Salt Production on the Magdalen Islands

Salt Production on the Magdalen Islands

Empower Yourself Now spoke with workers from the Seleine Mine operations on the Magdalen Islands in Quebec. These workers have been closely following the salt miners and workers strike in Windsor, Ontario and expressed their support. For the information of our readers, EYN is providing an overview of what they had to say about Seleines Mines, the Magdalen Islands and their economy.

Seleine Mine

The sodium chloride rock salt mine on the Magdalen Islands located in the centre of the Gulf of St. Lawrence is known as the Seleine Mine. It is 95 per cent pure sodium chloride and is the only salt mine in Quebec, supplying all the road salt for the province. The Seleine Mine also supplies other parts of Eastern Canada such as Newfoundland, as well as the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and France, with road salt. There are seven salt deposits on the Magdalen Islands that were found by the Société québécoise d’exploration minière in 1972. These deposits are known as salt domes because they are very close to the surface. Of the seven, the deposit that is closest to the surface is found on Grosse Île, where the Seleine Mine is located, some 30 metres below ground. This mine generates close to $15 million annually for the Islands.

The Seleine Mine was opened in 1982 with a government investment of $125 million. It was sold in 1988 for $35 million to the Canadian Salt Company (Windsor Salt).[1] One condition of that sale was that Windsor Salt’s headquarters had to be relocated from Toronto to Quebec. It was later purchased by European mining conglomerate K+S Americas, becoming part of the Morton Salt monopoly. Under the umbrella of Morton Salt, it was bought by Stone Canyon Industries Holdings Inc. (SCIH) in 2021. Since SCIH bought the Seleine Mine, four workers have been laid off and the director of the mine was replaced.

The mine employs approximately 200 workers in production as well as a number of engineers and laboratory technicians. They produce more than 1,300,000 metric tons of rock salt per year. The mine works two shifts in a 24-hour period: a day shift from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm and a night shift from 8:00 pm to 6:00 am. The two hours on either end of these shifts are reserved for blasting. The current contract at the Seleine Mine expires in the fall of 2024 and the workers, who are members of the Seleine Mine Workers’ Union of the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN), are following developments in Windsor, Ontario in order to prepare for the battles they know lie ahead. 

A particular concern they want addressed is the erosion of their wages due to the high rate of inflation. The salt workers in Windsor have a cost-of-living provision in their current contract that automatically increases their wages as the cost-of-living rises. This standard is something that does not exist in the contract at the Seleine Mine but is a measure the workers need addressed to keep up with the actual conditions they face. The workers note that the company has a problem retaining staff given the difficult hours of work as younger workers want time with their families.

In August 2020, prior to its purchase by SCIH, with the financial support of the Quebec government, Windsor Salt entered into a partnership with Canada Steamship Lines (CSL) to commission a new state-of-the-art diesel-electric self-unloading vessel, the MV Nukumi. According to CSL, the vessel was created “to service Windsor Salt’s need to deliver de-icing salt from its Mines Seleine salt mine on the Magdalen Islands to stockpiles in Montreal, Quebec City and other destinations within the provinces of Quebec and Newfoundland.”

The new ship went into service in May of 2022. Its automation decreases the loading time and number of workers required to load the salt onto the boat — sensors and machines are used to evenly load the ship instead of having to move the ship during loading to spread the load. The workers who do the loading on the ship are contract workers. The new ship is also faster than previous ships, can run in shallower waters and manoeuvre better; meaning that it can chart waters prior ships could not. It emits less carbon emissions as a result of the diesel-electric motor.

The Magdalen Islands and Their Economy

The Magdalen Islands are an archipelago in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence that constitute part of the Epegwitg aq Pigtug district of Mi’kma’ki (the Mi’kmaw Nation) who call the islands Menagoesenog, meaning “wave swept islands.” There are seven inhabited islands of the archipelago, six of which are linked by a main road, which runs an approximate distance of 85 kms along Route 199. The seventh island, Entry Island, is no longer inhabited and is only accessible by boat.

The Magdalen Islands are part of the Province of Quebec, although they are much closer to the maritime provinces and Newfoundland and Labrador than to the Gaspé Peninsula. They are situated 700 km away from Quebec’s mainland and approximately 150 km from Prince Edward Island. The Magdalen Islands are accessible by air from various starting points to Dune-du-Sud or by ferry from Souris, PEI to Cap-aux-Meules. The ferry trip takes approximately five hours.

Historically, the Mi’kmaq would travel to the archipelago seasonally to fish. The islands would become a refuge for Acadians during the Great Deportation (1755-1764) carried out by the British colonialists, who sought to eliminate opposition to their occupation of Acadia, shortly after the British captured Fort Beauséjour during the Seven Years’ War. The inhabitants of the Magdalen Islands, 85 per cent of whom still identify as Acadians today, are known as Madelinots.

Economy of the Magdalen Islands

The total population on the Magdalen Islands is approximately 15,000. The primary industry there is fishing for both fish and shellfish, largely lobster and snow crab. This industry brings in approximately $80 million per year to the island and markets include Canada and Quebec. The fisheries employ approximately 2,000 fishers, assistant fishers and plant workers. In Quebec, the Magdalen Islands is where there is the greatest concentration of young fishers. For inhabitants of the Magdalen Islands, fishing is a way of life that has been passed down through generations.

The second largest industry of importance to the local economy on the Magdalen Islands is tourism. This industry generates approximately $50 million per year and includes 1,400, mostly full-time, direct, indirect and seasonal jobs. This industry has grown since the 1960s and now includes just over 200 tourism companies. Today, 90 per cent of visitors come to the Magdalen Islands during July and August, and the annual tourist season is from June to September.

Another major employer for the islands is the social service sector. This sector represents approximately 1,800 jobs in government services, education and healthcare. Cap-aux-Meules has the largest concentration of people on the entire archipelago of the Magdalen Islands, and it is on this island that there is a hospital, schools, including a CEGEP, and a thermal power station, which generates the vast majority of power for the islands.

Note

1. “Les débuts de l’exploitation de sel aux Îles-de-la-Madeleine,” Radio Canada, August 15, 2017.