Nfld. & Labrador

St-Pierre-Miquelon and the Burin Peninsula: Bound together by history

The French-owned island St. Pierre, less than 20 kilometres off the Burin Peninsula, shares hundreds of years of history with Newfoundland, writes Allan Stoodley.
France’s only possession in North America, the islands of St-Pierre-Miquelon, lie less than 20 kilometres off the Burin Peninsula. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

The islands of St-Pierre-Miquelon lie less than 20 kilometres off the Burin Peninsula. On a clear night the lights of the town of St. Pierre, twinkling and beckoning, can easily be seen from Newfoundland.

During the summer, Saint Pierre Island, population 6,000, is a haven for tourists, as they arrive by the hundreds to glimpse and live for a couple of days in an Old France atmosphere.

While some tourists get to the French Islands via air through Nova Scotia, the vast majority, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 annually, get there by way of Fortune. This Burin Peninsula town, 42 kilometres from St. Pierre by water, has a regular ferry service connecting the two ports and is known as "the gateway to the French islands".

In 1763, England won the Seven Years' War against France and succeeded in establishing control over North America. A treaty was signed and a peace pact was negotiated. France was permitted to continue fishing on what was known as the "French Shore" as well as in the gulf, and was granted the strategically located islands of St-Pierre-Miquelon as a fishing base.

For the previous 50 years, St-Pierre-Miquelon had been owned by the British, who had established a sizeable settlement at Saint Pierre. In 1759 the number of year-round residents was 408 plus another 300 summer servants. At the time the island was the centre of the English fishery in the region. Saint Pierre was indeed a busy place.

This all changed in June 1763 when a French warship arrived in Saint Pierre carrying a new French governor, along with 150 settlers and 50 soldiers. It was time for the British to leave.

Local historian Aaron F. Buffett, in his writings in the 1940s, stated, "The British inhabitants were moved by the British soldiers to Newfoundland. The Hickmans were taken to Grand Bank, the Snooks to Fortune, the Grandys to Garnish and the Cluetts to Belleoram." The Hickman, Snook, Grandy and Cluett names are still very prominent in this area today.

I had always thought the people of St-Pierre-Miquelon would, similar to us, trace their present history back to 1763. However, during a panel discussion in 2018, I was informed by my French counterpart, Lauriane Detcheverry, that is not the case.

In actual fact our French neighbours only celebrated their bicentennial a few years ago, in 2016. Detcheverry, assistant manager of L'Arche Musee et Archives at St. Pierre, told me that from 1763 to 1816 St-Pierre-Miquelon went through many hardships and was the victim of the many conflicts between France and England.

Lauriane Detcheverry is assistant manager of the L'Arche Musee et Archives in St-Pierre-Miquelon. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

After the English left St. Pierre in 1763, said Detcheverry, "a lot of people from former French possessions settled in the archipelago, but there were too many of them. In 1768 more than 500 people had to be sent back to France because of a lack of food."

Ten years later, in retaliation for France's support for the American War for Independence, the British attacked Saint Pierre, deported the 1,250 residents back to France, and razed the town.

"The ownership of the islands changed hands a couple of more times before the last treaty, in late 1815, finally restored the islands to France. In the spring of 1816, some 645 survivors of the 1793 expulsion returned for the last time; St-Pierre-Miquelon was to remain under France from then on," said Detcheverry.

"They are the source of our actual population, along with all those who were attracted by the prosperity of our economy during the second half of the 19th century."

The last two hundred years have also seen many ups and downs for St-Pierre-Miquelon, both economically and politically. The population of the French islands grew steadily from 645 in 1816 to about 6,500 in 1902.

The French government had established a system of bounties to assist the growth of the fishery, payable to the ship owners and also to subsidize exported fish, thus promoting French trade.

Saint Pierre salted dried cod was exported to French Atlantic and Mediterranean ports, as well as to the French colonies of the West Indies, to Central America and to the Indian Ocean.

The fishery, which peaked in the mid-1870s through the 1880s, resulted in spinoff trades being needed to cater to the requirements of the larger vessels from France using the port, as well as to the smaller local fleet.

