La Tabatiere

The Middle of Nowhere is Somewhere to Somebody Else

photo by Karen Turiff
On the first day of summer I saw an iceberg glowing  true ice blue in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near La Tabatière, Quebec. In the Montagnais language, the name of the village means sorcerer, so-called because hunters, fishers and sealers used to consult witches before making their forays into the bush, the vast, unpredictable estuary, onto the ice floes. The middle of watery nowhere. Misty, rocky, frequented by whales that are hard to see unless they leap out of the water, which they didn't while I was watching, though I did see the back and the tail of a rorqual, and the spume of another small whale. In this grey, sometimes swelling, sometimes choppy expanse  it is hard to see anything but the fascinating shapes of icebergs that, in certain light, resemble clouds fallen from the sky; it is important to look without expectation, to see what there is to see.

First stop the morning of June 21, Harrington Harbour, a village built on the broad flat rocks of the Canadian shield, where houses and a store or two, the post office, the school, the church, are joined by boardwalks that make moving around on foot or four-wheeler easier in a no-road, no-car town. Several ports later, at Blanc Sablon, Tony, the former mayor of this fishing village of 1000 or so, meets the boat at 3 AM with a schoolbus to take us on a sunrise tour. The schedule we keep is determined by how long it takes to unload and load the cargo it is the Bella Desgagnes' first mission to deliver to the communities isolated along the lower north coast of the St. Lawrence. To show us all he thought we should see, Tony drove fast,  manoeuvring the mini school bus up hills, along gravel turnouts, stopping on a bridge so that we could view the twisting chute, or waterfall, of the Brador. He took us just across the border to Labrador, stopped at the bottom of the hill topped by a giant statue of the Virgin Mary, which was brought over from France in the 1920's, giving this part of the town the name, Lourdes de Blanc Sablon.

Katy at Harrington Harbour
The middle of watery nowhere consists of scattered villages, taiga, stunted black spruce, spongy moss, lichen, tiny wild sweet peas, blankets of white-blossomed bunchberry, the icebergs, almost gone now that we are past the solstice, perroquets or puffins, cormorants, the ubiquitous seagulls. Perhaps not much to see by conventional tourism standards, but for the people standing near the gangplank for this supposedly once a week boat to dock, and for those waiting for them, this is home. Katy, for instance, who was travelling to visit her grandparents in La Tabatière for the first time in four years. She and husband Matt, who live on an army base in Vermont, lugged a stroller, car seat and bags, and four-month old Wesley, while little Olivia made her own way down the ramp where the Gallichan cousins waited. The descendant of a family of sealers, Katy, a teacher, knows exactly where she came from, something her husband envies.

In the tiny (120 pop) community of Kegaska, two young women of Acadian background received boat passengers in the church where they offered small pots of jams and jellies made from partridge berries, cloud berries, goose berries, May berries. They had also baked muffins to sell. The display of the town's history consisted of a folding screen to which were pinned  photocopied pictures of the days when the cod fish were plentiful, seal was a staple of every day meals, and a famous shipwreck, the Brion, put the town on the map for us long as the news cycle lasted in the 50's. April and Susie were born here and do not plan to leave. Their efforts show that despite the decline of the cod fishery, the lack of employment, Kegaska is some place to them.
April and Susie

On the other hand, Shelley, a pierced, curly haired aspiring artist, who is third generation Métis, can't wait to get out, and she plans to do so as soon as she can put enough money together to return to school to study fine arts. "People here are suspicious of anything new," she claims. There are no young people because there is no place to work, other than a few service jobs, like hers, as waitress and cashier at CJ's Epicerie and restaurant, the only one in town. Now that the road is complete, the end of 138, the feeling is that the bank will close, the post office, even the airport. A man four times her age, a former cod fisherman, Cecil Organ, agrees. "The road didn't do nothing for us. Maybe 50 years ago, but alls there is to see now is trees."

In La Romaine, Natashquan, St. Augustin, the Montagnais who now prefer to be called Innu, human being,
Innu woman in traditional hat.
have probably never even considered the question, nowhere, somewhere. These former nomads, the first people European explorers encountered in this part of the world, were settled into communities when the government made school mandatory for Innu children.  Instead of considering where they belong, which used to be everywhere, the question is how to balance the temptations of today with the values of yesterday. Long time former chief of La Romaine, ancien chef and sage George C.S. Bâcon described problems unfortunately too well known from tragic stories reeled off by news broadcasters. The poutine, the chips, the pop, the beer that makes people sick because of what George believes are genetically weak livers; the drugs that encourage young people to listen to their dealers more than to elders like the former chief. Diabetes, which affects 50 percent of his people, including him. He smiles as he speaks, but George says that good news is rare. The French sailors and Basque fishermen who found this coast over half a millennium ago, who were greeted and guided by the Montagnais, turned out to be mostly trouble.  The place that so excited Europeans because of its fish and the furs, the forests and the possibility of finding a way to the Orient, had for at least 5000 years already been somewhere to somebody else.