What it's like to travel Quebec's Lower North Shore by water: Dispatches from the Bella Desgagnés

Follow the adventures of CBC reporters Peter Tardif and Julia Page as they stop along the route of the Bella Desgagnés, visiting some of the most remote communities in Quebec.

CBC reporters Peter Tardif and Julia Page are aboard the Bella Desgagnés, stopping along the ship's route

A crew of youngsters known as the Kegaska Bike Squad can be found patrolling the roads of this North Shore community. (Julia Page/CBC)

CBC reporters Peter Tardif and Julia Page are aboard the Bella Desgagnés until Monday, July 23, reporting from communities along the coast.

Dispatch 1: Boarding the ferry

The Bella Desgagnés is more than a ferry or a cargo ship. For thousands of residents on Quebec's Lower North Shore, it is their lifeline — an essential link to the rest of the province. 

We were on board for the ship's weekly run from Rimouski to Blanc Sablon this week, hopping off along the way to visit some of Quebec's most remote communities. 

Between these ports of call, we sent dispatches from the ship.

Almost 100 metres in length and weighing in at 6,655 tonnes, the Bella delivers fresh goods and provides transportation to the Lower North Shore during the summer months.

''Pretty much everything you want to carry, we'll try to find a way to bring it to your home," said Mathieu Roy, the ship's first officer. 

It's up to Roy to supervise the loading and unloading of the cargo at each port. He makes sure the weight is evenly distributed to keep the ship stable as it sails across the St. Lawrence River and into the gulf.

From pick-up trucks to television sets to heavy machinery, everything finds its place.

When a classic silver Airstream trailer rolls up to the dock in Rimouski for the onward voyage, Roy has to break off our interview to recalculate how to fit it into a space he had reserved for a much smaller trailer.

''Saying no to a client is not something I like to do.''

Mathieu Roy, the first officer on the Bella Desgagnés shipping vessel, takes pride in his job, supervising the loading and unloading of cargo. (Julia Page/CBC)

Dispatch 2: The songs of Matiu

The first port of call is Sept-Îles, more than 900 kilometres northeast from Montreal. We get off and take a short taxi ride to the Innu community of Mani-Utenam, or "Mani" as it's known to locals.

Inside a traditional shaputuan, a long house Innu use for gatherings and meals, we meet Matiu, a local singer-songwriter.

His daughter plays with their dog, Forrest Gump, as a wind from the St. Lawrence River blows through the small entrance of the tent.
Innu Nikamu, an Indigenous music and art festival, has been held every year in Mani-Utenam since 1984. (Julia Page/CBC)

The huge structure is being set up on the site where Matiu will be performing at Innu Nikamu, the Indigenous music and arts festival that's been held every year in Mani-Utenam since 1984.

It is the largest festival of its kind in Quebec, and attracts musicians from across the province, including younger artists experimenting with new styles like hip-hop and reggae, along with traditional folk songs.

Matiu turned to music relatively late in life. "I was in CEGEP and I didn't have money for a television and internet. I walked by a guitar shop. There was a $50 guitar in the window, and I just started playing."

He started by playing covers of popular Quebec and Innu artists.

But Matiu felt compelled to write his own lyrics after watching a film on the assassination of Sitting Bull, a Lakota leader who was killed by U.S. government officials in the 19th century.

Matiu, singer-songwriter from Mani-Utenam (Julia Page/CBC)

That led Matiu to write his breakout song, Indian Time, which was later made into a music video with Wapikoni Mobile, a travelling studio that tours Indigenous communities to promote visual arts and music.

The song explores the contradictions he feels being removed from the traditional way of life of the Innu.

"That's also what I want to do through my songs: to represent my people, to provoke a dialogue and bring people to open up about Indigenous people in this province," he said.

Matiu will be performing at the Festival Innu Nikamu in Mani-Utenam on Aug. 2.

Dispatch 3: Headed to the Mingan Islands

It is 4:45 a.m. on the Bella Desgagnés. Overnight we crossed from Anticosti Island and are headed into Havre-Saint-Pierre.

About a dozen of us passengers are gathered in the ship's cafeteria. We're about to disembark for a smaller ship that will take us to the Mingan Islands, famous for their rock formations sculpted by the sea.
Tourists walk on the beach at the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, on a foggy morning in July. (Julia Page/CBC)

The archipelago is one of the many natural landscapes that brings visitors from around the world to the North and Lower North Shore regions of Quebec.