Sail makers, caulkers and carpenters were in big demand. Several dory and small schooner factories were operational as well as forges and cooperages. During that period an oilcloth factory and a machine shop opened. It is interesting to note that Saint-Pierre history records that in 1898 a hardtack factory started, capable of producing 2½ tons a day; the same year, a copper paint factory opened.

'Fishermen became warehousemen'

Then in the early 1900s, everything went sour for our French neighbours.

The Newfoundland Bait Act, enacted in 1887, prohibited bait sales to the French; this was followed by restrictions being placed on where they could fish.

 France then moved its fishing efforts to the offshore Grand Banks, but a drastic decline in the amount of cod caught led to an economic crisis, due to a loss of jobs in St-Pierre-Miquelon.

Around 2,000 inhabitants left the islands — many of them moving to Canada — during the first decade of the 20th century. By 1910 the population had decreased to 4,200.

Then, in 1920 the United States banned the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. The Prohibition era, which lasted until 1933, proved to be an economic boom for the residents of the French islands.

Within a short time the St-Pierre-Miquelon economy changed drastically. Smuggling became the main source of income as those who had invested in the declining fishery turned their backs on the sea and became agents for the big smuggling interests off the coast of the United States. Fishermen became warehousemen.

It is interesting to note that Canadian Prohibition laws did not prohibit the manufacture of liquor "as long as it was exported to a country that did not prohibit its importation."

Dozens of vessels were available on call to Canadian distillers to deliver liquor to U.S. and Canadian points during the Prohibition era. Many of these boats, similar to the Beatrice L., would have their masts removed so they would lie low on the water and be difficult to spot by Coast Guard cutters. (Jean Pierre Andrieux Photo Collection)

American smugglers quickly found that Montreal exporters could ship their products to France (namely Saint Pierre), to be then reshipped to the United States using sleek boats that were capable of speeding away from coastal patrol vessels.

Canadian companies began to set up offices in Saint Pierre, and agents working in the import-liquor trade soon occupied the town. Soon every available building including even basements of houses were filled with crates of alcohol. New, specially built concrete warehouses were constructed near the harbour and in the town.

One important byproduct of the Prohibition era was a new source of building materials. Liquor would be shipped to Saint Pierre in wooden crates, but these crates would make too much noise when they were offloaded by the rum-runners.

To remedy that problem, the bottles of alcohol would be repacked in jute sacks in order to cushion the sound. As a result, exporters on the French Islands would then have thousands of available empty liquor crates.

Some of the crates would be used for home heating; while others were used for shingles, clapboards, wall sheathing and even wainscoting. Many Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon houses, even today, are dateable thanks to their liquor crate materials.

When the income from the Prohibition liquor trade disappeared, our French neighbours experienced a disastrous economic decline.

The fishery never recovered the prosperity it once had, but the cod moratorium of 1992 marked the most difficult moment of the end of the 20th century, according to French historians.

Recent developments

The economy of Saint-Pierre-Miquelon has survived largely thanks to the funding of large construction projects by France in recent decades.

In the 1960s, the port of Saint Pierre was extended; in the 1980s, a deepsea wharf was built, and in the 1990s, a new airport.

The St. Pierre et Miquelon L'Arche Musee et Archives released this book to commemorate its bicentennial in 2018. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

During the past 20 years, a new housing development, which included a new hospital, was started on the site of the old airport; the water and sanitation network was renovated, and a new power plant was built.

There has been some return to the fishery happening recently, on a smaller scale, including the harvesting and marketing of snow crab, scallops and some underused ground fish species.

Our French neighbours have been putting more emphasis on tourism in recent years. In the words of the three co-authors of their 2016 Bicentenary booklet, "Dreams of prosperity continue, inspired by nearby Newfoundland and its economy that benefits from the oil industry."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


  • A previous version of this story stated the islands of St-Pierre-Miquelon are France's only possessions in North America. In fact, Martinique and Guadeloupe of the Caribbean Islands are also overseas French regions.
    Jan 04, 2021 10:29 AM NT


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.