Ronald Rudin. Kouchibouguac: Removal, Resistance, and Remembrance at a Canadian National Park. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).
By Tina Loo
In May 1972, eighty or so men occupied Parks Canada’s Kouchibouguac office to protest the creation of the national park in eastern New Brunswick, something that had necessitated the removal of more than 1200 people from their homes and lands. The park superintendent reported the crowd threatened to kill him. He and his co-workers left the premises under RCMP escort. In the ensuing two weeks, the office was seriously damaged, the park’s outside workers intimidated, and a series of fires was set that destroyed park property and parklands. Eight months later, in January 1973, the Mounties found themselves back in Kouchibouguac, again to escort Parks Canada workers to safety. Frustrated with the lack of progress in negotiations over compensation, two hundred fishers barricaded the agency’s offices for six months. This time there was no property damage, but there was also no longstanding peace.
In late November, a small group of protesters arrived at night to board up the park offices. Although they removed the barricades when workers showed up the next morning, five men later appeared and tried to shut down operations again. In the scuffle that followed, the park superintendent was roughed up before the police arrived and arrested the protesters, including the now-legendary Jackie Vautour, charging them with assault.
Although the creation of national parks had provoked the ire of local settlers and Indigenous peoples before, what happened at Kouchibouguac was unprecedented for the long-standing resistance that accompanied its creation. Although Ottawa and Fredericton struck an agreement to establish a national park in 1969, it wasn’t until 1979 that its creation was formalized. In the intervening decade, former residents won significant concessions. While they weren’t allowed to live in the park, they did manage to negotiate better compensation for their lands, secure commercial fishing rights within Kouchibouguac’s boundaries – something not allowed in other national parks – and force Parks Canada to abandon its policy regarding forced removal.
The Kouchibouguac story is the subject of Ronald Rudin’s latest book. In his view, Kouchibouguac was a “high modernist” regional development project undertaken by federal and provincial governments as a way to alleviate poverty. Drawing on anthropologist James C. Scott’s concept, Rudin argues that in creating the park, the state aimed to “rehabilitate” the rural poor of eastern New Brunswick, helping them overcome the “culture of poverty” that prevented them from taking part in the prosperity that a liberal capitalist future offered. But like other such schemes to improve the human condition, it too failed – but not before inflicting a good deal of harm on the people it was supposed to help and provoking significant opposition.
The story of that opposition is usually centred on Jackie Vautour, the exproprié who refused to leave. Despite court orders and the bulldozing of his house, he and his wife continue to live in the park to this day, on sufferance, to be sure, but there nonetheless. As Rudin shows, to focus on Vautour is to miss the diversity of opinions surrounding him among former residents and the Acadian community more generally. It is also to miss the experience of the majority of expropriés. Most didn’t stay and fight like Vautour. Instead they left, re-establishing their lives elsewhere. Doing so didn’t mean that they accepted what had happened. Some did, but others fought in different, quieter ways that have escaped attention.
For Rudin, what is interesting is how Jackie Vautour came to stand for the fight against Kouchibouguac and the struggle of Acadians. In exploring how the removal and resistance are remembered, Rudin reveals Vautour to be a complex figure, someone who initially worked with government officials and who didn’t consider the struggle against the removal as a particularly Acadian one, a latter day deportation. Kouchibouguac became an Acadian issue, and Jackie Vautour an “Acadian freedom fighter,” as a result of the self-conscious efforts of Vautour himself and a group of artists who exemplified a resurgent Acadian nationalism. As Rudin notes, they saw “the struggles in Kent County [the location of the park] as a canvas on which to project their own concerns and aspirations” (227).
Over the 1980s and 90s, remembrance moved away from its initial emphasis on anger, loss, and Jackie Vautour. Indeed, Vautour himself came to frame his experience in terms of his Métis identity: for him Kouchibouguac had ceased to be an Acadian story, seemingly because he had not received the support he felt that he deserved from that community. Speaking in 2007, Vautour insisted, “I was proud back in the day to show off my Acadian flag. But the Acadian bourgeoisie doesn’t give a damn about ordinary people anymore. Ordinary people – do you know who can defend them? – the Métis Association. If you are an Acadien or Québécois, you are most likely Métis” (217).
