Robert Huot says he will never forget when his parents’ land and home were expropriated and burned to the ground in 1969 to make way for an airport about 50 kilometers north of Montreal.
His family had just moved the last of the furniture out of the house when Canadian employees burned it and the barn down, destroying all structures in the path of progress.
“They never used that land,” said Huot, who was 14 at the time.
More than 800 houses were then destroyed and 12,000 people were forced to relocate.
Thousands of acres in Mirabel, Que., have been resold to families, but wounds like Huot’s remain unhealed. On Monday, Aéroports de Montréal (ADM), announced that it is dedicating four hectares, roughly the size of eight football fields, for the creation of a memorial site to honor those who lost land and homes in the airport expropriations.
The land is located along the Guy-Lafleur highway, at the entrance to what is now known as the YMX International Aerocity of Mirabel, a cargo airport that is also used for industrial and aeronautical development.
The land is leased for the ceremonial price of $1 per Center of collective memory of the expropriation of Mirabel (CMCEM), an organization dedicated to commemorating the expropriations of 1969. At that time some 40,000 hectares were expropriated.
“It is with great respect for the past that we must continue to build our future,” said Philippe Rainville, ADM’s president and chief executive officer, in a press release.
Rainville said that negotiations with the CMCEM began before the pandemic. And according to the CMCEM, the gesture of handing over the land to the organization “puts an end to this conflict,” he said.
Remembering those who lost their homes
Françoise Drapeau-Monette, co-founder of CMCEM, said her organization has been working to establish a memorial and center for families since 2007. The four hectares will provide space for parking and facilities, she said.
Denise Beaudoin, also a co-founder, described Monday’s announcement as “memorable and historic.”
“I think the expropriated are very happy that they will finally have a center that they can call their own,” Beaudoin said.
It is a way to reclaim the land and give it to the people who suffered, he said.
But for Huot, the painful chapter of his life won’t be undone until his family can rebuild and live on the land they once owned.
Of the lands owned by the Huots, one parcel was dedicated to agriculture and another to the sugar industry. Huot was able to purchase the unused land in 2019, and his son hopes to one day take advantage of the maple trees that still thrive there.
Yet all these decades later, still deeply entrenched in negotiations with Transport Canada, he is unable to access the land because there is no road.
“It’s not settled for us,” said Huot, whose land lies beyond ADM’s fences.
Monday’s announcement was just “another trophy for the WMD because they really just want us to stop talking about this,” he said.
International airport failures
In 1969, the public was promised an international airport and high-speed rail transit connected to Montreal.
Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau launched the airport with much fanfare in 1975. Supporters predicted that Mirabel would become a gateway to the world, drawing 60 million passengers a year by 2010. But it never really took off.
At its peak, it attracted no more than three million people a year. High-speed rail was never built, and international passenger flights ended in 2004 when the airport was running an annual deficit of $20 million.
Additionally, many parts of the airport were left unfinished, including roads and terminals crucial to serving travelers from the United States and within Canada.
Approximately 4,450 hectares of expropriated farmland was being leased by farmers until 2006, when former Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered to sell it all to the former owners. In 2014 the passenger terminal was demolished.
Then in 2019, the Canadian government announced that it would sell the last remaining unused land. Approximately 300 hectares were offered to the families and descendants of the expropriation, and the Huots were among them.
But, Huot explained, until the Canadian government allows access, his family’s land will remain in the same state since he saw the house and barn burn, unused.