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Tourism and heritage in the Îles de la Madeleine

In the second half of the 18th century, Acadian fishermen settled permanently in the Îles de la Madeleine. This archipelago made up of long strips of fertile land bordered by white sand beaches and red cliffs is located right in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence between the Maritime provinces, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Prior to the 1940s, the Madelinots had only sporadic access to the rest of the country, and their relative isolation fostered the preservation of their unique culture, language and traditions. Today, this warm and colourful community welcomes visitors with open arms, happy to share their powerful connection with music, storytelling, visual art and cuisine. Although fishing is still the backbone of the islands’ economy, and seafood, the star of the local cuisine, the tourist industry and new local products such as craft beer and fine cheeses draw increasing numbers of visitors and contribute to the archipelago’s development.

 

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Showcasing the islands’ heritage

Many of the tourist attractions in Îles de la Madeleine are heritage based. For example, the Café de la Grave in Havre-Aubert is located in an old general store built in the 1860s. Citizen participation saved it from being torn down because it is at the heart of the islands’ first settlement and the fishing industry on the La Grave heritage site. Since 1980, the café-restaurant, which is extremely popular among tourists, has been presenting a variety of performances and exhibitions showcasing local artists. Its menu includes items drawn from the islands’ culinary heritage. At Havre-Aubert, the Musée de la Mer’s permanent exhibition Vivre aux Îles —Vivre les Îles provides an overview of Madelinot culture: daily life, housing, fishing and boating, shipbuilding, celebrations, etc.

The Tour of Typical Dishes allows visitors to sample eight traditional Îles de la Madeleine recipes in eight different establishments across the archipelago. The Wild Gourmet Spree also relies on the participation of several restaurateurs, but it focuses more on the recent gastronomic evolution of the islands’ cuisine, including new local products that are also part of the islands’ heritage. For example, the Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent uses milk from Canadian heritage cattle breeds to make their cheese. The microbrewery À l’abri de la tempête is set in an old fish processing plant and uses only local ingredients, including algae. The agri-food company Le Fumoir d’Antan has revived the typical Îles de la Madeleine practice of smoking herring, while Le Barbocheux distills traditional alcoholic beverages, including a strawberry and raspberry bagosse and a cranberry and dandelion bagosse. The name Le Barbocheux comes from the verb “barbocher,” to go from house to house enjoying a drink.

Storytelling: Past and present

Storytelling has always been popular in the local tradition as a way of whiling away the long winter evenings. But Madelinots now use storytelling as a way of educating tourists about the local history and enhancing their stay. Some stories are for children. Others are for adults, inspired by the lives of Madelinot fishermen, women and artisans. Thus, storytelling continues the tradition while keeping a constantly evolving oral heritage alive. The 20-year-old Festival international des contes en Îles, which takes place in Cap-aux-Meules at the end of each summer, brings together local and foreign storytellers from Switzerland, Haiti and Martinique for a week-long festival. The linguistic heritage of the Madelinots is also showcased by author Suzanne Richard, who hosts a discussion about the quirks of the local vocabulary.

Discovering the islands’ natural heritage

The Îles de la Madeleine are also known for their beautiful natural environment. A 13‑stage, 225-kilometre hiking trail called Entre vents et marées created in 2017 allows visitors to discover the archipelago on foot. Fans of the great outdoors can enjoy a different view of the beauty of the islands’ natural heritage, since the peaceful trail follows secondary roads, beaches and hills. Hikers are also invited to Entry Island, the only inhabited island that is not connected to the rest of the archipelago by road. It is home to the Entry Island Museum, which showcases the evolution of the Scottish community that settled there, as well as the undulating landscape that leads to the highest summit in the archipelago at 174 metres, aptly named Big Hill, which offers a unique panorama of the Îles de la Madeleine.

Historical references

The Mi’kmaq regularly visited the archipelago, which they called Menagoesenog, or “islands swept by the surf.” Basque, Breton and Norman fishermen also visited before Jacques Cartier arrived in 1534. Their seasonal installations were located in the southern sector of what is now Île du Havre Aubert. At the time of New France, fishermen and walrus hunters sometimes wintered on the islands. In 1762, entrepreneur Richard Gridley set up headquarters at Havre-Aubert and hired a group of Acadians. But the real beginnings of colonization were in 1792, when two priests from Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Jean-Baptiste Allain and François Lejamtel, refused to take the oath to the new Civil Constitution of the Clergy after the French Revolution. They and a few dozen Acadian families who had sought refuge in Saint Pierre and Miquelon after the Great Deportation settled in Îles de la Madeleine.

For almost two centuries, the La Grave site at Île du Havre Aubert was the main settlement. Fishermen stopped there to process, salt and dry their catch, and sell to passing merchants. In the mid-19th century, La Grave was covered with fish stages. Fishermen lived on the second floor of these wooden structures, whose ground floor was used to salt fish, repair nets and store equipment. General stores, saltworks, ironworks, fish counters and small warehouses stood side by side.

The arrival of Maritime Packers in 1930 and of National Sea Products in 1965 with their refrigerated warehouses made these traditional installations obsolete. However, fishing still drove the archipelago’s economy, in particular thanks to the lucrative lobster fishery and scallop and blue mussel farming. The islands have had permanent access to the mainland since 1940, and the tourism industry in Îles de la Madeleine has grown exponentially since the 1970s.

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