Day 831: France’s West Wing – Saint Pierre & Miquelon

originally published April 10, 2014

If I were to ask you how far away France was located from Canada, the well-travelled among you might answer 3000 miles. The hopelessly cheesy among you might answer “only as far away as my lover’s eyes.” And those among you who value accuracy and specificity would come up with twelve.

Twelve miles. In a peppy little motorboat it would take you about twenty minutes. That won’t get you to the street-crepes of Paris of course, but it will take you to the shores of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, a small archipelago just off the coast of the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland. These eight little islands are the last vestige of pre-Canada and pre-America, when England and France (and to a lesser extent the Dutch and the Portuguese – anyone else who wanted a slice of New World pie) were jostling for control over the continent.

Because of their tasty position on the front porch of North America, these little islands were significant slabs of valuable real estate. They also played a tiny but significant part in the history of our continent, despite never officially belonging to either Canada or the United States. Let’s pull up a historical lawn chair and see if these little water-logged land-specks are worth fighting over.

By the time the Europeans dropped by Saint Pierre and Miquelon, no one was calling the place home. Native artifacts were eventually scraped from under the soil, but when Jacques Cartier and his French buddies swung by in 1536, the islands were empty. Even when the white folk showed up, the islands became little more than an overnight campground for cod fishers who were pillaging the sea creatures off the coast of what is now Canada. It took until around 1670 for the first year-round settlers to call the place home.

Miquelon is the larger island – actually made up of two slabs of ground connected by a sandy isthmus (I know – Sandy Isthmus sounds like the name of a girl who’ll sell you herbal supplements from her boyfriend’s van). But Saint Pierre is where the action has always been. Even today, the smaller island hosts close to ten times the number of residents of Miquelon, which consists mostly of vacant earth. Back in the 1690’s, there were close to 200 people calling the place home. Then along came the British to spoil the party.

Throughout King William’s War (1689-1697) and Queen Anne’s War (1702-1712) the Brits unleashed no fewer than five attacks on the archipelago. When the latter war wrapped up and the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713, the French handed the keys over to the British – though I’m sure the British were more stoked about snagging the entirety of Newfoundland in the same deal. A number of the French residents took off for more franco-friendly climes while others remained and swapped out the flag on their proverbial porch. Hey, as long as there’s fish to snag and a nice slab of land to call home, who cares who’s in charge?

The Seven Years’ War took its toll on French forces and all but quashed their presence along North America’s east coast. When it wrapped up in 1763, they pleaded with the Brits to honor the Treaty of Utrecht and allow their fishermen to use the area as a refuge after a day’s trawling. After checking out the massive scope of land already proudly waving the Union Jack, the British decided to allow the French to dry out their catch along the shores of Newfoundland and – what the hell, they could have all of Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

When the French supported the Americans in the Revolutionary War, the Brits got their revenge by burning everything on Saint Pierre and Miquelon to the ground and scooting the islands’ residents back to France. The resilient French – and these must have been wanted criminals or something because I can’t imagine why people kept returning to this perpetual war zone – started rebuilding again in 1783. Then came the French Revolution, and while the population of Saint Pierre and Miquelon were figuring out their loyalties (the royalist Acadians mostly took off), the Brits came and took over the island once more, mostly because the new French government had declared war on the UK.

These poor islands were being lobbed back and forth between these two empires like a warped Frisbee.

In 1796 a formidable attack by French forces sunk 80 British vessels around the islands. Finally the British said, “By Jove, fuck it,” and deserted the islands completely. Even when the end of hostilities in 1802 technically returned control of the islands to the French, it took until after Napoleon was ousted in 1815 for the French fishermen to once again set foot on this land. They had been completely deserted for nearly 20 years. The islands soon prospered, and this became the status quo throughout the 1800’s.

The agreement between France and England was that the French could dry their fish along the Newfoundland coast but they were not allowed to build any permanent structures. Due to what appears to be an unwritten rule of history that people will always do the opposite of what they’re supposed to, a number of French settlements began speckling the shores of Newfoundland. Naturally, this pissed people off.

England agreed in 1857 to allow French settlements to thrive along the coast. The Newfoundland government – keep in mind, we’re still ten years away from Canada being an official thing – said no, them shores be some shocking good meducky (this is how Newfoundlanders talk – I know, it’s a little confusing). They passed laws to restrict bait sales to the French, and after a few decades of heated haggling, the French abandoned any claims to Newfoundland turf by 1904. But they still had their little islands.

Prohibition paid off for Saint Pierre and Miquelon. The islands’ economy had taken a huge hit from the advent of steam ships, which allowed people to comfortably forego stopping there on their way to and from North America. But now they were the perfect stopping point for bootleggers transporting illegal booze from Canada to the American east coast. Bill McCoy and Al Capone each set up a home base there – a local bar in Saint Pierre still boasts a souvenir hat that Capone wore there back in the 1820’s.

In World War II the islands remained loyal to Vichy France, and since then they have comfortably existed as a distant outpost of their home nation. They manage their own economy and issue their own stamps, but while they’ll happily take Canadian loonies for goods and services, the Euro is their standard currency. They primarily speak French (European, not Quebecois French) and the local culture is clearly influenced by their roots.

A few interesting bits of trivia about Saint Pierre and Miquelon:

  • Residents love ice hockey, and while they frequently compete in Newfoundland leagues, a number of players from the islands have shown up on the French national team in the Olympics.
  • The only time the guillotine was ever used in North America was when Saint-Pierre resident Joseph Néel killed a guy in 1888.
  • There are street names on the islands, but most locals don’t use them. Instead they give directions using nicknames and the names of other residents. Also, Google hasn’t yet shipped their street-view car over to Saint-Pierre, so we really can’t get the experience of walking through the town.

It might be worth planning a trip though.

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