Monday, 4 January 2016
The Magdalen Islands, Part 2
The Quaint People of the Lonely
By W. Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, March, 1911. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, January 2016.
While looking around for a map of the Islands, I came across this great blog on Magdalen Islands /drf
THE memories that cling to one after a holiday on the
Islands, those far-east insular
possessions of ,
are not of the scenery, nor of the accommodation, nor even of the purity of the
breezes unsullied by any of the products of modern industry and haste. It is
the remembrance of the people themselves that recalls the visit with pleasure,
carrying with it even yet a tinge of the peace and tranquillity that hangs over
everything from Canada
to “Old Harry,” and wraps the visitor in an atmosphere of rest and
quiet happiness. Amherst
Long in my memory will remain the eagerness of the simple, kind-hearted Islanders to give the “writer-man” little bits of history and incident, after one of them happened to catch me making notes. For some time I was glad to return this kindness by turning my camera on scenes interesting only to the one making the request, jotting down the name and address that I might send back the completed photograph after I had developed my plates.
My first experience of their knowledge of the use of the leather case I carried was when a Frenchman sidled up to me on the road with the question in very broken English: “ ’Scuse me, you the picture-man?”
When I grasped his meaning and confessed, he followed it up without hesitation.
I admitted I had.
“What you charge to take pictures of my house and me and my family?”
I told him I would be glad to send him a few prints without charge.
“But you not down here to make money that way?” he answered politely.
My offer was almost my undoing. Like everything on the
news must have spread rapidly that there was someone there who would take
pictures for nothing. After I had taken a half-dozen on the same terms, in
answer to the same question of how much I would charge, I was forced to
deceive my trusting friends in order to protect myself from running out of
plates and film packs. Having a plate camera, I was able to go through all the
ceremony of arranging the subject, viewing it from every angle, carefully
adjusting the focus, manipulating the tripod, and pressing the bulb with the
click that told them it was all over—but the slide was not removed.
It was characteristic of the impression their confidence and trust imparted that I should feel like a criminal every time I did it, while they washed up the faces of at least a portion of the children, gave me their names to enter in my note-book, and repaid me with a closer inspection of the baby or by remaining around to forestall any such desire I might feel.
In my list of names there are many curiosities that are peculiar to the Magdaleners. One man, the one who is standing so stiff and straight in the fish-splitting picture, is called Joe Burke, P. As the only man available who could speak a word of English I had some difficulty in understanding that the “P” stands for Peter in his father’s name, there being several Joe Burkes. Another of the same name is called Joe Anizim Burke, the middle name being that of his father.
After all, the Islander is a French-Canadian; that is why the population of the
is increasing so rapidly that some must soon get out into the world. One woman
whose picture I was taking brought only three children into the centre front.
“How is it,” I asked with the careless freedom that comes so easily down there, “how is it that you have such a small family compared with your neighbours?”
“We’ve only been married four years,” she answered in hasty defence.
But one occupation is known to the Islanders—fishing in its various branches, including sealing and trapping lobsters. Between times a little farming can scarcely be termed an occupation. Sealing is the most picturesque and dangerous of the efforts of the Magdaleners to add to their season’s earnings. In the early spring, while the ice-floes are breaking up, the seals come close to the shore and the promise of a few pelts, the first of the year’s earnings, sends many a fisherman to his death. The shifting winds break up the floes without warning, and unless the fishermen can reach shore in their tiny seal-boats, a combination sleigh and boat, which they drag after them on the ice, they are never heard of again.
And even when they escape the certain death of drifting floes they may return with the first stages of the throat and lung troubles that are so disastrous on the Islands, swept as they are with the cold, damp winds of winter and spring.
Each year the catch of seal is diminishing with more or less regularity. At one time the catch for the whole
Islands amounted to 45,000, and the
pelts were worth four and a half cents a pound. Last, spring (1910) only 4.000
were caught, worth one and a half cents a pound, the fat of all of which is
being tried out in the vats shown in one of the illustrations. In 1909 the
quick breaking up of the ice prevented the capture of any. But in 1908, with
the ice going out slowly, the catch was the best for many years—17,000 pelts. But even
in this, so early in his year’s work, the Islander is at a disadvantage.
Working from the shore with but his tiny seal-boat, and controlled by the state
of the weather, he is forced to stand on the shore and watch the Newfoundland
steam sealers run along the outer edge of the floes, killing as they go,
securing the bulk of the seal long before the Magdalener dare venture out. Last
boat killed 30,000 seal and could secure but 13,000, as the ice broke up before
it could collect them. Newfoundland
The plan of sealing is to kill the seal, erect a stake topped with cloth over the pile, and continue the killing until a load is secured, leaving the collecting until this is accomplished. It would be a just protection for the Islanders were they insured their own seal by prohibiting outside sealers.
After the seal are gone, except the bay seal that swim gracefully around the bays all year, the fisherman turns to the herring. Ten or a dozen invest in a seine boat and work together with large seine nets. All of these boats from one harbour place their earnings in a common fund and divide at the end of the season. Last spring the boats at
made $300 each, which, divided among a dozen men, means little for their work.
