A unique way of life persists beyond the end of the road in a wild, hauntingly beautiful part of Quebec's Atlantic region.
When Jacques Cartier first sailed through the Strait of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence to explore what is now called the Lower North Shore (La Basse Côte Nord) he was stricken by the inhospitable landscape. "Except at Blanc Sablon," he recorded in his journal, "there is nothing but moss and short, stunted shrub…I am inclined to believe that this is the land God gave to Cain."
In one sense the Lower North Shore has changed very little since Cartier's first visit back in June 1534-nor since the story of Cain and Able was recorded, for that matter. From the village of Natashquan, where Route 380 from Quebec City ends, to Blanc Sablon, where the ferry from northern Newfoundland docks, this 500 kilometre coastal area of Quebec remains sparsely populated, largely without road access, and to all appearances utterly barren. Winters are bitterly cold with heavy snow. Even in summer the clash of continental and maritime air masses causes frigid fog to envelop the region for days or weeks at a time. Incessant winds buffet bald headlands and tug at meagre vegetation.
And yet, there is awesome beauty in the grand sweep of this rugged territory. Earth, sea and sky interact in a perpetual kalei-doscope of shapes and colours. When the storms pass and the sky turns to flawless azure the place is transformed into a sparkling wonderland. As winter releases her icy grip, mosses and lichens paint the rocky ridges in pastel hues. Gigantic icebergs parade like Titans through the straits in early summer. Then, as the sun grows stronger the tundra bursts into bloom with myriads of miniature blossoms of crowberries, partridgeberries, blueberries, cranberries, fox berries and the ubiquitous cloudberries, better known locally as bake apples.
Incense like the aroma of old wine rises from the muskeg while out along the island-littered coast the sighing tides and fluting winds compose ceaseless symphonies, while the air is sharp with the tang of salt and seaweed. For those whose senses have not been dulled by life in the modern world the Lower North Shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence is an enchanted place blessed with a "terrible beauty"-not unlike remote areas of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Although this is one of the least known and least accessible areas of Eastern Canada, people have lived here for thousands of years. Traces of ancient human history show up in lonely places like exposed veins of precious ore. In 1975 during the construc-tion of a gravel road at L'Anse Amour in adjacent Labrador, the skeleton of a pre-pubescent human was discovered in what has been described as North America's most ancient burial monument, a mound dating back some 7,500 years to the Early Maritime Archaic period. Other archaeological finds at several locations reveal that centuries before the arrival of Inuit (Eskimo) and Innu (Montagnais), successive civilizations lived on or regularly visited the area.
Of course, it was not the land that drew these ancient people to the region: it was the sea. Herds of seals, incredible schools of cod, Atlantic salmon and sea-trout returning to spawn in pristine rivers, capelin and herring that clogged bays in their annual reproductive frenzy, convoys of whales and immense flocks of sea birds all provided seemingly inexhaustible resources upon which a limited number of humans with primitive technology could rely for sustenance. It was a balance that might have lasted more or less indefinitely had it not been for a new wave of human migration, this time from across the Atlantic Ocean.
Like their predecessors, Europeans were drawn to the Lower North Shore by the abundance of marine life. But unlike the na-tive peoples before them, the newcomers did not come seeking sustenance. They came in search of profit from the waters and by trading for furs supplied mainly by the Innu, who spent their winters hunting and trapping in the interior.
By the late 15th and early 16th centuries, vessels from Brittany and Normandy, Portugal and Spain were coming regularly to harvest seals and to fish for salmon and cod. Large numbers of Basque whalers also came, building stations at various locations where they rendered whale blubber, shipping barrels of whale oil to light the lamps of Europe. They were so industrious that by 1680 the whale population was already decimated and the Basque fishery had petered out. Characteristic terracotta tiles shipped across the ocean to roof the Basque whaling stations can still be found at several locations; poignant reminders of a time of astonishing activity along this desolate shore.
These early Europeans did not come to stay. Entrepreneurs who had been granted exclusive fishing concessions by royalty and who organized whaling expeditions or who outfitted fishing and sealing ships had no interest in financing the settlement of people who would inevitably compete for the resources. Instead, absentee merchants from Europe, from New France, British North America and the United States sent their fleets to harvest seals and to fish for cod and salmon on a seasonal basis. As soon as their holds were filled and battened down they departed, sometimes taking living human specimens with them to show off as curios in Europe or New York.
When settlement did commence, some of the early arrivals were like seeds blown by political storms in far away places. For example when the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon were ceded back to France following the 1763 Treaty of Paris, the English loyalists were expelled and their properties confiscated. A number of these people eventually found their way to the Lower North Shore as refugees. By the same treaty, Labrador became British territory. This encouraged many Newfoundlanders to look towards what was part of Labrador at that time, the boundary between Quebec and Labrador being in dispute for decades.
