The Magdalen Islands: Quebec overseas

The Islands offer the traveller a range of experiences, from hiking, boating, cycling to sea kayaking

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CAP AUX MEULES, QC Aug 15, 2015/ Troy Media/ – We don’t usually think of any part of Canada’s province of Quebec as an island tourist destination set far out in the ocean. The Magdalen Islands are, however, an exception in this regard and several others. Even its name is curious because, in French, they are officially the “Iles de la Madeleine” which is slightly different from their English translation equivalent.

Geographically, the islands are oddly situated in the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence River quite distant from the mainland of Quebec. Indeed, the closest points of land to the Magdalens are the northern tip of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. Topographically, the Magdalens appear as a lonely orphan far from “mother” Quebec and out of the sight of any other land mass.

The easy and expensive way to get there is to fly in or take a cruise from Montreal. Most locals and tourists do it less expensively in their own vehicles. It’s a bit of an adventure but here’s how it’s done. Come off the main Trans-Canada Highway on the New Brunswick side of that province’s border with Nova Scotia and proceed north on Route 15 to the Confederation Bridge to PEI. Cross over and continue on the Trans-Canada Highway to the port of Souris near the eastern end of PEI. Take the car ferry to the Magdalens. It’s a five hour sea voyage and reservations are recommended.

Arriving at the main village of Cap aux Meules (Translation: Grindstones Point), the visitor begins a journey into a quite different world. Six islands form a C-shaped archipelago 88 kms (52 miles) tip to tip linked by sand dunes and one bridge. A seventh small inhabited island, Ile d’Entrée (Entry Island), lies some distance away and is not connected to the others. A secondary ferry ride is required to visit it. Meanwhile, an eighth island “Brion” is uninhabited.

Route 199, a paved two-lane highway, runs the length of the main archipelago and is a most spectacular drive. Long sections of it run between islands across dunes with the ocean on both sides visible to a driver. The islands are rocky with red cliffs here and there but also with good stretches of green pastureland.

The population is just under 13,000, with houses dispersed in small settlements except perhaps for Cap aux Meules, the ferry terminus. This is a tourist type resort town with stores, bars, two Italian restaurants, banks, a community college, a track for harness racing, two strip malls and a couple of the familiar fast food franchises. There is a good range of tourist accommodations throughout the main islands, with everything from hotels, to bed and breakfast places, vacation chalets and camp grounds.

The people, known as Madelinots, are mainly Acadian French in ethnic descent and speak a French slightly different from other Quebecers. Meanwhile, at the northern end of the Magdalens, especially around Grosse Ile, there is a small English-speaking population. There’s another such group of only 82 persons over on tiny Ile d’Entrée who are of mainly Scottish descent.

The Magdalen Islands offer the traveller a range of experiences with hiking, boating, cycling and sea kayaking as tourist favourites. Swimming in the sea is possible during the warm months of July and August as a result of one of the archipelago’s distinctive features. In several places the sand dunes form lagoons of shallow water which can heat up to allow resort style beach experiences so familiar at much more southern latitudes in North America.

Culturally, the islands are quite vibrant, especially in the high tourist season of June to September. There are a lot of galleries and studios of artists working in various media including oil painting, sand sculpture and wood. A strong concentration of these can be found at Havre Aubert in the south of the island chain.

One venue at L’Etang du Nord deserves special mention here. This is a tea house with the unusual name of “Le Flaneur” (The Idler) where Pierrette Molaison runs a small gallery. On display are her life-size dolls or mannequins done in acrylic and representing well-known local characters; a teacher, a musician, a cook and the woman who had six husbands. It’s the Madame Tussauds of the Magdalens but a far more creative talent is on display than that comparison suggests.

In economic terms the Magdalens face many challenges. The islands are dotted with small fishing villages often struggling to make a go of it these days. There’s a salt mine that ships road salt to mainland Quebec and some small scale agriculture. A fromagerie produces a distinctive local cheese made from the milk of island cows and of course there is tourism. The problem with the latter is the short season, running from about June 15 to September 15, does not provide a full year round employment for everyone in the business.

The result has been an exodus of young people from the Magdalens to mainland Quebec. When we visited, a small private marine museum and all its contents were for sale right on the main street of Cap aux Meules. The reason? The owner was retiring and could find no young person to take it over. His own son had left for other parts in search of opportunities.

The situation is even more acute on the isolated Ile d’Entrée with its entirely English-speaking population. With just 82 people they have only an elementary school, a church, a small local museum, a healthcare centre and a restaurant. To go to high school students leave the island for Grosse Ile or even Prince Edward Island. In the 1970s the island’s population was 274 and has been in decline ever since. One has to wonder about the future of a place where people are leaving and doing so at an early age just to attend school.

For the visitor to the Magdalen Islands there is an inevitable concern for its future. How can we retain it as a vibrant, environmentally sustainable, economically viable community and still preserve its cultural uniqueness?

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