The French Islands Saint Pierre and Michelon

 

 

Saint Pierre and Michelon have been under French control since the sixteenth century, but for a short period when the French left the island under terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, the English then controlled the islands from the early 17th century until the French returned in 1763.   Originally, settled by Basque fisherman, it became important as a fishing center and was a rather prosperous village for the fishermen who lived there.   Today, it remains as the only vestige of France located in North America.    

But, as in Newfoundland, the industry suffered from over fishing and Canada then imposed quotas on Saint Pierre and Michelon that seriously and permanently impacted the fishing industry on the islands.   These islands also served an important purpose during the prohibition era.   The islands were used extensively to move or smuggle liquor into the United States by the likes of non other than Al Capone.  

To be sure, life is not easy here, the climate is damp and windy, and the winters are as hard as they are long.  Similar to Newfoundland the spring and early summer is foggy, but summer and early fall is a most pleasant time to visit as well as live here on the islands.  During this short period, their economy depends on tourism, fish farming, crab fishing and very limited agriculture to sustain their economy.    

The French government also provides funding to the islands that directly supports their economy and ensures their continued existence.   The Euro is the official means of exchange as it is the formal currency of France.    

Beside Saint Pierre, the bigger island of Michelon and Langlade are actually two islands that were joined by an immense sandbar during the 18th century.   And, there are also some small islands that were used during the high period of the fishing industry.   The land on these islands is generally bare and rocky, with almost no topsoil except for a thin layer of peat.   The shore line is steep and the only good harbor is located at Saint Pierre. 

There are roughly 6400 people living on the islands, with 5600 of them on the island of Saint Pierre.   Approximately 2000 of the inhabitants are permanent or long term residents with their family ancestry dating back to about the seventeenth century.   The remaining population is employed by the French government for administrative purposes and is sent here for periods of from one to three years of duty.   Even the policemen, who provide security for the islands, are brought in for a one year tour of duty.

 

Catamaran to Saint Pierre

Saint Pierre Countryside

Because the French government subsidizes the islands financially and as any individual who is dependent on another, the people of the islands have tense relations with France.   The believe that France that did not protect their interests relative to the negotiations with Canada about their fishing rights.     

Almost all supplies are shipped from France via Halifax, Nova Scotia to the islands.  But, more recently France has let the islands purchase some necessary items such as eggs, milk, fruit and vegetables directly from Canada and from the United States. 

The ferry system is the primary means of “getting there’, but a new airport on Saint Pierre now accepts planes as large as a Boeing 737 that arrive from the Canadian cities of St John’s, Halifax, Moncton, Toronto and oddly enough one from Havana, Cuba.   A longer runway is planned for the future which will then make direct flights to and from France a possibility.  The ferries cease running to the islands sometime in October and then the only means of getting to the islands is by plane. 

They have no newspaper and they depend on cable television from Canada and satellite television from France.   Schools are up through high school and students then go to France for a free University education.    

            We stayed at the Hotel Robert, which is considered the best of the hotels, of which there were only about three hotels, in Saint Pierre.  It was quite warm and humid and there are no air conditioned rooms available anywhere on the island, but then I am told it is never needed.   The restaurants in town were all excellent, but we thoroughly enjoyed our dinner at a small Basque restaurant.   

            The streets were filled with cars as they drove through the small streets of Saint Pierre.  In fact there are about 4,000 cars on the island for a population of only 5,600 people.   There are only two gas stations on the island of Saint Pierre with gasoline priced at about $5.50 a gallon (American).    

Religion on the islands is ninety-five percent Catholic and there is only one church on the island.   Crime is almost nonexistent, but then where would anyone hide if they were to commit a crime.   Power on the island is produced from Diesel generators and there has been some testing of the use of wind generators as well.    

The island of Saint Pierre is ten square miles and there is but one cemetery which has family plots assigned and permits up to four burials in one plot.   Over the years, locals have erected summer only bungalows on the far side of this relatively small island, but more recently modern homes have been constructed for year round living.   

Food served at the seven or eight small bistros is decidedly of French style…in fact everything on the islands reflects French tradition and culture.  Prices were generally slightly on the high side of what you would pay for food, except for wine which was quite reasonable.    

I had the good fortune to have breakfast both days with the eighty-one year old woman who owns our hotel and her eighty year old friend who arrives each morning for coffee.  They regaled us with stories of a time when they were children and life was quite good….fishing was abundant and life in Saint Pierre was better than in France.  Most family life was built around fishing boats and the curing of fish for shipments to other parts of the world.   Besides fishing, their fathers were engaged in one way or another with the shipment of liquor during the prohibition era.

 

Saint Pierre Lighthouse

Saint Pierre Family Cemetery