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Vol 38  No 15
June 8, 2006


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Address to convocation

Dr. Roland Le Huenen

It is a great privilege for me to receive this honorary doctorate from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, and I would like in turn to offer my sincerest congratulations to all those students who will be receiving their degree in the course of this ceremony. I know I speak for everybody present when I wish you every success in your chosen careers.

I consider the award that the Senate of Memorial University has bestowed on me to be not only a personal tribute but also a recognition, through my ancestry and experience, of the links which have for centuries existed and developed between Newfoundland and the French archipelago of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon. These links are historical, but they go well beyond the hazards of history, the rivalry among nations struggling to secure territorial and economic advantages, they go well beyond the differences in nationalities, traditions and languages. The people of Newfoundland and the people of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, both share the same kingdom, the sea, the North Atlantic Ocean, which has moulded in similar fashion their ways of living, their habitat and their local cultures. In their day to day relationship to the sea, sailors and fishermen from both communities have experienced the same hardship, the same hopes, the same joys and the same tragedies.

However, the bonds between Newfoundland and Saint-Pierre et Miquelon exceed those parallels and involve a true and continuous exchange of population, starting in the 19th century with the French settlements of Port-au-Port and Baie Saint-Georges on the West coast, then followed in the 1920s at the time of American Prohibition when the Saint-Pierre economy was booming, by the emigration of many young women from Newfoundland who found in Saint-Pierre a new home, jobs as well as a husband and contributed to a renewal with fresh, strong Irish blood of the old Breton, Basque and Norman genetic stock.

Later, after Newfoundland entered the Canadian Confederation, occasional immigration brought to the 10th province natives from Saint-Pierre et Miquelon. Today many families from the islands have homes in the Burin Peninsula where they enjoy the summer months, elementary and high-school students from Newfoundland come to Saint-Pierre to learn French whereas some Saint-Pierre students attend Memorial University.

Most families in Saint-Pierre can boast of having relatives in Newfoundland and could tell memorable stories about meaningful encounters with Newfoundlanders.

Allow me to tell you one of these stories.

In the spring of 1890 a young widow was returning to Saint-Pierre from France with her three children, two boys and one girl. Her husband had passed away the previous year in Saint-Pierre and she had brought her family back to her native Normandy. However, the children, especially the oldest son, were missing the island where they were born, and here she was on her way back to Saint-Pierre. The crossing was long and difficult, the ship icebound for several weeks in the vicinity of Cape Race. One day a sailor killed an eider and one of the boys jumped overboard to catch the bird. He noticed that, owing to the pressure of the ice, there was a large hole in the hull. A few days later, when the ice broke, pumps had to be activated. In spite of the frantic efforts of the crew taking turns at the pumps, the ship was leaking dangerously, and after two days of useless struggle the end was near. Then, as if by a miracle, the ship was spotted by a Newfoundland fishing boat, the passengers and the crew were rescued and brought to Placentia where the young widow and her children were welcomed in the home of a local family during the time needed to repair their ship. A month later they arrived in Saint-Pierre where they had been reported lost at sea. The whole journey had taken some three months. The young widow was my great grandmother and the little boy of 12 who jumped overboard to catch the bird and who noticed the hole in the hull was my grand-father. This is the second time that this story has been told in public in Newfoundland. The first time was by my father Joseph Le Huenen, then mayor of Saint-Pierre, in the speech he made at the tri-centennial anniversary of the foundation of Placentia in the summer of 1962. In its simplicity this story says it all ≠ life, death, courage, sharing, generosity and human solidarity in facing great hardship. The straight of sea that separates Saint-Pierre et Miquelon from Newfoundland is not merely a border, it is a locus of communication where old barriers and national differences have become irrelevant.

I would like now to turn briefly to one of my main research interests, travel literature. This field of research was not initially one I was planning to pursue. I was at first and still am a Balzac scholar. In the fall of 1985, I was invited to participate in a conference at the University of Quebec in Montreal devoted to the representation of the American Indian in literature. I contributed a paper which was a comparison between Balzacís novel Les chouans and James Fenimore Cooperís novel The Last of the Mohicans, a valid inquiry, although the focus of the conference lay elsewhere, on travel accounts by Columbus, Hernan Cortes, Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain and others, that offer descriptions of the New World and its inhabitants. This convinced me to explore the field of travel literature, starting in 1989 with a critical edition of Gobineauís Voyage ŗ Terre-Neuve, a project that had been suggested to me seventeen years before by one of my mentors at the University of Strasbourg, Professor Jean Gaulmier, a well-known specialist of Gobineau. Gobineauís narrative was published in 1861, following an 1859 joint French and British inquiry over French fishing rights on the French Shore. It offers the French perspective on this sensitive question as well as a fascinating, enriching and detailed depiction of life in St. Johnís at the end of the 1850s, presenting a view emerging from a literary, cultural and political tradition significantly different from the one portrayed by British reports and travel accounts of the time. This book is a great social and cultural statement on Newfoundland in the 19th century and is available for the English reader in a fine translation provided by Professor Michael Wilkshire from Memorial University.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute as well to the important work done by two other colleagues from Memorial University in the field of travel literature, Professor Ronald Rompkeyís research on 19th century French travel accounts about Newfoundland, in particular those accounts written by commanders of the French naval station, and published as a critical anthology in 2004, and Professor Scott Jamiesonís English translation and critical edition of Julien Thouletís 1886 Voyage ŗ Terre-Neuve which appeared in 2005. This shows how fertile a ground Newfoundland is for the student of travel literature.

Travel literature as an object of study is a relatively new field. In 1985 we were only a few, anxious to elucidate the marks and features of a genre which offers the peculiarity of being lacking in rules, that enjoys a formal freedom, a plasticity which allows it to adapt to aesthetic and ideological mutations in a given society, but remains at the same time elusive, resisting descriptive attempts other than those which are merely taxonomies of contents. However, this generic versatility is also what makes this type of text so significant since travel narratives can accommodate and articulate discourses from various origins : those of the geographer, of the naturalist and the ethnologist, of the administrator and the military officer, of the missionary, of the merchant and the economist, of the historian, of the archaeologist and the lover of fine arts amongst others, all these discourses bringing to the text their own lexicon and their ideological perspectives. Focusing on the interpretation and awareness of other cultures, travel literature constitutes a huge pool of observations and knowledge available to those readers who have a scholarly or general interest in understanding human diversity.

Fellow graduates, here is my message to you. Allow your mind to be open to imagination, curiosity, critical engagement, the spirit of enquiry, and see where they will lead you in the years ahead.

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