Meech Lake Private Lands Have To Go: Trudeau Government
For those of us who thought very highly of Pierre Trudeau, the anniversary of his death on September 28th was an opportunity to reflect on the man and his legacy as prime minister. And this year, for the first time, it allowed us to compare his son to him as prime minister. Of course, in the son’s case, it’s much too early for a definitive appraisal; however, it is useful to consider some issues they both had to address, and compare how each dealt with them.
This year, on that sad anniversary, I was left wondering about Gatineau Park, and about Pierre Trudeau’s views on the issue. After all, he knew the park intimately, having been its most illustrious resident for over 15 years. He once told me that, “while he was prime minister, he loved to hike from his Harrington Lake residence to a nearby walnut grove to meditate and watch the deer eat walnuts…”
But fond memories aside, and more specifically, I was wondering whether PET thought it was a good idea to have private lands encroaching on a public park. Although I’ve never found any of his writings on this matter, the letter I quote entirely below, from one of his closest friends—and his minister responsible for the NCC—confirms beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Trudeau government viewed private lands as encroachments on the park’s public vocation, which would ultimately have to be removed.
In 1970, thirty-two years after the birth of Gatineau Park, on July 1, 1938, the NCC announced it would open public beaches at Meech Lake and demolish the cottages it owned and rented there, to reduce the footprint of harmful human occupation and increase public access.
On March 20th 1970, the Meech Lake Association held an emergency meeting in an effort to thwart NCC efforts to open up Meech Lake to the public. Following this meeting, they petitioned the minister responsible for the NCC, Jean Marchand, to delay opening Meech Lake to the public. In their letter of March 23rd, the Meech Lake Association expressed their view that public access should be delayed: “so as to afford all interests, both public and private, an opportunity to study the short and long term effects of the said plan to enable representation and to inform the public thereon and thusly assure the public interest involved in the said plans are truly and wisely protected.” A fog of confusion designed to protect their privileged privatopia…
In his written response, Marchand said that the current situation had allowed Meech Lake cottagers to enjoy a private sanctuary at public expense, and that the NCC’s policy on gradual purchase of park inholdings had been a failure. Marchand emphasized that total federal ownership of all lands around Meech Lake was the government’s view on the matter...
Said the minister: “The NCC’s presence as an ever-willing buyer has inflated acquisition costs. Its cautiousness in disturbing the status quo has encouraged new construction and expansion of existing private facilities.” He also underlined that the government’s longstanding intention was to bring the lake into the public domain…
Below is the full text of Jean Marchand’s April 1, 1970 response to the Meech Lake Association, as transcribed in Michael Lait’s draft PhD thesis, entitled, “The Rotting Heart of Gatineau Park.”
“I understand that the Chairman of the Commission has met with you about the Meech Lake situation and has written to you. I gather that he has indicated that a good deal of thought has gone into current Meech Lake policies, and that the Government’s intention to bring the lake into the public domain has been established for many years.
“Unfortunately, the long period which has been taken up in acquiring private holdings in Gatineau Park has, I believe, been misunderstood by some of those who have long benefited from the rather special circumstances enjoyed by private cottage owners in this public park. While this attitude is understandable, I can assure you that it has never been the intention that the federal holdings would indefinitely be used to maintain the status of the lake as a sanctuary for present cottage owners.”
“In effect, it must be recognized that the Commission’s policy of gradual acquisition with a view to eventual total ownership has been somewhat self-defeating. The Commission’s ownership of Meech Lake cottages has served to limit general public use and enjoyment of one of the closest such facilities to the Capital. The NCC’s presence as an ever-willing buyer has inflated acquisition costs. Its cautiousness in disturbing the status quo has encouraged new construction and expansion of existing private facilities.”
“I do not question the motives nor the rights of the private owners to take legitimate advantage of this past situation. However, I agree with the Commission’s present view that public access to the public lands around the lake must be expedited.”
