Marie-France Coallier

Photos by Marie-France Coallier
Interview by Alexis Aubin

The Inhabitants of the Isle de Jean-Charles the first climate refugees in USA ?


While the orange light is still shimmering on the ground, the school bus stops for a moment at the side of the narrow road. The students get on and then the bus leaves for its destination, Pointe-au-Chien Elementary School.

The road, an arm of land a few meters wide, is often flooded, but it is the only way to get to the school on the small island. In the distance, an installation of an oil company reminds us that these daily trips are doomed. Sooner or later, the whole island will disappear, making its inhabitants the first American climate refugees.

Marie-France Coallier, photojournalist for the newspaper Le Devoir, was sent to cover three stories in Louisiana, USA. One of them dealt with the impact of climate change on the Island of Jean-Charles and its community.

This stretch of land located in the bayous of the parish of Terrebonne South off the coast of Louisiana is the home of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe. The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe made this area their territory after being displaced by the policies of the Indian Removal Act. Proposed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830, this law ordered the expulsion beyond the Mississippi River of 60,000 Amerindians who lived between the thirteen founding states and the Mississippi River.

Since its deportation, the French-speaking tribe has reappropriated these few miles of land, has invested this land and cultivated it.

Today their territory is sinking into the sea, disappearing before their eyes. The island is threatened by many environmental problems. Coastal erosion, lack of soil renewal and salt water intrusion into the water table caused by dredging by oil and gas companies are all factors threatening the survival of the area.

In short, the Louisiana archipelago loses the equivalent of a soccer field underwater every hour. But the island of Jean-Charles is one of the most at risk. Already, several inhabitants have left the island, tired of the annual floods and hurricanes. In 1955, there were about three hundred of them living there, today there are only about forty.

As Marie-France explains, the situation is so precarious that the state has proposed relocating the inhabitants: “There was a relocation plan made by the state of Louisiana to allow them to go live a little further north, in the town of Houma. But many of them are resisting. The chief of the tribe wants to prevent the spread of the population throughout southern Louisiana. I think we really want to preserve their heritage, their culture and their tradition.

If the island of Jean-Charles is a precursor in the United States, the phenomenon of climate refugees is destined to grow. According to the World Bank, by 2050, 143 million people could be forced to relocate due to rising waters around the world.

Marie-France Coallier
Marie-France Coallier is a photojournalist based in Montreal.
Passionate about the human race, her quest trace authenticity through the eyes of her subjects.
Graduated in Communications and Photography at the Ottawa University, her work has been published in several newspapers : Le Journal de Montréal, Magazine Voir, Montreal Daily News, Toronto Star, Montreal Gazette for about twenty years and Le Devoir.
Her photos were part of a collective during the Montreal World Press Photo Expo, in 2010 and with the Photosensitive's collective project on child poverty in Canada in 2001.
Her work has been recognized at the Prix Antoine-Desilets, at Focus Desjardins in 2019, at the Press Photographers Association of Canada in 2019 and 2020 and at the Siena International Photo Awards in 2019 and 2020.

Alexis Aubin
Alexis Aubin studied communications at UdeM and photography at Marsan College.  Whether as a photojournalist or as a communicator for humanitarian organizations, he uses the media to raise awareness about the challenges we collectively face.