Parks Canada is extending an olive branch to hundreds of people in eastern New Brunswick who used to live in what is now Kouchibouguac National Park.
Administrators at the sprawling seaside park are reaching out to people who were involved in one of Canada's most traumatic expropriations in order to make sure the history of the area and its vanished Acadian villages are remembered along the park's scenic trails and breathtaking vistas.
An advisory committee has been organized to involve former residents in planning the park's future and finding ways in which it can commemorate its past.
"This will lead to a better understanding of what we can do at Parks Canada to help tell the story so that former residents feel the park belongs to them as well," said Claude Degrace, acting superintendent of the park and himself an expropriated resident.
Established in 1969, the 238-square-kilometre national park lies on the Northumberland Strait. Its long stretches of pristine beaches, shifting sand dunes and wooded bike and hiking trails have made it a popular tourist destination.
But the expropriation of 10 Acadian villages to create the park caused enormous disruption in the lives of more than 1,000 people whose families had fished and farmed the land for generations and for a long time many local residents have avoided visiting the park because of the hurt it symbolizes, said Degrace.
Former residents of the area don't look down on the park, he said, but often question the way the expropriation was carried out.
Jackie Vautour and his family were defiant to the end and still live in a ramshackle home in the middle of the park. His family endured violent confrontations with police, the bulldozing of the family's original home and enticing gifts of land and money from the New Brunswick government.
"Although it was legal, it turned everyone's life around and upside down," Degrace said.
Vautour challenged the expropriation in court, it was ruled lawful. But the bitter experience of Kouchibouguac forever altered the way Parks Canada acquires land, he added.
The Canadian National Parks Act, given royal assent in October 2000, states Parks Canada will not acquire land through expropriation. Now real estate for national parks is assembled over a period of many years as Parks Canada buys up parcels of land as they come available on the market or as the owners die.
In Kouchibouguac, several graveyards mark the history of its former communities but the advisory committee will also be looking for new ways to highlight the areas where villages and homesteads once existed.
Velma Chiasson, whose family land was expropriated in the 1960s, said she would like to see parts of the park currently inaccessible opened so former residents can visit their former homes once again.
"What hurts them the most is that since the park was built, nothing was done with much of the land. It is just sitting there dormant," said Chiasson, who will also be serving on the advisory committee.