Just 40-kilometres west of Fortune Bay, off Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula, sits a delectable sliver of France. The island archipelago known as Saint Pierre et Miquelon is a self-governing overseas territory of France home to approximately 6,500 French citizens in addition to many Newfoundlanders who have had families with its residents. I was lucky enough to visit the territory a few years ago, savouring the exquisite baked goods from the quintessentially French boulangeries and appreciating the scenic coastlines from the northern tip of Miquelon.
Despite its tumultuous history, the British and French warred over the islands during the initial colonization of North America and up until the Hundred Days War, when France finally reclaimed them in 1816, St. Pierre et Miquelon maintains a high standard of living and welcoming atmosphere. By no means rich, the population has a comparable disposable income level to most developed communities in Newfoundland.
Its economy relies on similar industries to Newfoundland as well, primarily the fishery, tourism, and the public service. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has essentially halted tourist activities in St. Pierre et Miquelon and slowed seasonal fishing, leaving its economy in shambles, and many of its residents feeling isolated or despairing. Recently however, a solution was proposed by the President of the Territorial Council of St. Pierre et Miquelon Bernard Briand.
In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Briand requested permission for the French islands to form a travel arrangement with Newfoundland and Labrador, like the wider Atlantic Bubble between NL, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI. The justifications for such an arrangement involved the aforementioned problems arising from severing the islands from Newfoundland, eliminating a longstanding connection of mutual benefit. The Mayor of Fortune, the outport community hosting the provincially sanctioned ferry to St. Pierre, asserted he would “love to” open travel between Newfoundland and the French archipelago.
Specifically, Mayor Charles Penwell referred to the 15,000 people who travel between Newfoundland and St. Pierre et Miquelon annually, stating that it is unjust to keep them separated from their families, property, and employment for such an extended period. These concerns have been voiced repeatedly by the French islanders, with some being kept from visiting spouses and grandparents for over a year since the beginning of the pandemic. Upon learning of the situation, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey expressed sympathy with the citizens on both sides of the divide, but given that it involves an international border crossing, the issue is the responsibility of the Canadian federal government and the Council of Ministers of France.
The mutual gains from establishing such an international travel bubble are wide-ranging but are particularly substantial in terms of economic stimulation and psychological relief. As mentioned above, both Newfoundland and St. Pierre rely heavily on tourism, especially in the summer months, to accumulate communal wealth. As noted by Chris Sheppard, the executive director of Newfoundland tourism firm Legendary Coasts, numerous tourism-reliant establishments, such as coastal restaurants or museums, have either closed completely or downsized in an effort to cut their losses during this travel-starved time. A St. Pierre-Newfoundland travel arrangement could be a desperately needed boon to both local economies, as two socially isolated peoples visit one another to eat at different restaurants, go shopping, or indulge in cross-cultural activities.
Relatedly, it is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to increased loneliness and stress, as being perpetually stuck at home, especially in areas as remote as Fortune or St. Pierre et Miquelon, is mentally strenuous. Once again, the proposed bilateral travel bubble ameliorates such conditions through the simple ability to see and experience something new. For some, this will take the form of visiting a loving grandparent once again, for others it will be a joyous reunion with a spouse, but needless to say it will take an immense psychological burden off many.
Luckily, the risk posed by COVID-19 in the context of a travel bubble between Newfoundland and St. Pierre is quite low, allowing for a reasonably liberal arrangement. There are currently no active cases of COVID-19 in St. Pierre et Miquelon, and while there are 33 in Newfoundland and Labrador, only 14 are in the Eastern Health region, where most residents of St. Pierre choose to venture. If done with proper sanitary precautions and while maintaining personal family bubbles, there is no reason why a bilateral travel arrangement should not be allowed. At the end of the day, it comes down to the political will of those at the upper echelons of the Canadian and French governments, and to what extent they are willing to embrace exceptional nuances.
It is undoubtedly necessary to restrict international travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as the speed at which the virus spreads and its total disregard for national borders makes it globally transmissible, and thus globally threatening. However, the case of St. Pierre et Miquelon displays the inevitable folly of one-size-fits all thinking in politics. Too often, as with the COVID-19 pandemic, easily digestible blanket solutions are proposed to infinitely complex problems incorporating varying actors, all of which are subject to numerous influences and unforeseen predicaments.
Restricting all international travel is a reasonable reflexive reaction to a global pandemic, but over time specificities ought to be added to existing policies. Number of COVID-19 cases, percent of the population vaccinated, population density, age-demographics, and economic necessity should all be factored into a targeted approach minimizing the negative externalities of the COVID-19 restrictions while remaining vigilant over the dangers of the virus itself.
In the case of a Newfoundland-St. Pierre et Miquelon travel bubble, these metrics provide grounds for a liberalization of cross-border restrictions, as the risk is comparatively low and the costs, like those outlined in this article, are evidently abundant. If Canada and France have the political will and nuance to embrace a targeted approach, the 40-kilometre distance that separates us can be safely bridged once again, to our bilateral delight.