The Magdalen Islands

by Serge Cote, GRIDEQ, Universite du Quebec a Rimouski

The archipelago of the Magdalen Islands (Iles de la Madeleine, in French) is located in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It is part of the province of Quebec of which the nearest mainland stretch - the Gaspe Peninsula - lies at 200 km west.

Permanent settlers started establishing on the islands as of the middle of the 18th century. The main group of settlers were Acadian refugees: a few hundred of them came from Miquelon in 1792 and 1793 in the aftermath of the Deportation. About two thirds of the present islanders are thought to be descendants of this original group of settlers.

The total area of the archipelago is rather limited (200km2). A large portion of the land is not suitable for human occupation (sand, marshes, etc.). On the remaining area, there are 14,000 inhabitants according to the 1991 census. Population growth amounted to 40% between 1951 and 1991. The territory of the archipelago is subdivided into eight municipalities out of which three number less than 1,000 inhabitants and two more than 3,000 persons. The population of the municipalities located at both ends of the archipelago is diminishing, whereas the two central islands (Havre aux Maisons and Cap aux Meules) are experiencing a brisk demographic growth. The overall population density is 69 inhab/km2. This population is composed of 94% French speaking people and 6% English speaking.

Even if the Magdalen Islands (M.I.) are better off than the Province of Quebec (P.Q.) as far as the participation rate is concerned (67.2% M.I. compared to 65.1% P.Q.), the unemployment rate is somewhat higher in the archipelago (22%) than in Quebec as a whole (12%). The ratio of full time workers with a year round job relative to the total work force is just 29% on the islands, whereas it reaches 53% in the province. Since the main economic sectors - fishing and tourism - have a sharp seasonal character, the bulk of employment is either part time or seasonal on the islands.

The mean household income (C$40,000 in 1991) is close to the provincial figure (C$41,000). The proportion of transfer payments (27%) in the personal income balance is about twice the provincial level. Nevertheless, Statistics Canada low income index for households in the archipelago (12.2%) is well below the provincial level (19.0%).

A tiny agricultural sector (vegetables, cattle) generates less than C$1,000,000 per year. A salt mine, which had been in operation for two decades, ceased its production two years ago. Saltwater infiltration made it unsafe. The shutdown meant a loss of 180 full-time jobs. A reopening is still possible, but the parent company has not made a decision yet as to invest in the required repairs.

The fishing industry is threatened by the moratorium imposed by the Canadian government on the catch of Atlantic cod. Fish plants have cut their operations severely over the past two years. The exception in this gloomy picture is the lobster fishery. Catches are pretty good and prices have remained relatively steady. The overall annual value of the fish and seafood catch averages C$17,000,000. Aquaculture is contemplated as an alternative to conventional fishing. The rather large lagoons of the archipelago are potential sites where some species could be raised. Small mussel farms have been established over the past few years.

Tourism is a growing industry. In the seventies some 20,000 tourists visited the Magdalens every year. In the nineties, over 30,000 flocked every year to the archipelago and spent more than C$16,000,000. The flow of visitors brings a certain amount of stress to the environment of the islands. Limited fresh water supplies are heavily tapped when so many visitors are present in the archipelago. All-terrain recreational vehicles damage dunes, disturb the habitat of birds and even cause harm to endangered species.

The islanders form a compact community. They have a keen sense of their uniqueness and place a high value on their traditions. For a number of reasons - linguistic specificities, pattern of sparse settlement, local dishes, etc. - they are seen by outsiders as different. Part of their identity relates to their Acadian ancestry. The symbols of their Acadian heritage are displayed with pride. The yellow starred blue, white and red Acadian flag is commonly seen on private properties. Many artists, writers and composers have taken Acadian tradition as an inspiration for their work.

