ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — On Friday morning, the car belonging to the president of a group of French islands drove five metres into Fortune, N.L., and then promptly reversed back onto the ferry it came from.
It was all part of a ceremony that would have been decidedly less bizarre if it weren’t for the COVID-19 pandemic and its prompting of Canadian public health officials to seal international borders.
The event was a celebration of Fortune's newly upgraded wharf which, for the first time, allows cars to drive on and off the ferry that runs to St-Pierre-Miquelon, an overseas territory of France about 40 kilometres from Fortune. The car Friday belonged to Bernard Briand, president of the territorial collectivity of St-Pierre-Miquelon. It was the first ever vehicle to drive off the ferry.
As a French citizen, Briand can't enter Canada because of pandemic restrictions. So he got a Canadian citizen to make the historic first vehicular exit off the ferry, said Chris Sheppard, the executive director of Legendary Coasts, a group dedicated to boosting tourism in the region. Sheppard was there, too, to initiate the new wharf.
"He couldn't step off the boat and I couldn't step on the boat," Sheppard said. "But if I reached out and he reached out, we could have shook hands."
Briand would like to change the situation, and Sheppard would like to help him.
On Wednesday, Briand wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking him to consider allowing travel between the islands and the province. The note was also sent to Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey.
St-Pierre-Miquelon has reported just 24 cases of COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic and 71 per cent of the island's 6,500 residents have received their first dose of vaccine, Briand said. Forming a travel arrangement with Newfoundland and Labrador could be an important first step in the French territory's bid to join the so-called Atlantic bubble, he wrote.
The Atlantic bubble allows residents to travel between the four provinces without having to quarantine. It's tentatively scheduled to be restored on May 3 after a successful run last summer.
When asked last week about opening travel to St-Pierre-Miquelon, Furey told reporters there are many public health considerations and that it's ultimately up to Ottawa.
Fortune mayor Charles Penwell said he'd love to open up travel to the French territory, and so would many tourism operators in Fortune, which sits on the Burin Peninsula, along Newfoundland's southern coast.
"A lot of people from St-Pierre have property on the Burin Peninsula," Penwell said in an interview. He said he estimates up to 15,000 people might go back and forth in a year.
They buy groceries, and eat at restaurants, rent cars, and drive to St. John's to go shopping, he said. "It's really been a major blow to the tourism industry."
Besides, he said, now they can bring their own car.
Sheppard agrees. "We've had so many tourism operators close their doors because of lack of business, this is a huge opportunity," he said.
Mainland France is in the throes of a deadly third wave of COVID-19, and the disease has killed over 100,000 people there since it emerged last spring. Sheppard said Briand and his government make travellers to St-Pierre-Miquelon follow strict protocols. They must test negatively three days before they leave, and then self-isolate for seven days when they arrive, he said. To get out of isolation, they take another test.
Referring to the 1,039 reported cases of COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador since the onset of the pandemic, Sheppard jokes that it's St-Pierre-Miquelon that should be worried. "Really, we're the problem, here," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2021.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press