This week, there are more than 100 tourists aboard the Bella Desgagnés, hailing not only from Quebec but as far away as Germany and Scotland as well.

When we arrive at Havre-Saint-Pierre, Julia will head for the Mingan Islands. Peter will meet up with Reginald Bolger, who works as a millwright in Havre-Saint-Pierre, and find out about a local custom.

One in particular that interests him: Why do residents drink coffee through a straw? The answer is here:

Dispatch 4: The Kegaska Bike Squad

They speed across the dirt roads of Kegaska, laughing wildly as they pass cars, trucks and motor homes waiting in line to board the ship.

Dressed in bright yellow vests, their tires screech and veer around the loading dock, the sun slowly setting in the distance.

Meet the Kegaska Bike Squad.

Lucas, Alex, Maya, Kiara, Brooke, Ethan, Logan and other kids have joined the group since it was set up last year by the resident nurse.

They live in the last village connected to the rest of the province by Highway 138, roughly 1,000 kilometres east of Quebec City.

Residents, tourists and workers line up at the dock every Wednesday to make their way east, toward Blanc-Sablon, where the road continues to Labrador.

That constant traffic pushed Étienne Talbot, who works at the local health clinic, to start the club in a push to make the streets safer for the kids.

"People drive fast here sometimes. They're in a rush to get to the boat," he said, surrounded by the young squad members.

From left to right: Kiara Stubbert, Maya Kippen, Logan Nadeau, Dramane Ouedraogo, Étienne Talbot, Ethan Morency, Alex King and Brooke Van Gorp are members of the Kegaska Bike Squad. (Julia Page/CBC)

Dressed in their bright vests, staying in groups, the kids also go out for picnics and explore the outstretches of their town, over rocky beaches and hidden coves.

Talbot said that, beyond doing his job and keeping the kids safe, it's hard to imagine not wanting to hang out with such a unique group.

"I see them at the clinic, but outside the contact is different. I mean look at them, they are so funny, it's always fun."

Dispatch 5: New, old friends and back to Bonne-Espérance

We've arrived at the very end of the road, or the beginning, you could say.

After five days on the water, a 45-kilometre car ride takes us to Bonne-Espérance, the last town you can visit before turning around and continuing East, toward Newfoundland and Labrador.

More and more tourists are visiting the small community of roughly 700 people, which breaks down into three smaller villages: Middle Bay, St-Paul's River and Old Fort Bay.

The road twists and turns, opening up on breathtaking views of rocky cliffs, sandy beaches and gushing waterfalls. Locals call them "the Highlands" because their beauty resembles that of Scotland's rolling hills.

Brothers Fred and Dave Sykes have embarked on this trip to rediscover their own ancestry. They're here to learn about the place their mother told them about again and again.

"My mom always remembered living in Bonnie and all the stories she heard about fishing on the coast," said Fred Sykes, who lives in Ottawa. It's his second time visiting the region.

The Whiteley Museum and Cod Trap Café was named after the Sykes' ancestor William 'Bossy' Whiteley, who settled on one of the many islands the 19th century after moving from Boston with his family.

Whiteley, famous for inventing the cod trap, built one the region's most thriving fishing establishments.

Fred, left, and Dave Sykes, right, took the ferry to Bonne-Espérance to learn about their family's history. (Julia Page/CBC)

"It is a lot like coming home," said Dave Sykes. "It really feels like you're known by people here even if you don't know anyone."

Not only have the Sykes gotten a glimpse of the lifestyle of their ancestors, they're taking the same boat Bossy took centuries ago to visit the island with the museum's vice-president, Garland Nadeau.

"We're proud of that legacy and that history and we're doing our best as a town to portray this and to encompass this to inspire the young people," said Nadeau.

The decline of the fishing industry, on which the town was built, has left its mark and pushed many young people to leave in search of jobs.

But Nadeau is confident local initiatives and a growing numbers of visitors is bringing new life to the town.

"To be quite honest with you, we're in survival mode. We're still not where we need to be, but hopefully with things like the museum we can start maneuvering in different areas where maybe it gives us a better hope for the future."

Follow the trip on social media: @PeterTardifCBC@JuliaBPage, on CBC Quebec's Facebook page, and on CBC Radio One.


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