What is also interesting is that the passage of time, combined with the persistent efforts of other members of the exproprié community and a shift in the politics of memory, led Parks Canada to co-develop a permanent exhibit with former residents on the history of Kouchibouguac, one that acknowledged its troubled beginnings. Unveiled in 2012, “Memories of Our Communities” is, for Rudin, a gesture of “reconciliation” consistent with the growing openness on the part of states around to world to apologize for past wrongs.
Writing about forced removal and resistance, not to mention remembrance, is tricky business. To a great extent, Ronald Rudin succeeds in navigating the confused waters surrounding this subject, taking his readers on an enlightening trip without capsizing in the whirlpool of nostalgia or hanging up on the sharp rocks of objectivity. While it’s clear his sympathies lie with the expropriés, the story he tells is not one with which they or the Acadian community would necessarily be entirely comfortable, particularly in its emphasis on class divisions within both those groups and the argument that the Anglophone exproprié community has been completely erased from how Kouchibouguac has been remembered. As well, and despite his sympathies, Rudin makes an effort to treat government officials in a nuanced way. He distinguishes between federal and provincial officials, and acknowledges the significance of Parks Canada’s efforts to commemorate the forced removals in 2012, something that could not have been easy given the strictures and straitened circumstances under which the Agency then operated.
All this said, I finished the book wishing for a little more analysis, empathy, and critical distance in three areas. The first concerns high modernism, the concept through which Rudin understands the creation of Kouchibouguac. There is no doubt that some government officials acted in a high-handed manner and viewed the residents of what became the park in a disparaging way, deeming them in need of rehabilitation rather than worthy of consultation. But their high-handedness is not necessarily evidence that Kouchibouguac was a high modernist project. Rudin notes that the residents of eastern New Brunswick were characterized in the same way that sociologist Alexander Leighton saw the inhabitants of Stirling (Digby) County, Nova Scotia in the late-1940s. While that connection is telling, I would have liked to have had more evidence and discussion of the experts, expertise, and planning – all hallmarks of high modernism – that were brought to bear on the residents of the seven communities that were ultimately dislocated. How, to use Scott’s language, did the state see the people and places it sought to transform?
As important as the high modernism and the culture of poverty were in shaping what happened to New Brunswick’s rural poor, I wondered whether environmentalism also played a role. In 1964, the government of Canada issued its first comprehensive statement of national park policy, one that placed explicit emphasis on the preservation of nature as its “most fundamental and important obligation.” People had been removed from parks before, of course, but could the environmentalism of the 1960s, which defined nature as a place outside human culture, have provided an additional rationale for doing so?
Second, more gender analysis would have been useful; specifically, an examination of the gendered character of remembrance. Rudin makes the interesting observation that Jackie Vautour became emblematic of a new, rising Acadian nationalism in the 1970s, replacing Longfellow’s Evangeline, a woman who suffers persecution yet perseveres with quiet dignity. Such an observation begs questions: what does it say about the gendered nature of nationalism and remembrance that Evangeline was jettisoned for Vautour, the tough-talking, gun-toting, “freedom fighter” who sometimes even frightened his supporters?
Finally, despite Rudin’s admirable efforts to combine sympathy for the expropriés with scholarly analysis, I wondered if his own representation of their “resistance” might have been better balanced and more empathetic. While the violence of their dispossession is made clear – the destruction of their houses and the loss of their land and fishing rights – the intimidation and physical violence they visited upon parks employees isn’t. In commenting on the failed attempt by expropriés to shut down the park office in November 1973 mentioned at the start of this review, Rudin notes “there was really no impact on the affairs of the park” (163).
While that may have been the case, I can’t help but think that the people who worked there – individuals who were not in the position to make decisions about compensation or fishing rights, some of whom were also expropriés – must have felt nervous and insecure if not absolutely scared out of their wits. After all, by that point there had been a year and a half of such disruptions. Not only would acknowledging the violence of resistance convey a fuller sense of how forced removal was experienced by all involved (especially at the local level), but it might also go some way to complicating the categories of “exproprié” and “official,” and explaining the hardened attitudes that parks representatives on the ground as well as in Halifax and Ottawa might have had towards the protestors.
This is an important book that tells a story we think we know in a new and different way. Informed by extensive archival research and interviews with expropriés, as well as by a deep familiarity with the scholarly literatures on postwar and park history as well as public memory, it is a significant contribution to the regional and national history of Canada.
Tina Loo teaches Canadian and environmental history at the University of British Columbia. Her current research examines forced relocations in postwar Canada.