wearing armoured mittens and then, broken torsos still writhing, dunked in fuming vats. Inside, 100 women surround stainless steel tables, separating the meat, sorting the freezers from the canners. The best is frozen in plastic sacks labeled in French and German and aimed toward Switzerland.

The prettiest of the villages, Havre-Aubert has done the most, with a marine museum operated by the curé and a proud family restaurant, to make tourism a worthwhile supplement to the sinking fishery.

But one day in May the ferry from PEI delivered a cargo that could poison the buds of Havre-Aubert’s tourism venture. A flatbed truck rolled off the ship with a load of rock drill lubricant and delivered it the next day to a shingled shed near the Havre-Aubert dock. Quebec’s stateowned mining outfit Soquem will poke holes near the village to test the wealth of potassium deposits and, if they prove commercially worthwhile, mines will follow. However not many tourists will pay their way to Havre-Aubert to see the island’s guts wrenched inside out.

Forty miles northeast along the dunes, the threat of mining to the human and ani-

mal life of the Madeleines is already evident. Soquem has been at work since March punching a 700-feet shaft into a massive deposit of salt at Grosse-Ile, salt destined to be spread over the winter roads of mainland Quebec. It is of scant consolation to Grosse-Ile the main concentration of Madelinot English—that Soquem plans to power the mine with ecologically soft windmills if Hydro-Quebec’s new prototype—at 122 feet the tallest in the world—delivers enough electric power to outperform diesel generators. The windmill and a test span of an experimental transmission line rise from the Dune du Sud in a science fiction setting worthy of Stanley Kubrick.

The fishermen are concerned by plans to thrust a salt loading terminal into the critical lobster spawning zone, the womb of the fishery that brought them an average $10,000 each last year. Soquem promises its mine will mean about 150 jobs, but only half of them going to Madelinots and the language of work, quite naturally, would be that of the Madelinot majority. In any case, says Mayor Tom Burke after a special Sunday council meeting called to worry over the project, “There won’t be many from Grosse-Ile will go down a mine. We’re fishermen, born and brought up on the sea.” The council wants a thorough study of the salt mine’s consequences.

Although a study has been promised by the Quebec government, Burke is skeptical: “We can’t see that the provincial government is going to give us a study that’s not biased. They’re going to be digging the salt out and they’re the ones that’ll be buying it.” The same government has reserved the eventually mined out salt galleries for some kind of storage. Petroleum stocks maybe, or perhaps the caverns might be used as reservoirs of compressed air, pumped in by surplus windmill power and then tapped through generating turbines when needed. Other Hydro-Quebec engineers have more sinister schemes. Salt mines are the best, but still inadequate graveyards for radioactive garbage from atomic power stations.

An environmental study won’t be ready for months, but the impact of the mine is becoming obvious to Burke as he paces the site. Sand tom from a high dune has been dumped into Grande Entrée Lagoon to support the heavy equipment. A wide arc of red surveyor’s stakes marks the expanse of lagoon still untouched but due for imminent burial. Just beyond the stakes, a pair of tall herons pick their way through the tidal shallows, while a bit further out a lone black cormorant surfaces after a futile dive.

The cormorant and the herons won’t be around much longer. The lobsters, the tourists and the visions of fish farming in the lagoons may have to make way too. It depends on the Madelinots, whether they will take charge of their islands or, again, leave them to the whims of those “from away.” QZ