Landscapes of retreat are a context of place, and of time; of how cultural change can be appreciated in relation to ecological change over long periods of time. In Sainte-Flavie, the context is edified by a decade of obstructionist planning, as policy stalls, hesitates, and delays the acknowledgement of change. It is humiliating to admit that a decade of costly reportage confirmed the obvious: homes will need to move or be moved. How, when, and who will pay is entirely unknown, but if it is left to the detached administrations, surely it will take another decade. And this is precisely why retreat matters: as relocation is debated, residents tire of excuses, and decide to retreat.

Mariel and I visited the region in December 2019. We wanted
to experience the high-high tides and the winter. This is also a part of the world that I am quite familiar with, having grown up on Big Waterway. Taking the ferry across the river in winter is an exper- iment in patience, as we checked in with the daily schedule of the crossing from the North to the South shore, from Les Escoumins to Trois-Pistoles. Due to high winds and waves, we postponed a few days, which is only relevant in so far as it was a reminder that even the best itineraries are only suggestions when you live within and according to the elements. The mayor of Sainte-Flavie, Jean-François Fortin also owns the local micro-brewery. He described the edge of the shore as a snake (serpent), using the word “regress” to describe how the shore seems to return to a stable state even as other parts continue to move.12 We sat together in the town hall, which was made up of three converted containers adjacent to the municipal ice rink in the center of town. Fortin, was joined by Géraldine Colli, who leads the effort on the ground, and explains shoreline risk directly with community members, sitting in familial living rooms, walking across mucky farmland, and listening attentively to each concern on an individual basis. Fortin pulled out a few papers that showed a printed aerial map depicting sections of the shoreline. Overlaid on the aerial image was a thick purple line that seems to roughly trace the coast, but it was thick enough the mostly correspond to the size of Sainte-Flavie in its entirety:

You can see that along our shore, most of the houses are in the purple zone, the zone of constraint. This study by Pascal Bernatchez indicated shoreline erosion. But I would call it shoreline submersion. For us, we cannot call it erosion. For the security of our citizens, we have placed a ban on building, modifying, or anything. We do not encourage living on that ground—look outside, even Route 132 is in the menacing zone.

Fortin is describing the first phase of advocacy for Sainte-Flavie following the release of the report, which substantiated the risk
and provided the municipality the evidence needed to appeal to the provincial government for aid. This was the first phase of relief and yielded an agreement for the town that reimbursed up to 5.5 million Canadian dollars for twenty-four of the most vulnerable homes. Residents were offered three entirely voluntary choices: use the funds to purchase another plot of land on higher ground; spend the funds to move the building in its entirety to land outside the purple zone; or, stay in your home at your own risk. In his own words, the program was an achievement, but at that time many residents stayed and began to patch walls, build up their foundations, and reconstruct their homes. This, according to Fortin, was a gamble that stalled commu- nity response:

It’s a collective responsibility. We can have an approach that just looks at homes as an object, a very clear description of what it is, and what we understand the problem to be. But when you are on the other side of the object, you see that even with the most intelligent understanding of it, there are things we don’t see. We are interested in all coming together around a table to look beyond the object, so that we can encourage concerted action that is much more promising for the future of our community.

Most of the homeowners chose to move their homes, working closely with the municipality to bequeath the land for one dollar. Others left their homes and rebuilt on higher ground, equally donating the parcel to Sainte-Flavie. The main concern that wa not accounted for in the funding agreement was the incredible cost to this tiny municipality of 1,000 residents—the costs of unbuilding. Unbuilding refers to the removal of foundations, septic tanks, driveways, and the partial structures themselves. At the time, these lands were amassed as parcels without owners, but with hefty costs. A reminder of the landscape of retreat: what will become of the land that’s left behind?

The land that is left behind is not "empty," it is replete with memories and the magnificent lives of other species. The elusiveness of these still, ever shifting terrains are losing their private lives as the shoreline rewilds.