The sense of Acadian identity is loosing ground as compared to what it was before the fifties. During the first half of the 20th century, the islanders’ life was dependent in many ways on ties and exchanges that existed between the archipelago and the neighbouring Maritime provinces where other people of Acadian origin lived. Supplies came from Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia; catches were sold to wholesalers located in Halifax and the local fishing co-operatives were affiliated with the United Maritime Fishermen (UMF) which then had a sizeable number of Acadian members. Young people wanting to get college education, would enrol in Acadian institutions located in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The Magdalens being part of the diocese of Charlottetown, the Catholic clergy serving in the archipelago often came from Acadian communities of Prince Edward Island. In the post-war period all these relationships with the Maritimes were eventually redirected toward mainland Quebec; the Magdalens were incorporated within the diocese of Gaspe by the end of the forties; the co-operatives left UMF and entered Pecheurs Unis du Quebec; the task of supplying the islands was taken over by Montreal merchants; the young people began to attend colleges and universities located in Quebec City, Rimouski or Gaspe.

While this reorganisation of commercial and institutional ties was taking place, a substantial change happened on the ideological scene in Quebec. In the post-war period the old French Canadian nationalism was redefined as quebecois nationalism. The Magdalenians, as the rest of the people in Quebec, were part of this process of strengthening the national quebecois identity. Their Acadian identity maintained itself but was pushed to the background and the quebecois identity occupied the forefront from then on.

Above all, the Magdalenians have a strong sense of belonging to their homeland. According to the census, 81% of the residents in the archipelago stayed at the same place in 1991 as five years before. The corresponding result for Quebec as a whole was 56%. The insular environment - physical, social and political - is conducive to cohesion in the community. Living in a situation of physical isolation and at a long distance from mainland, the islanders share a common experience of scarcity of services and lack of job opportunities. They also have to get along with fewer means at their disposal than would be otherwise expected. In this context, self-help and co-operation become a rule for everyday life. Any relationship with the “powers” of mainland, be they private businesses or political structures, creates an opportunity for islanders to stand together: they are well aware of the fact that if they do not speak in a united way, they will not be heard. Peculiarities of the insular situation have to be explained over and over again to outside people unfamiliar with the context of the archipelago.

Nevertheless, in spite of the service gap that may be noted in many areas of collective life, in some instances, the Magdalens paradoxically enjoy infrastructures and services that communities of similar size do not have. For example, there is a hospital and a post secondary education establishment in the archipelago: such infrastructures are unusual in communities of less than 15,000 inhabitants. Another instance is a sorting and composting unit for the treatment of domestic waste. The exiguity of the territory and the consequent lack of a suitable site for burying the waste, led to the decision of building such a unit two years ago. This could only be done with a considerable influx of outside money. The same happened with the construction of a diesel power plant a few years before.

In the eyes of many an analyst the Magdalen Islands would appear as an underdeveloped area because of their consistent history of high unemployment, lower income than national average, insufficient diversification of economic activity, etc. The Magdalenians have a different point of view on these realities. They feel their archipelago is a place worth living in and they agree to work hard to make it a better place. Their strong sense of community is undoubtedly an asset. The numerous associations that cover almost every aspect of social activity bring life to the milieu and make it receptive to new ideas as well as attractive to visitors. For instance the Musee de la Mer, while acting as a mirror that celebrates the history of the community and creates pride in it, has become a focus point for tourists and thus contributes to bring economic benefits to the archipelago. The huge success of the local FM station is remarkable. It is based on a very simple formula; islanders talking to islanders.

Many challenges await the Magdalenians if they want to enhance their development: diversification of the economy, more complete transformation of the fishing resources of the archipelago, adequate training of the existing and future work force (the youth), protection of the environment, etc. They have the will and the drive to do it. They control some of the means useful for them to set goals and harmonise them. For instance, they have set up an Economic Commission with the purpose of designing a development plan. They can count on their own Regional Municipality which regulates the use of land and plan for physical infrastructures in the archipelago.

These means will work efficiently in so far as the outside buttresses these efforts. Part of the solution to the development problems of the archipelago lies in the hands of upper tier governments as well as of outside private agents. Electricity, for example, is produced and distributed by a public provincial corporation. Other services, like telephone and air transportation, are controlled by outside private companies. In all these service sectors the eagerness of outside agents to invest and to modernise - Internet, for instance, does not run well on older telephone systems - will make the difference between, on the one hand, adequate up to date services that will make the Magdalens competitive and, on the other hand, a service and infrastructure gap that will leave the archipelago adrift.