Acknowledging Forillon National Park’s controversial beginnings

The story behind a federal government pledge of $9.8 million to restore and present the heritage houses once owned by Grande-Grave’s expropriated families

  • Apr 25, 2023
  • 1,390 words
  • 6 minutes
A view of Grande-Grave, October 2022. (Photo: Parks Canada)
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Though today it is best known for its sweeping pebble beaches, coves, and stunning ocean views, the history of Quebec’s Forillon National Park on the Grande-Grave peninsula is steeped in discord and controversy.

Located on the traditional territory of the Mi’kmaq, before 1970, the area was home to just over 200 families spread across seven small communities. Today, that extended community is long gone, those families forced to leave their homes — many against their will — to make way for Forillon National Park.

This year, Forillon National Park is set to receive $9.8 million in funding to restore and present the few remaining heritage houses that remain some five decades after the controversial expropriation. Some of the money will also go toward commemorating the lives of the families that were forced to leave and to creating heritage-cottage-style accommodations for future visitors.

A group called the Association of Persons Expropriated from Forillon and their Descendants is providing input on the ongoing project.

Maison Charles Philip Bartlett House, October 2022. (Photo: Parks Canada)
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Maison Joseph Gavey House, October 2022. (Photo: Parks Canada)
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This story dates back to the 1960s when the federal government began looking to expand its national parks network in Quebec. In talks with the provincial government, it was decided a park on the Gaspé Peninsula would serve to develop tourism in the region.

By June of 1970, the two governments reached an agreement and residents of Grande-Grave and several other nearby communities were told they were being expropriated and were asked to leave their homes to make way for the new nature preserve. The mass expropriation forced the families to scatter, leaving behind friends, family, homes, income and heritage. Not long after they left, the government burned down almost all of the buildings and other structures to “preserve the nature of the area”. Residents were given little compensation for their property and a small fee for resettlement.

Maison Daniel Gavey House, October 2022. (Photo: Parks Canada)
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In the wake of the expropriation, the residents’ organized resistance is said to have led to changes in the National Parks Act, stipulating that residents would not be forced from their homes for the creation of future parks. In 2011, the government also issued a formal apology and offered free park passes to Forillon National Park’s former residents for up to three generations.

Hermeline Smith Simon and Debbie Philips are members of the Association of Persons Expropriated from Forillon and their Descendants, which continues to fight for the rights of former residents and their descendants.

The two met in the 1980s through their husbands and have bonded over a love of outdoor sports. Simon is 70 years old and Philips is 66 — they were both young women when the expropriation took place. But even after so many years, they can still recall the impact it had on their families and the traumatic changes it caused.

Debbie Philips’ family was forced from their home when she was 14. They were lucky to be able to relocate to her grandparents’ home just a few kilometres away. But even though the distance was small, the move was far enough that the family was now settled in a new community. This was challenging for the teenager, but her parents had other concerns. Before their move, the family had been living in a lodge they had purchased after World War II. The building, which had originally been used as soldiers’ barracks, consisted of a lobby, dining room and nine bedrooms. Philips’ parents had converted the space into a bed and breakfast, which they operated along with a general store. When the family was forced to relocate, they lost both businesses. The family received little compensation because the government deemed the business as “seasonal” and therefore “not worth much money”.

From then on, her parents did what they could to get by, doing odd jobs and collecting unemployment. Philips said her father never got over the loss. “My dad was very bitter. He went to his grave being very bitter,” Philips said. For her part, though, she’s happy that after more than 50 years of sitting empty, the properties that remain standing in Forillon National Park will be rehabilitated. She says there is some irony in the fact that when the families were removed from their houses they were told the properties had very little value, but now they are considered to be worth something.

Maison Elias Gavey House, October 2022. (Photo: Parks Canada)
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Hermeline Smith Simon moved to Grande-Grave when she was two. Her parents were originally from the area and her entire extended family lived nearby. “I grew up in Grand-Grave, close to my family,” Simon said. “My grandmother and grandfather, my uncles, my cousins —they were all close to us and we would see them every day. We had lots of people to play with and a big playground, too. With the water and the mountains, it was a nice, free way of growing up.”

Simon was 20 when her family was forced to leave the park in 1971. Her family received very little for their house and lands and, as people were forced to relocate, house prices skyrocketed in the nearby towns. Simon’s family was forced to move into a low-income area that was built partially for the expropriated people of Forillon National Park. Simon said her father never got over the loss of his home and community — the Simon family was dispersed, spread out across the region and beyond.

When Grande-Grave was expropriated, a few houses were left standing rather than burned or torn down like in the other communities. The government had a plan to one day turn these houses into a kind of “ancestral park”. Unfortunately, the money for that project never arrived and so the houses were left to fall into ruin. Now, the money has finally come through to restore those houses. Simon has described the restoration of the remaining houses as like putting a band-aid on an open wound. But since there is no going back to 1970, she hopes this project may help heal some of the hurt.

Grand Greve, C.E., published in Thomas Pye “Canadian Scenery: District of Gaspé...with Tinted Lithographs from Photographs by the Author”, Montreal, printed by John Lovell, 1866.
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Most visitors to Forillon National Park have no idea that there were once thriving communities on its shores. The Association of Persons Expropriated from Forillon and their Descendants has managed to get some signage erected in the park to educate visitors on the history of its founding and the expropriation, however this new funding project marks a significant step forward.

“The houses and other buildings which belonged to the expropriated people are among the last witnesses to the history of the community living in Grande-Grave when Forillon National Park was established,” Smith said in a news release after the funding was announced. “For us, it was increasingly difficult to see these beautiful houses unused. They had been, at the time, the anchor point of families for decades.”

Élizabeth Lacoursière, Parks Canada’s Gaspésie Field Unit Superintendent, noted that officials of Forillon National Park have worked hard to come up with a more community-oriented approach to the park’s management. Nurturing stronger connections with the expropriated community members and their decedents has been an important step in that process.

“We’re national protected areas for the richness of the natural and the cultural environment, but we’re also part of communities, so it’s important to be good neighbours,” Lacoursière said, adding that the newly announced funding will help the park to both present and celebrate its heritage.

Havre de Grande-Grave, c. 1900, Reference collection Forillon National Park.
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Grande-Grave area, 1922. Reference collection Forillon National Park.
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The goals are to bring some life back into the once-abandoned houses and, at the same time, educate visitors on the history of the park. The goal is to, “really respect the spirit of the heritage and make it the really authentic experiences where the visitors will be able to understand more and witness the way of life before the park was created,” Lacoursière said.

In the Grande-Grave area, there are roughly a dozen buildings still standing — four houses, along with barns and other structures. The houses were built between 1865 and 1915. The community at that time was reliant on the cod fishing industry and Parks Canada wants to ensure that fishing history is also represented in the renewal plans.

While it’s important to recognize the darker parts of the park’s history, “ I think the bright side to now is that we have the most beautiful national park in Canada for everyone to enjoy,” Lacoursière said.

The work is expected to take several years to complete.


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