FUN PLACE: Saint Pierre and Miquelon

Saint Pierre and Miquelon are two tiny islands off the northeastern coast of Canada. But they’re not Canadian: they belong to France, and they are the last tiny bits of French North America.

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The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Year’s War (sometimes called the “French and Indian War” in the US). The terms dictated that France give up all her claims to land in North America. But, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, the British gave Saint Pierre and Miquelon back to France a few weeks after the treaty was signed.

Due to the way the French constitution works, the land that makes up the islands isn’t “a piece of land owned by France”, it’s a “piece of France itself”. The people who live there aren’t “colonials” – they’re French citizens. They belong to the EU and use Euros. If you get a passport stamp there it says “France”. Although it’s 2,373 miles (3,819 km) from Saint Pierre and Miquelon to Brest (the nearest point in Metropolitan France) it’s only 478 miles (770 km) as the crow flies from Hamlin, Maine to Saint Pierre and Miquelon. So if someone asks you how far France or the EU is from the US, you can win a bar bet with that little bit of trivia!

So… what’s so “fun” about it?

Well, aside from having a tiny bit of France just 1,307 miles (2,103 km) up the coast from me, it’s kind neat that street names generally aren’t used on the island. It’s a couple of tiny islands of a few thousand people whose families have lived there for generations. It truly is the kind of place where people say things like “yeah, turn left at Andre’s gas station, then make a right at Florian’s farm, then make a hard right after Gaston’s old treehouse. If you see the old red pickup truck by the side of the road, you’ve gone too far.” Only it’s in French.

Also, some islanders got filthy rich during Prohibition. Canadians sold plenty of Canadian whiskey to Americans. But it was, in fact, illegal under Canadian law to sell alcohol to Americans in quantity. But you know what wasn’t illegal? For Canadians to sell whiskey to French people. In 1931, the islands imported a total of 1.8 million US gallons of whiskey from Canada … for population of around 4.300 people. Almost all that liquor was bought by American smugglers who’d sailed up from New York or Massachusetts  or even Virginia. Prohibition was a golden time for the island.

But there’s dark stuff, too. Saint Pierre and Miquelon was the scene of the only known execution by guillotine in North America. A man named Joseph Néel was found guilty of murdering a Mr Coupard on Île aux Chiens on December 30,  1888 and executed 8 months later.  He probably would have been executed earlier, but the guillotine had to be shipped from France’s Caribbean outpost of Martinique. And it was damaged in transit, so authorities had to find someone to fix it. A few more weeks then passed as no local wanted to do the actual execution part of it. A recent arrival was coaxed into it on August 24, 1889. The whole sordid story is the subject of the 2000 film The Widow of Saint-Pierre starring Juliette Binoche. The guillotine still exists and is now in a museum on Saint-Pierre.