The Liberal minster responsible for the NCC had it right, and I believe he is the most senior minister to have ever expressed the government’s policy on this issue. But it’s really too bad the current Liberal government, or at least some of its members, have veered so far off course on this matter.
Take the case of one Wills Amos, now the Liberal MP for Pontiac, where Meech Lake is located. In March 2014, Amos used the same delay tactics and reasoning as the Meech Lake Association, in an attempt to undermine his own riding association on the day it was set to vote on a resolution supporting Gatineau Park protection. Mr. Amos was taking exception to the Liberal Party of Canada’s position on rights of first refusal (ROFR) for private property sales inside Gatineau Park.
In his March 16, 2014 email to board members Mr. Amos argued that the resolution should be delayed, that the Pontiac Liberal Board didn’t have all the facts on the matter of Meech Lake, urging board members to wait until he, in his wisdom as a lawyer, could prepare a written analysis to determine whether rights of first refusal infringe on private property rights. (They don’t, as the courts and the legal scholarship have confirmed.)
It must be underlined that the strongest opposition to ROFR continues to come from the Meech Lake Association. That Mr. Amos should express his/the Meech Lake Association’s concerns about it as justification for his association not adopting a resolution is troubling, and leaves me wondering who’s running Meech Lake and the Liberal Party…
Said Wills Amos in his email to his brand new board members the morning of their very first meeting, which he didn't bother to attend: “But when the property owners say that ROFR is an affront to their rights, and when J-P’s analysis concludes that property owners won't be affected (and that in any event they are causing rampant damage to GP), then we clearly have to do our homework to identify which perspective lies closest to the truth.”
Anyhow, in the next few days, newspaper articles confirmed that “Liberals want to Protect the Park” after the Pontiac Liberal Board adopted a watered-down resolution “supporting the efforts of Liberal MPs to secure Gatineau Park legislation.” The Hull-Aylmer Liberal Board adopted the same resolution the following night… Since, then, however, the Liberal MPs for those ridings have refused to answer journalists’ questions on Gatineau Park. And Mr. Amos told the Ottawa Citizen that the issue is “complicated,” before sidestepping it to express his views on a completely different matter.
So it’s clear that the Liberal Party is deeply divided on this issue, and Mr. Amos appears to be the cause of this division. For instance, he told me in early 2013 that he couldn’t endorse the Liberal Party’s position on Gatineau Park (adopted in June 2013), because he needed support from Meech Lake residents to secure his party’s nomination. Of course, Mr. Amos denied he’d ever told me this in a Buzzfeed article by Paul McCleod, entitled Jean Chretien Is Boosting A Liberal Candidate Who Allegedly Offered Favours For Support : https://www.buzzfeed.com/paulmcleod/jean-chretien-is-boosting-a-liberal-candidate-with-a-history?utm_term=.wseYolAeQ#.bemrvNJXP. However, I’m ready to swear an affidavit that’s exactly what he told me.
Be that as it may, Mr. Amos can call me a liar all he wants, but, given shoreline constructions recently reported by the press, I’m left wondering how the Liberal Government’s policy on Gatineau Park private properties became identical to that of the Meech Lake Association, or clearly one of non-response to their continued encroachment on a public park. Does Wills Amos have more clout on this than Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly? If he does, then that means Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is letting an insignificant little backbencher dictate his policy on the matter, and that the Meech Lake cancer has metastasized into the heart of the Liberal government.
Moreover, what does Prime Minister Trudeau think of the 79 structures built illegally on the Meech Lakebed, which belongs to the federal government by virtue of a 1973 land exchange with the Province of Quebec? Is he going to let Wills Amos distract him by saying it’s “complicated” or that other issues are more worthy of his attention?
