Article | Atlantic Canada, Sable Island and Gulf of Saint Lawrence

A Brief History of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon

Basque fishing, French and British military strife, rum-running, the cod moratorium, and even Nazi conspiracies have all made their mark on Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. Learn more about the compelling history of these small islands, just off the coast of Newfoundland, in this article from Dennis Minty.
Women in Saint Pierre historical dress

© Dennis Minty

How did there come to be a fragment of France sitting just twenty kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland? It all began with the quest for salt cod in the sixteenth century, when Europeans—mainly Basques, Bretons, and Normans—came seasonally to ply the waters for fish.

When Jacques Cartier dropped by in 1536, French and Basque fishing ships were already in the harbour, and year-round settlement began in the late 1600s, when there were also many French communities thriving on the nearby island of Newfoundland.

Historical canons in Saint Pierre

© Dennis Minty

Colonial Strife

Repeated wars between the French and British caused much flip-flopping for control of the islands. Then in 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht awarded Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, as well as Newfoundland, to the British. However, the treaty allowed France to maintain fishing rights and a place of refuge, so many of the French settlers remained and swore allegiance to the British. In 1763, after the end of the Seven Years War and the Treaty of Paris, the British returned the islands to France, but the flip-flopping still wasn’t over.

The British opposed French support for the American Revolutionary War, so they attacked again in 1783, driving the settlers back to France and destroying their homes. Later, the French attacked and repossessed it in 1796, after which the islands were unoccupied until 1816, when French fishers took up residence again. It has remained a French territory since that time.

Saint Pierre and Miquelon flag

© Dennis Minty

The French Shore

It is important to remember that large sections of the Newfoundland coast were occupied by the French during much of this time. As part of the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, what is called the French Shore originally covered all of the northeast coast of Newfoundland, then spread to the Great Northern Peninsula and the entire west coast of the island.

It was not until 1904, with the agreement known as Entente Cordiale, that the French relinquished their rights. The French Shore is famously celebrated in the community of Conche, where you can find a locally crafted 227-foot-long tapestry depicting the region's history at the town's interpretation centre.

French Shore tapestry Conche Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Prohibition

The 1920 Prohibition in the United States was a boon for Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, when it became an important transhipment place for the illegal smuggling of liquor from Canada, Europe, and Bermuda to the United States. Both the infamous Al Capone and Bill McCoy established smuggling operations there. Fishers became smugglers and the economy soared, only to collapse again in 1933 with the end of the Prohibition.

Sunset at l Île aux Marins Saint Pierre

© Dennis Minty

Nazi Influence

Many do not realize that Nazi influence was once very close to the United States and Canada. In 1940, when France was invaded by Nazi Germany, the imposed government of Vichy France—named after the town of Vichy where it was centered—controlled all French colonies, including Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.

In 1941, Vichy made a plan to hire the American company Western Union to install powerful transmitters on Saint-Pierre that would establish transatlantic communication for the Nazis, but President Roosevelt managed to quash it. Then, in December of that same year, under the orders of Charles de Gaulle, Free French Forces seized Saint-Pierre and Miquelon and the Vichy officials surrendered.

Waterfront town and hillside Saint Pierre

© Dennis Minty

Today

Saint-Pierre and Miquelon is now a self-governing territorial overseas collectivity of France, the sole remaining vestige of France’s once vast North American colony. Its area of 242 square kilometres (about the same size as Fogo Island on Newfoundland’s northeast coast) holds a population of 6,000 or so residents.

There are two main islands: Miquelon-Longlade, larger but more sparsely populated, and Saint-Pierre, the economic centre. The landscape and climate are the same as the island of Newfoundland, but otherwise, it is oh so French.

Woman wearing hat Saint Pierre

© Dennis Minty

The island's name echoes the historic importance of fish in the region, since Saint-Pierre, or Saint Peter, is the patron saint of fishermen. But the current fishery, which works the 12,300-square-kilometre exclusive economic zone encompassing the marine area around the islands, is a mere ghost of its former presence. When Canada declared the cod moratorium in 1992, Saint Pierre was also affected.

Colourful boats and wooden shacks Saint Pierre

© Dennis Minty

Mother France provides significant financial support to maintain its strategic overseas territory and about seventy per cent of its provisions are imported from Canada. Young people can advance as far as the end of high school on the island, after which they can receive scholarships to study overseas or in Canada. Basic health care is provided locally, but the more seriously sick and injured must go to St. John’s, Halifax, or Moncton for more advanced treatments.

Today the determined residents are working to diversify the economy and tourism is an important part of that change. Take a trip to Saint-Pierre to learn more about its compelling history, enjoy the colourful town, get to know the friendly locals, and experience its unique culture for yourself.

Man walking in beret Saint Pierre

© Dennis Minty

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.

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