Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased today to stand to address the Bloc Québécois motion, which reads as follows:
That this House issue an official apology to the people whose properties were expropriated to create Forillon Park for the unconscionable manner in which they were treated and that the Speaker of the House send the representatives of the people whose properties were expropriated and their descendants an official copy of the Journals of the House of Commons indicating the adoption of this motion.
I would first like to say a few words about Forillon Park as such and then say a few words about the history involved before getting—because I will get to it—to the matter at hand. All of those who have gone there know—and those who have only heard about it also know—that Forillon Park is recognized for its wilderness and natural beauty, and in fact all of the Gaspé is a very beautiful place. On this topic, as my Bloc colleagues surely know, the National Geographic Traveller magazine has ranked the Gaspé among the 20 top destinations to visit in the world in 2011. It is an absolutely extraordinary region that I love very much, just as I admire the men and women who live there or come from there.
For its part, Forillon Park itself is also an absolutely extraordinary place. The wild beauty of its landscapes, the fact that man, the land and the sea exist there in harmony, the diversity of its plant and animal life—as I have said before, all of that is superlative.
All that being said, everything is not rosy, nor has it been in the past. Dispersed here and there among the bushes, one can see the foundations of houses that were demolished and bear witness to a turbulent past. For the children and grandchildren of the displaced families, this is a harsh reminder of their collective history. Up until the creation of the park in 1970, several communities and many families derived their livelihood from the land and the resources of that region of the Gaspé. Some families fished, and had for generations, and I also remember seeing a documentary showing families settled in some small coves who worked in all of the stages of the fishery, be it the actual fishing or the landing or processing of the cod; they then sold it to the big companies, and much of the final product was exported to Europe. So there was still a deep-rooted fishery tradition there. Others farmed or raised livestock, and often they did both. This traditional way of life had been passed on from generation to generation.
Everything changed, everything was turned upside down when the area was designated as a national park. The designation as a national park and the new requirement to protect the ecosystem, put a stop to the commercial activities that those communities relied on for their survival. So the impact was significant. As a result, almost 225 families were forced to leave their land and their homes. The houses were destroyed or burnt down, often as their owners looked on, which is very sad. All in all, an estimated 1,200 dwellings were destroyed or burnt down. The lives of those people, those families, those men, women and children completely and drastically changed overnight.
This difficult, I would even say dramatic, situation lasted for a number of years. There was the beginning, and then there was the aftermath. First of all, those families would have received little or no compensation if they had not fought for five years, if they had not gone to court to have some of their rights recognized. That should never have happened. They were already going through trying and painful times, and being expropriated was already difficult enough to live with. At the very least, those families should not have been forced to go to court to claim what was rightfully theirs.
In addition, I am not sure why, but for part of the time that followed, the information provided to visitors about the history of the park stopped at 1942, which in a way hid 30 years of the existence and lives of the individuals most affected by the creation of the park. Not only were their requests ignored, but their own past was also denied.
For decades, their presence was forgotten and their collective history was hidden, in a way. For a long time now, these families have been calling for an official apology from this House for the injustices they suffered. I personally agree that they should receive an official apology, and my party, the Liberal Party of Canada, also agrees that they should receive an official apology, simply because these people deserve it.
When we talk about a situation like this, it is clear that we are not commemorating or remembering a proud moment in our history, but rather, just the opposite. So we must pull our heads out of the sand, face the issue and talk about it. As we know, an apology for the people whose properties were expropriated is long overdue. Their descendants—their children and grandchildren—have been calling for and hoping for an apology. This apology, as I said, is not only overdue, but it is also deserved.
All governments, regardless of their colour, regardless of whether they are red or blue, are far from perfect. They can make mistakes, regardless of their colour. But the biggest mistake that a government or a political party can make is not having the courage to acknowledge its mistakes. When we make a mistake, we must have the courage to admit it. If we create a situation that produces injustices, we must have the courage, decency and humility to apologize.
In supporting this motion, the Liberal Party of Canada acknowledges its share of responsibility for certain errors of the past and issues its official apology to all of these men and women who were affected by what happened in the expropriation.
The significance of this motion may be symbolic, but our vote on it is nonetheless important. It is a matter here of granting those who were expropriated and their descendants what they have been seeking without success for far too long now. It is a matter of demonstrating to them that we understand them and respect them.
In adopting this motion, we are saying that we are sorry, but we are also saying “never again”. This should never happen again in the Gaspé, elsewhere in Quebec or anywhere in Canada.
We support this motion to show our most sincere respect to those who have suffered, but there are also lessons for us to learn from this. Let us demonstrate humility and learn from this mistake, and let us make sure that it never happens again.
To those who might oppose this motion, I say that there is nothing extravagant or exceptional about it. It does not ask for anything that has never been done by this House. We know that the House has apologized on certain occasions, whether to Canadians of Japanese origin for the wrongs done to them during World War II or, more recently, to our first nations for certain unacceptable treatment they suffered. This has been done and may be done again, certainly in the present case.
That being said, we must also take concrete action that, in a way, is self-evident. Action that is easy to take and represents a hand extended to those people who were expropriated, as well as their children and grandchildren.
Recently the sitting government granted a pass to the families so they could enter the park free of charge for the next three generations. This is a step in the right direction, but the families were asking that this pass be granted to the next five generations. We agree with them that this is the way to go.
These families were uprooted from their ancestral land. They were on that land for generations. Later, for years, if they wanted to go back to their land, to go and meditate at the gravesites of their dead, these people were forced to pay admission to the park. That is a situation that should never have happened.
I said a little earlier that the vote on this motion is intended as an official apology to those who were expropriated and their descendants, but another of its purposes is to ensure that this never happens again. In that regard, a number of measures have been put in place, including by the Liberal government, to ensure that it never does. Thanks to certain of those measures, there are today rules and agreements to be complied with when national parks are created, so as to avoid similar cases in future.
I urge all members and colleagues in the House to vote for this motion. Through it, we are sending a clear message to those who have suffered so much. In a way, we are helping not only them and their children and grandchildren but all those who live in this magnificent area to turn the page on the sad events of the past.
In saying that, I am in no way minimizing their suffering or their desire to be heard and respected. Quite the opposite, the vote on this motion regarding the past enables us as well to take a fresh look at the future, a future that can be filled with promise.
I read recently that despite the events surrounding the creation of the park, the local community recognized from the outset how important it was to preserve the extraordinary natural and cultural heritage that is Forillon Park. From the beginning, it has played a major role in tourism, attracting more than 175,000 visitors a year. It is an extremely valuable asset in terms of tourism and the economy.
Forillon Park is one of the reasons—there are others as well—why the Gaspé Peninsula placed third in 2009 in the most beautiful destinations in the world. In the world! Just recently in 2011, as I was saying, it was included on the list of the 20 most beautiful destinations in the National Geographic Traveler magazine. We need to look to the future as well and consider the mounting popularity of ecotourism. The park and its surroundings will obviously become an ever more popular tourist destination, to the great advantage of the entire region.
When I speak of that, I am not at all avoiding the subject, because the issue we are addressing today may be rooted in the past but it affects the future as well. The people who were expropriated in Forillon do not want to live in the past any more than we do. They want us to do something today that flows from what was done in the past. They want formal apologies, and we are giving them those apologies. However, the people of Forillon and the Gaspé Peninsula also want to face the future. They want to pave the way for a better life for themselves and especially for their children and grandchildren. We are doing what needed to be done in regard to the past. But let us also do what needs to be done to build a better future along with them.