06/01/2013 06:30 EDT | Updated 08/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Controversial history of New Brunswick park tackled in new project

MONTREAL - A history professor is giving voice to the former residents of a tiny New Brunswick community whose expulsions changed forever the way Canada's national parks are created.

Ronald Rudin, a professor at Montreal's Concordia University, is using a combination of traditional and new media to revisit the controversy over the creation of Kouchibouguac National Park in 1969, a story he says has been largely forgotten.

About 250 families — around 1,200 people — were displaced for the park because of a belief at the time that visitors wouldn't be able to appreciate nature if there were humans living in the area. Acadians, who made up the bulk of the residents, called the explusions "a second deportation."

Rudin says he didn't know much about the controversy until he was on a tour of Acadian historical sites in 2005 and some people raised it with him over lunch.

"Kouchibouguac is the story of people being treated badly and if you're going to create a park to encourage tourism, that's not exactly the best way to market something that's supposed to be fun for a family," Rudin said.

He dug into the subject for four years, talking to former residents of Kouchibouguac on New Brunswick's east coast.

The result of his efforts is a recently launched website — returningthevoices.ca — which uses video, maps and illustrations to tell their story. A book that will complement it with a bigger-picture approach is also in the works.

"The website is designed to, in a way, let the residents speak for themselves but there's a larger story about the thinking behind the park, the background for the resistance to the park and the way the story has been remembered," he explained.

Rudin said in an interview that the resistance to the 238-square-kilometre park showed the government that the practice of moving communities to make way for such sites wasn't in anyone's interest. The park was shut down several times because of protests.

"There are stories of people who are still angry, there are stories of people who don't think the process was fair but appreciate the fact that they got jobs," Rudin said, referring to some people who ended up working at the park.

Others, like Norma Doucet, recalled in a video interview on the website how her father felt betrayed after having served in the Second World War.

"He's gone to war to save his country," she said. "When he came back, he wanted to raise his family and he says he was pushed out to go and live somewhere else."

Figures provided by Parks Canada say a large number of the people expropriated initially got between $5,000 and $7,000 for their properties. An additional grant program provided up to $2,300 and a subsequent relocation program offered resident owners the difference between the original compensation and $15,000 to $18,000, depending on family size.

Rudin said the fairness of the compensation is a matter of perspective.

"Many families ended up with newer homes but almost all were removed from the resources that have been at the centre of their lives and were separated from their neighbours," he said.

"I didn't meet anyone who was happy how things turned out, even if some appreciated the fact that they received employment in the park."

Rudin, who has written on Acadian history, was astonished to find that the episode had been largely undocumented.

"I figured surely somebody had written something about the story and the fact is there's almost nothing," he said in a telephone interview.

Works of fiction such as poetry, songs and novels do exist. There are also two documentaries and news accounts from the day but Rudin said that's about it.

Even when he looked at files on the expropriation in the New Brunswick archives in Fredericton, he says he was told "nobody's ever looked at this stuff."

"The funny thing about this project is although it seemed like the kind of project somebody should have done, I kept going to different archives and often would find that I was the first person that had ever looked at material that had been sitting there for 40 years, which isn't something that happens very often."

While expropriations for parks in the past had seldom sparked opposition, that wasn't the case in Kouchibouguac.

Acadian residents there were well aware of the searing chapter of their history when the British deported their ancestors in the 18th century.

Rudin said opponents to the park's creation became symbols of a greater assertiveness that was growing among Acadians at the time.

One resident in particular, Jackie Vautour, became a symbol of the resistance with his stubborn refusal to leave his property and court challenges which Rudin said got residents better compensation.

Rudin said Vautour still squats in a cabin with no electricity or running water.

The professor said that while Vautour's story is compelling, it's not the only one and Rudin wants to help some of those other voices be heard.

"The media was all over the Jackie Vautour story but, most people, they left quietly," Rudin said. "They weren't happy but they left quietly and went on to build their lives again. Those who supported my project appreciated that other stories would get told as well."

The professor said that at the time the prevailing view was the residents were so poor that moving them from their community and making them start over fresh somewhere else would improve their lives.

"It was a whole kind of creepy social engineering project that they had in mind," Rudin said, although he acknowledged there were likely good intentions at the root.

"The irony is that almost all of them moved as close to the border of the park as possible. They're kind of cuddled up next to each other so the communities were recreated, in a sense."

Rudin said it's vital to document stories such as that of the Kouchibouguac residents because the original participants are getting older.

"Once they're gone, the story is, at least in terms of oral testimony, kind of lost."