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  • Magdalen Islands
    – A harbour for fishing and hunting under constraints
The historic site of La Grave
The historic site of La Grave, Route 199, Havre Aubert Island (author Michèle Séguin, without modification, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Havre Aubert Island is the most westerly and the largest of the Magdalen Islands. In the eastern end of the island is the historic site of La Grave, one of the archipelago’s oldest fishing grounds, which occupies a narrow hook-shaped isthmus between Point Shea and Cape Gridley, where the ethno-historical museum of the sea is located…

The historic site of La Grave includes a set of wooden buildings dating from the 19th and 20th centuries dedicated to traditional fishing activities on the Magdalen Islands. It was also at Havre-Aubert that Acadians settled from 1761, refugees from Isle Saint-Jean and Isle Royale. In 1762, Boston-born entrepreneur Richard Gridley established a walrus and seal fishing and hunting center on the archipelago and hired a group of Acadians and Canadians for the business enterprise. Thus, the sedentary startup of the Magdalen Islands was put in place, at the cost of a very symbolic constraint…

A core of Acadian settlement

In August 1765, the Gridley settlement had 22 hired persons, 17 Acadians and five French-Canadians, several fishing boats and all the equipment needed to turn animal fat into oil. After the 1763 Treaty of Paris, the Magdalen Islands fell under the administration of Newfoundland and the 22 workers had to pledge allegiance to the British Crown, which they had always refused to do while in Acadia. This symbolic act officially marked the beginning of the predominantly Acadian colonization of the archipelago on a permanent basis.

Commemorative dish of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy
“I swear to maintain with all my power the Constitution”. Commemorative dish of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, 1790, Carnavalet Museum, Paris (photo by Luis Fernandez García, without modification, CC BY-SA 2.1 ES license)

Much later, in the early 1790s, about 40 Acadian families arrived at the Magdalen Islands from Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. Refugees? Certainly, thirty years earlier, these Acadians were refugees on the French isles of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon following the “Great Upheaval”. But this time, they accompanied their priest, Jean-Baptiste Allain, who had refused to take an oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The political constraints of the French Revolution had caught up over the years with these distant islands of the Kingdom of France. Father Allain and his faithful Catholics had thus preferred to flee in fishing boats and take refuge in British territory, that is to say the Madelinot archipelago now part of Quebec province. Did the Acadians benefit from this move? Not really…

The first core of the Acadian population increased rapidly to 100 families. But the new lord of the archipelago since 1798, Isaac Coffin, who wanted English-speaking settlers, forced the Acadian censitaires to pay extra (that is a rente, which was a heavier charge than the cens) for the land they had occupied since their arrival. A long struggle ensued for the Acadians to obtain full ownership of their real property. Finally, they succeeded but much later, in… 1895.

Here are some names of pioneering Acadian families of the Magdalen Islands in 1762 (from the directory of the Acadian regions of Quebec): Arsenault, Boudreau, Chiasson, Cormier, Desroches, Doucet, Gallant, Poirier…

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