I thank Gatineau Park scholar Michael Lait for bringing this letter to my attention. The first draft of his PhD thesis, The Rotting Heart of Gatineau Park, reads like a crime thriller… Mr. Lait has also provided me with the Hon. Jean Marchand’s May 11, 1970 letter to the Chairman of the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs reiterating the Trudeau government’s policy on the encroachment of private lands in Gatineau Park. Its contents are reproduced verbatim below.
Letter from Jean Marchand to Senator L. Phillips, Chairman of the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, 11 May 1970 (Registration 2014-0607, box 65, file 810-4 vol. 2).
In your absence from Ottawa on April 3, 1970, Mr. J.A. Hinds, your Assistant Director of Committees, sent me a copy of a letter which Miss D.L. Tewksbury of Meach Lake, Quebec sent you on April 1st.
Presumably in an effort to find some logical reason to approach the Senate Committee with regard to the manner in which the National Capital Commission operates at Meach Lake, Miss Tewksbury attempts to build her case around the new federal Expropriation Act. I do not wish to comment on this aspect of the question, not only because the new expropriation act is the primary responsibility of the Minister of Public Works, but also because legal considerations are not really at issue in this instance.
With regard to what has been described as a sudden dispossession of long term Meach Lake tenants by the Commission, I would point out that the creation of the Gatineau Park was first proposed by Todd in 1903, that the Federal District Commission was authorised to create the Park in 1937, and that actual purchases of land in the Meach Lake District were first made in 1938. The process of land acquisition was scaled down during the war years but, following the cessation of hostilities, Jacques Gréber placed great emphasis on the importance of the Park to the National Capital and land acquisition, either by straight purchase or in some cases by expropriation, has continued ever since. Every map the Commission has ever issued designates the Park as an eventual public property. The only matter at issue is how long this conversion process should take.
It would seem to me that, if anything, the National Capital Commission and its predecessors could be open to criticism for not having moved more quickly. For one thing, the cautious policies followed have tended to make it increasingly difficult for the Commission to obtain the remaining land around the lake by purchase in the open market. Prices have been driven steadily upwards as people come to believe that nothing would ever happen to change the status quo. And for another thing, the Commission’s land holding policies around the lake have actually given cottage owners highly effective protection against further public encroachment and have discriminated against the Canadian public at large in favour of relatively few and distincly [sic] privileged cottage owners.
Plans for Gatineau Park do not differ significantly from those followed in other national parks. Essentially, the programme is a simple one. It involves bringing out the more attractive and interesting topographical features, carefully maintaining the natural ecological balance of the area and, indeed, preserving the original state of wilderness of certain sections of the park. Although some activities of a purely recreational character will be introduced into the park, it is definitely not intended that the park be massively converted into a huge recreational complex which might well be commercially profitable but which might equally well turn out to be an ecological disaster.
It is the Commission’s hope that the Gatineau Park can thus be preserved for the enjoyment not only of this generation of Canadians but of future generations as well.
cc. Paul Martin
 Pierre, edited by Nancy Southam, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 2004, p.342.
 One of the three “wise men from Quebec,” and Lester Pearson’s favourite to replace him as prime minister.
 Emphasis added. Marchand, J. 1970. Apr. 1. Letter from J. Marchand to D.D. Hogarth. ML1
 The Liberal Party’s position on this matter had been expressed by David McGuinty during a March 7, 2014 Commons debate on Gatineau Park legislation. It was reiterated by Stéphane Dion in the Commons on April 28, 2014.
 The Supreme Court, in Canadian Long Island Petroleum, establishes the current law, saying that the promise of a right of first refusal “will not acquire an interest in land until the owner of the land triggers the right.”
 “Q & A: Pontiac MP Will Amos on caring for the local environment,” by Lee Berthiaume, Ottawa Citizen, January 25, 2016
 « Construction au lac Meech : un comité de protection accuse la CCN de laisser-faire », Radio-Canada, le mercredi 3 août 2016; “NCC ‘violating’ master plan by not expropriating Gatineau Park land, says group,” Ottawa Citizen, August 8, 2016.