After the 3rd major storm in 5 years, the Îles-de-la-Madeleine say they are on the “front line” of climate change


Isabelle Cormier spent the days following post-tropical storm Fiona picking up what could be salvaged from her family’s 40-year-old cottage.

Among the sodden treasures strewn on the floor: a troll doll, so old it had no hair, a large cooking pot and a single oar – a keepsake worthy of a boating family.

The cottage, hand-built by the family with driftwood, collapsed like a house of cards during the storm.

All that’s left is the roof, a window covered in kids’ stickers, and a slack electrical wire waving in the wind.

“A good friend of mine called me early on Saturday morning and said, ‘I’m so sorry,'” Cormier said.

But she knew the day would come when the building would collapse. It was long protected by a sand dune so high that people inside could only see the water from the top floor.

Over the past three years, storms – including Dorian in 2019 – have reduced this sand dune to oblivion. By the time Fiona arrived the cottage was fully exposed to the elements.

“My mourning, I did when Dorian hit. I knew that would be it,” she said. “It’s emotional now…because it’s a place for us, for our family, and it has a lot of soul.”

On Sunday, members of Isabelle Cormier’s family cleaned up the wreckage of her cottage, including picking up personal items (like this troll doll) from the floor. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Shoreline loss now half a meter per year

Fiona is the third major storm to hit the Magdalen Islands in five years, according to Serge Bourgeois, director of urban planning for the municipality, which has about 12,000 inhabitants. (Another 465 people live on Grosse Île, a predominantly English-speaking island that is a separate municipality.)

Quebec’s Transport Ministry is still making repairs after Hurricane Dorian, Bourgeois said.

Storms accelerate erosion, but even without major weather events, research from the University of Quebec at Rimouski (UQAR) shows that the Magdalen Islands are losing land mass faster than before.

A study shows that between 1963 and 2008, the coasts of the islands eroded by an average of 24 centimeters per year. More recent studies by UQAR found that the loss has almost doubled since 2005, to 46 centimeters – or nearly half a meter – per year.

The sand and dunes, described by Cormier as the “flesh and blood” of the islands, are disappearing at an alarming rate, she said.

“We islanders are on the front lines of climate change,” Cormier said. “The real impact, the real mourning, is the erosion.”

The images show the size of the sand dune in front of Isabelle Cormier's chalet before and after its erosion.  The photo on the left is from 2019 and the photo on the right is from 2014.
The image on the right shows the size of the sand dune in front of Isabelle Cormier’s chalet in 2014. The photo on the left is from 2019, according to Dorian. (Submitted by Isabelle Cormier)

Fight to save the Maggies

Since 2018, the three levels of government have spent more than $50 million to fight shoreline erosion in the Magdalen Islands.

Visit the islands On Monday, the day after the storm, Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault pledged an additional $100 million and the creation of an office to coordinate efforts to curb erosion on all affected shorelines, including including in Gaspésie and on the Lower North Shore.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Bourgeois said. “The $100 million is one thing, but the office is a great idea.”

A blonde-haired woman stands in front of the half-empty shelves of her herbalist in the Magdalen Islands
Nouane Giguère, owner of L’Anse aux Herbes in La Grave, said her store suffered around a foot of flooding during post-tropical storm Fiona. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Recent efforts to prevent erosion have already made some difference, residents say.

In La Grave, on the south side of the archipelago, the province and the municipality shared the cost of $7.4 million to fortify the pebble beach ahead of further storms.

Small flooded seaside shops. However, the owner of one called Anse aux Herbes said things could have been much worse.

“What we’re really happy about is that they put the rocks down to break up the waves, and that was helpful,” said Nouane Giguère, who spent Sunday cleaning up and assessing the damage after her store took about a foot of water.

“Without it, it would be really, really more dramatic.”

But with the latest evidence of the extent of the damage a ferocious storm can wreak, many islanders are hoping political leaders can now see the urgency of the situation and what it will take to save their footing in the Gulf of Saint Laurent.

Water towers on large rocky cliffs in Magdalen Islands on a sunny day
Post-tropical storm Fiona ended around 10 p.m. Saturday on the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with winds exceeding 150 km/h. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

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