For a long time settlement was actually prohibited by the powerful Labrador Company, which held a monopoly on fishing rights on most of the Labrador coast from 1760 onward. However in 1820 the giant trading company went bankrupt and a num-ber of settlers took advantage of the opportunity to put roots into the mean and meagre soil of the Lower North Shore. In some cases, previous employees of the Labrador Company purchased the rights and facilities of the defunct company and stayed on to fish. Others had been crew members on itinerant fishing vessels or had worked seasonally for trading firms from places as divergent as England, France, the Jersey Islands, the US and Nova Scotia.
Most of the 6,000 inhabitants who today live in 18 communities scattered along this wild stretch of coast are descendents of those 18th and 19th century settlers. Given the area's convoluted history, it's not surprising that language differences persist. The Natives at Pointe Parent and La Romaine speak Montagnais and French while those in Pakuashipi, across the inlet from Saint Augustine, speak Montagnais and English. Blanc Sablon is bilingual while Natashquan, Tete-a-la-Baleine, Lourdes de Blanc Sablon and the non-native part of La Romaine are resoundingly French. All of the remaining communities are English speaking-in fact many times people bearing French names like Bilodeau, Fequet and Lavallee speak English with a decidedly Newfoundland twang-making English the dominant language in the Lower North Shore, though a minority in a province where official government documents are written in French only.
And so, the Lower North Shore represents a polyglot of people from many origins. And because the communities are isolated with no road linkage from the Natashquan River in the west to Old Fort where Route 380 resumes its tortured way to Labrador, each village tends to retain its own cultural distinctions. Men in many of the villages build boats from memory based on skills passed down from generation to generation, but the final products are different in design and construction from village to village. Likewise, quilts made in Harrington Harbour (where The Seduction of Dr. Lewis was filmed) will have different stitching and patterns from ones made in St. Paul's River or in Natashquan. Even recipes for delicious bake apple tart vary from village to village.
In spite of the differences, the people of the Lower North Shore are one community. Regardless of language or culture and no matter how scattered and isolated the communities, they are a people bound together by the common experience of surviving in an unforgiving environment, where life is lived in accord with the ebb and flow of the seasons, and where survival calls for a unique blend of hard work, practical skills, individual ingenuity and neighbourly cooperation.
But as with Newfoundland, life is changing. No longer do the outer islands resound with the bustle of activity as in times past, when families would load their boats in springtime with bedding, clothes, dishes, cooking utensils-even the kitchen stove-and head out for the summer to be close to the fish and far from the mosquitoes and black flies of the mainland. The fish are gone now. A few families still keep their old island summer homes as get-aways, but most of the buildings have succumbed to the ravages of time and weather. In many a sheltered cove, decaying remains of wooden sheds, homes, walkways and wharfs are sad reminders of a difficult but jocund way of life, now gone.
Over-exploitation has led to the closure of the commercial salmon fishery and to the collapse of the cod fishery. The search for other species such as crab and shrimp takes high-powered vessels farther and farther out to sea and there are signs that even these species are under severe stress, as are capelin, an important component in the marine food chain. Processing plants that survive, and where workers earn about $8 an hour for long enough to qualify for unemployment insurance, invariably demand and get government subsidies on threat of closing down. Employment of any description is hard to find, so people leave.
Mederic O'Brian, recently retired administrator of the Lower North Shore and Anticosti Education District, was in a position to see the changes up close. "Young people go away to get an education and they don't come back," he says. "The population is aging. You see it in the diminishing school enrolment. In 1967 there were 2,300 students in the school district. Now there are 750."
Jim Thomas of St. Paul's River-whose family roots go back to the days of early settlement-operates his own outfitting business, yet like many seasonal workers he finds it necessary to go to Ontario every winter in search of work. "Traditional skills are being lost," he laments. "Old community values are being eroded. It used to be that if somebody needed a roof the community would show up and it would be done in no time. Now you have to hire somebody."
Of course, life has never been easy on the Lower North Shore. From the beginning, those who love the vast expanse and wild freedom of the place have survived by resilience, adaptability and ingenuity. Today people are again adapting-to new realities. Sustainability is the new ethic. Tourism is seen as the new industry of hope. In place of using nets to strangle returning salmon and sea trout, opportunities for wilderness fishing are being offered, promoting the live release of hooked fish. City folk can clear their minds with a cruise on the Nordic Express that carries freight and passengers to the outports during summer months, step briefly into the past with a visit to Dog Islands, or be awed by a visit to one of several bird sanctuaries.
Meanwhile the old values of hard work, individual ingenuity and community cohesion will carry the isolated villages of the Lower North Shore through changing times into the future. Whatever happens, it will remain a wild and wondrous place, inha-bited by people with special character.