The 'Weirdos' trying to keep a French tradition alive near Canada

The 'Weirdos' trying to keep a French tradition alive near Canada
Copyright Daniela De Lorenzo
By Daniela De Lorenzo
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The islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon are 4,279 km away from their mother capital city, Paris. Officially known as the Overseas Collectivity of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, they constitute a small archipelago of 242 km². The collectivity is located only 25 km from Canada, but it belongs to France.

It is here where a group that calls itself “The Weirdos” (Les Zigotos) from Saint Pierre is trying to keep a French tradition alive.

Like many other islands and archipelagos, their history and economic growth is inextricably linked to the fishing industry. One can see this by looking at their flag, reading the latin motto "a mare labor", read literally as: "the work given by the sea”. Since the early XX century, the main activity of the citizens of Saint-Pierre and seasonal workers coming from France has been cod fishing with the use of a specific boat, the "doris" - a small, light motorless boat.

Gérard Hélène, nephew and grandson of the first doris builders in the archipelago, chairs Les Zigotos, the local association for marine heritage protection. The doris is the emblem of the history of artisan fishing in Saint-Pierre and some fishermen still use them in the bay of Mont Saint-Michel, on the Normandy coast. However, since the collapse of the cod industry in the Northwest Atlantic, the method of fishing with the doris boat is disappearing.

According to Gérard, it is not just a matter of tradition, but also a way of keeping the memory of his family alive. Allowing the use of the old family workshop “Pierre Hélène” to the association, the space is being used to restore these flat-bottom 5 metre boats.

It was once an alcohol stocking location during the years of the prohibition in the U.S. and Canada, but now the Pierre Hélène workshop has been transformed into the headquarters of the not for profit organisation, where its walls are covered in either tools, boat parts or pictures of Gérard Hélène’s father, uncle and grandfather. It even includes an indoor bowling space which volunteers use regularly.

Daniela De Lorenzo

But a team of over 20 volunteers, including Gérard, François Honoré, Jean Marc Briand, and Jean-louis Lemaine restore the fragile old boats built over forty years ago. So far Les Zigotos’ fleet counts 6 boats used regularly in regattas for fishing local species such as cod, crab and squid.

Daniela De Lorenzo

Not only is the group trying to help the doris survive, but it is also trying to keep the small community of Saint Pierre alive through using the workshop space as a community hub. The World Cup Final screenings and various concerts took place here, for example. 

Daniela De Lorenzo

Clémence Tissemand, assistant at the Centre for Youth, Sport, Social Cohesion and Associative Life reiterates the importance of the project which has been running its volunteer activity for over 25 years. Les Zigotos, through their continued work, encourage heritage that is not only physical, such as the boats, but also ethereal, engendering collective memory and identity.

Daniela De Lorenzo

On the occasion of Heritage Day on September 16th, the French Minister of Overseas France, Mrs Annick Girardin, and the French Minister of Culture, Françoise Nyssen, were introduced to Les Zigotos as one of the best local examples of heritage conservation.

New opportunities to keep this tradition alive will come from future generations. Teaming up with students, Les Zigotos will demonstrate how to build a doris boat by using traditional manufacturing techniques.

But it is not only an educational tool and a link to the younger generation, Les Zigotos seeks to give a lasting impression of Saint Pierre to tourists and visitors.

Daniela De Lorenzo

As the fishing industry continues to languish, the archipelago of Saint Pierre and Miquelon is now trying to diversify their economy by focusing on tourism. With this in mind, Les Zigotos will now offer a 1.5 hour tour on their iconic boats while telling the story of the fishing heritage of the islands. The hope is to keep French cultural heritage alive and give a second lease of life to the old doris boat.

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