HC Deb 16 March 1860 vol 157 cc749-51
MR. HALIBURTON said, he would beg to ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if his attention has been called to the fact of the French Government having erected Fortifications on the Island of St. Pierre. The matter was one of very great importance, and one which had much excited the public mind in the Lower Province of Canada. It was well known that in former years the people of almost every European country resorted to the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland for the purpose of fishing; but by degrees the use of those fisheries had become confined to the English, American, and French fishermen. The English fishermen from Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador having greater facilities, were, of course, the largest participators in that valuable fishery. The Americans having within three leagues of the coast the right of fishing, and having the easement of curing their fish on both uninhabited shores of the island, had their peculiar catch, but they did not interfere with us. The French had two small islands, the principal of which was St. Pierre, and they became the centre of a very large fishery, which had grown up in an extraordinary manner in the last few years. In addition to the absolute ownership of these two Islands, the French claimed the use of the shores of Newfoundland, which were uninhabited, for the purpose of curing their fish. In time this occupancy began to be stretched into a right of territory, and, according to that new phrase of the Emperor, « the logic of facts, » their power was about being made much greater. On the breaking out of every war for the last century and a half we have had to take proceedings to drive away the Frenchmen from this coast, and on every peace their rights had been restored to them. The last occasion on which this cession took place was in 1814, and in this way they held the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. The rulers of France, with that foresight that had eminently distinguished them, had granted a very large bounty on the catch of fish—a bounty, he bettered, equivalent to the value of the fish; and, under these circumstances, they had fostered and brought up that fishery to that degree that they had between 30,000 and 40,000 sailors engaged in that business. It was the great nursery of their seamen. Such were the facilities and advantages which they derived from these bounties, that they undersold the Nova Scotian in the Halifax market, and sent up to Quebec and there undersold their own resident countrymen. The constant resort of these 30,000 or 40,000 French fishermen to these regions had inspired them with an idea of their own strength and power; and using these advantages sometimes without discretion, great conflicts bad occurred between them and the people of Newfoundland. Indeed, they had carried their pretensions to the length of giving notice to the inhabitants of St. George’s Bay, about 2,000 in number, that if they did not move out of their habitations, they should have them pulled down about their ears. In short, the people on that part of the coast of Newfoundland were now under warning. The French law required the boats engaged in the fishing trade to be of a certain build and to carry a certain number of men—because the object of the Government was not so much to stimulate employment in fishing as to create sailors. That was a matter of much greater importance to the Emperor than a treaty stipulation with England about coal. These proceedings had naturally been viewed as serious grievances by the British subjects settled near the Straits of Belle Isle and that portion of Newfoundland. A good deal of bad blood had also been excited, and it was astonishing that there had not been many conflicts ending in a very fatal manner. The French claimed the soil of a portion of the country, and an easement in other parts, and they demanded exclusive privileges; but that part of this subject which he would now put out of view, as it was still under the consideration of Commissioners appointed by both countries: he meant the aggressions on Newfoundland and the claim to exclusive privileges even over the rivers running into Labrador. The fortifications of the French on the island of St. Pierre had been raised contrary to express stipulations by treaty. The two barren islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon were of great importance, for they were situate in the larger outlet of the Straits of Belleisle and commanded the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and were within forty hours of the coast of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It was a nest which in the event of a war we should have, as the very first thing, to destroy, and as the French had no right to fortify the place it was very important that it should not, in the event of a war, be the cause of greater expense in money and life than if it had remained according to the terms of the treaty. He had not himself been on the island of St. Pierre, but he was informed that, independent of the fortifications which the French had put on it, they had made it a naval station, and they had large steamers which lay there under pretence of receiving mails from the Cunard steamers for Halifax; whilst nine miles below were the mouths of the mines from which they got their coal, and they were forming large depots at this place, and in the event of a war, rapidly as intelligence could now he conveyed by telegraph, the whole commerce of that portion of the world could be swept away by privateers. The 6th article of the Treaty of Paris, under which these islands were given up to France, declared, in terms which could not be mistaken, that they were « to serve as a shelter for the French fishery, » and His most Christian Majesty undertook « not to fortify the said islands, nor to erect buildings upon them, but merely to hold them for the convenience of the fishery, and to keep in them a guard of fifty men only for purposes of police. » He was personally aware that a coal station existed at the place; and he was informed that a large body of armed men, who were called « marines, » and who might therefore excuse their presence on the ground that they were neither soldiers nor sailors, were kept on the island. In the event of hostilities these men, as had once before been the case, might take possession of Newfoundland, and, though they would probably not be able to keep it in their hands, they would undoubtedly occasion a great deal of mischief. The hon. Member concluded by asking the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, whether his attention had been called to the erection of these fortifications on the island of St. Pierre; and whether, if any correspondence had taken place on the subject, it would be consistent with the interests of the public service to produce it for the information of the House?