The herring caught are largely sold to the Bankers (fishermen from the Banks of
Newfoundland), or the trawlers (the steam fishermen of the outer waters), at
eighty cents to a dollar a barrel, or to the smokers at fifty cents a barrel. Amherst
The lobster season continues for two months to the first week in July and again for a month in the fall. The Magdalen Islands arc probably the best lobster grounds in the world, due somewhat to the enforcement of the closed season by a Government tug, and partially to the dislike of the Islander for breaking the law or anything else that requires unusual exertion. Out of season the shores are piled with the lobster traps, convenient for setting out in the bottom of the ocean at the next season. Lobster factories dot the coast, all under the control, as in the entire fishing industry, of a few merchants who have made themselves wealthy through the simplicity of the fisherman.
The fishing is confined entirely to cod and mackerel, the former being the stand-by, but the latter the choice fish. And here again the fishermen show their preference for the easier task. There is not any more money in mackerel, but the fishing is lighter when a four-pound fish is at the end of the line than if it were a fifty-pound cod. Every day after the mackerel season opens the fishermen first try for mackerel, and only failing in that do they change their bait and resign themselves to the other fish that are just waiting to be pulled out.
One day I watched as a day’s catch of 3,200 pounds of cod, worth $40, was weighed out; but the fishermen looked longingly at their neighbour’s catch of mackerel, worth less than half their own day’s work. Perhaps it was because the mackerel is such a pretty, clean fish compared with the flabby phlegmatic cod.
Unsensitive as one is to it when there, viewed from the standpoint of Western life the Islander is slow of action, of ambition and of thought. And combined with this there is a surprising cowardice on the water. One is inclined to think that the failure of the fishermen to take advantage of what appears to be a fine day for fishing is that it will allow them to loaf picturesquely around the cod flakes, while the girls carry and turn the drying cod, or leisurely paint a new water-line on their little boats. A cloud in the sky, an imitation thunderstorm at the time the boats leave in the early morning, or a wind that would mean a little tacking to reach the cod grounds, is sufficient to keep every boat in. It never happens that, one boat goes without all. They work on principle, not on personal feelings.
For two nights I lay awake waiting for the call of the fishermen with whom I had arranged to spend the day at the fishing-grounds. At
the boats were accustomed to leave at one o’clock in the morning, and as a
little thunder happened to come at midnight not a boat, would leave that day.
The next night I waited again, wondering what would be the excuse that time. At
2 a.m. I dressed and appeared at the beach, only to find that the boats had
left at midnight. The fisherman explained later that he had not called me
because he did not think I would like to get up so early. I learned from one
who was not a fisherman that it was the climb up the hill to the house where I
stayed that had frightened the man. Amherst
None of the fishermen learn to swim. When asked what they did if they upset or were blown into the breakers, they looked at me with surprise that I should ask.
“Sink,” answered the one who could speak English most fluently, after a moment’s thought.
I lost my anxiety to accompany them fishing. I could imagine them sinking in preference to striking out.
When the day is bad they hang around the stores and cod-flakes hurling their ancient French at one another in paragraphs, and apparently missing none of it. Some of them will spend the day on their boats, cleaning up, at their little farms if the women cannot finish the work, or with their tiny French ponies and home-made carts, digging clams for bait along the shore.
At Grindstone only lobster fishing is carried on, the fishing-grounds being too far distant to be reached each day. During the months of July and August the men can be seen leisurely making repairs to their houses in preparation for the winter winds, or cultivating the small gardens they possess. With the desire for companionship and for making the work light, they work in gangs, much after the fashion of “bees” in
rural districts. But there is little resemblance to the proverbial bee in their
actions. On the roof of a small verendah I counted eight able-bodied men
shingling. Not one had to move except upwards as he finished his share of the
And while the fishermen smoke and lean on the cod-flakes thousands of tons of hay go to waste all over the
Islands. A couple of dollars as a bribe to
catch a few lobsters out of season for private use brought three of the crabs;
it was lonesome out drawing in the traps alone. It was unfortunate that the
swimming beach was across a small bay, for it was impossible to tempt an idle
fisherman to row his dory except for fish. When one comes to think of it, of
what use is money to people who know nothing of modern luxuries and who could
not be bought to leave the Islands?
It is fortunate that with this idea of business they are not called upon to compete with the outside world. When I handed a husky fisherman a quarter for carrying my trunk from the wharf he looked dubiously at it with his hand in his pocket wondering what change he should give. On leaving the
repeated the operation and he was still more bewildered. He thought that I had
engaged him for the trip. Incidentally he had shouldered the trunk and dropped
down to the wharf, negotiating a cliff that I could scarcely manage with my
Except among the English, there are few adults with sufficient education to read or write; and those who can are duly respected. The clergy consists of four priests and one Anglican clergyman. In the course of his duties the latter is forced to drive thirty-five miles one Sunday and sail fifteen the next. For eighteen years Father Blaquiere, the head of the priests, has lived among these people; how many more he will labour is determined only by his days on earth. For ten years he has been building a church to seat 1,400, and is just this year able to look forward to the expenditure of the $4,000 that is necessary to purchase the seats. The Father is a factor in the life of the
a pastor of his people, a friend of everybody and wrapped up in his church and
the peculiar demands of the fisher-folk.
