Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Revolutions and refugees

I camped at Presqu'ile Provincial Park last week - lovely weather (but for the monsoon that made our Monday night dinner party into an adventure), cycling along verdant trails and walking among old-growth oaks and maples, 'in the moment' for hours on cobble beaches or on the boardwalk in awed communion with egrets, swans, herons, frogs, tadpoles, fish and snakes. I also communed with the spirits of the past, looking for echoes and resonances as I always so.

I spent my 'off' hours reading While the Women Only Wept * by Janice Potter-MacKinnon, getting back in touch with my UEL story, and giving some thought to the refugee experience. The well-established, but foolishly loyal citizens of the early 13 colonies were driven by a complex but inevitable set of circumstances into exile in Upper Canada in the 1770's. This book puts the reader in touch with the realities of the conflict - not for the soldiers, not for the politicians, but women and children left behind on hard-won homesteads - left behind, then leaving, both in appalling conditions. (* McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993)

With these desperately sad stories foremost in my mind, I visited the remaining structures at Presqu'ile park. As in most parks, some former family cottages remain - land was expropriated for the park, and families were displaced. Long tenure arrangements are familar in provincial parks; we know of homes and cottages still in use at Sandbanks and Algonquin. Would be curious to know what the arrangements are, but they are likely the best outcome from a difficult situation. They speak to the pain of having one's family summer place, full of memories, special haunts, and plans for future generations overtaken by a provincial institution and given over to the masses for their amusement. A few formerly private buildings still remain in Presqu'ile - all are used for park personnel and the amazing natural heritage education programs for which the park is well known. One summer place in particular is very lovely.

I have powerful memories of a visit in the very early 1970's to the Gaspe communities just recently expropriated and off-limits, emptied for the creation of Forillon National Park - memories of a night there, of exploring for fossils under massive cliffs and watching whales from the headlands, all the time aware that we were trespassing on ancestral lands, small holdings and fishing stages (and government property). We camped in our old Volvo with our dog Zeke, wandering among abandoned and boarded up homes and sheds, gardens and jetties, hearing the voices of the communities so recently erased. The memories are powerful and haunt me even now.

Back in April I was deeply was moved to read a letter from a reader to Canadian Geographic, in response to their April National Parks issue. He writes "My family was expropriated in 1970 for the creation of Forillon National Park in Quebec. If you knew ...the harassment, grief and sorrow we had to go through, especially my 84 year old could not buy a decent garden shed today with what we were paid for our properties...My dad who was still living in our house, witnessed its burning while sitting on his suitcase waiting for his transport to Montreal...He never set foot in Gaspe after that September day." Difficult voices to hear. When we finally camp at Forillon, I expect to hear them still.

As we enjoy our wonderful Presqu'ile Park, and all of the others in the system, let's give some thought to all of those who came before us, and left, refugees, giving up something precious.

Top: 1950's cottage transformed into the Nature Centre
Centre: Stonehedge, the Wilson family summer home (c.1930's)
Centre Right: a tiny forgotten cottage near the Nature Centre program building
Bottom: Gatepost at Stonehedge

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