A sick man has to send to Grindstone or
House Harbour, central points on the Islands,
but fifteen to twenty miles distant by water from the east and west ends. The
duties of the two doctors are strenuous, darting here and there among the
Islands in sail or motor boats (of which latter there are six), driving over
the long sand wastes, and attempting to attend to the wants of eight thousand
people. In appearance but fishermen themselves, their work would scarcely pass
muster in . Toronto
The other lucky possessor of education is made the General Official of the
on which he lives. At one Island an escaped French soldier, with a nervous
reticence about himself that would convict him in any court, is clerk of the
court, magistrate, registrar, notary public, post-master. That was all there
was to give him. The Grindstone scholar is most of these things with the
addition of inspector of the public schools and agent for the boat.
Law is an outside force for which there is no demand or liking on the
Up to recent years the Magdaleners existed without a representative of the
Provincial authorities, without court or jail. They got the jail but few
prisoners. During my visit, one prisoner, a young fellow who had stolen some
money-order forms from the post-office, was the lonesome prisoner. Tried by the
magistrate, who was also the post-master, he was sentenced to the unique
position he occupied.
I was privileged to attend the annual court—at least to witness the opening and closing ceremonies, for there were no cases. There had been two in sight, but the awful majesty of the ordeal had induced each to yield what the other would not. A Government boat came all the way from
with the judge, a senator on a jaunt, his brother, a city magistrate, and two
lawyers, one the son of the judge. A wire told of the coming of another lawyer
from Pictou on that day’s boat, to take cases undefended. The sheriff read a
paper in French, the judge said something in the same language, the senator
leaned over and told me something else, and the boat was ready to return on its
thirty-six-hour trip. There are breaches of the law among the Islanders—it is
not possible that so many people could live without offence—but they are much
more lenient with delinquents than where the police court is a convenient club. Gaspe
An old fisherman was complaining that his trolls were gone. A sympathetic listener inquired how they had been lost, and could he remember where.
“How?” the old fellow repeated with some show of spirit. Then he quieted down. “Well, there was a lobster fisherman around there, and when he left the trolls left too.”
Rare as is the tourist, two boarding-houses provide accommodation for the commercial or sight-seeing traveller—one at Grindstone and the other at
. The four elderly spinsters at
Amherst, who have built a large house on the point called after their father—Shea’s Point—are continuing the
welcome for the traveller that was furnished by their mother to the writer of
two articles in the twenty-five-year-old magazine discovered in the Toronto
reference library. The quaintly old-fashioned interior, with beautiful hooked
rugs, handmade doilies, tidies and cushion covers, is a bit of life that
passed away many years ago elsewhere in Canada. On the ornate organ rest the beloved
favourites of twenty years ago and yet strangely new for the
surroundings—“After the Ball,” “Break the News to Mother,” “Maiden’s Prayer,”
and “Sweet Marie.” For the last thirty years the grateful visitor has been
pleased to leave behind him a record of his visit in an old album. The cheery
“nice fine evening” of the four sisters is one of the clinging memories of the Amherst Islands—an echo of their wish for all their guests.
The hygienic bovine that has been trained in all the latest improvements on nature’s crudeness is unknown amid the rank, long grass that covers the
Some of us remember similar milk and cream, but it is only a memory. Add to
this 100 per cent. cream a diet of buttermilk, fish, lobsters, eggs, cake at
all meats, chicken, canned and fresh pickles of unknown variety, and there is
no reason for the most affected tourist to plead plaintively, “Not what I’m
used to at home, you know.”
The winter life is still a mystery to me. Asked how they fill in the long five months when their world is bounded by the wild waves of the Gulf, the Islander is too surprised to paint the picture so that another can understand. The younger generation has introduced the graphophone, and it was rather startling after a long walk in the primitive quaintness of the outside life to hear one night the strains of “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?”, followed immediately by “The Cubanola Glide.” The Grindstone boarding-house could boast of two hundred records, but then one of the girls had been to school in
But what was far more interesting to me as showing the real winter life of those who had maintained the old-time simplicity on the Islands, were the closely-hooked rugs, more than an inch thick and destined to last a century unless the modem buffalo moth be introduced, the framed pictures, both frame and picture made from tiny, many-coloured sea shells, and the old-fashioned tidies that adorned the backs of chairs. And I could picture the old people sitting by the fire-place knitting and hooking rugs, while the younger generation, already reaching out for a different life, danced to the graphophone or slid down the many snow-covered hills until weariness rather than the clock set the time to stop. For while the fierce winds of the winter blow from shore to shore unobstructed by forests there is nothing to demand consideration of day or night—nothing but the filling in of the time until the ice breaks up again for the next fishing season.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.