We were in the neighborhood recently, so our Canadian colleague Shane Rayman suggested we pay a visit to the site of the largest expropriation (taking) of land in that country's history, and what has been described as "the largest population displacement ... since the 18th-century expulsion of the Acadians from the Maritimes."
We're talking about Montreal's Mirabel International Airport, located about an hour north of the city.
You've flown into Montreal and don't know this airport, you say? Well, here's the (short) story and some pictures. For the longer tale, start with the wikipedia entry, the hit up these news reports:
In the 1960's, Montreal was booming. It was Canada's economic powerhouse. The Olympics, the 76 Expo, the Expos. The powers-that-be concluded that the city needed a new airport. It chose Mirabel, Quebec, a rural area mostly occupied by farms.
For this enterprise, the government acquired 97,000 acres of farmland from approximately 3,200 owners, an area nearly 2/3 of the size of the actual island of Montreal. Massive, even in the world's second largest country. Makes New London's Kelo redevelopment look minor league.
For whatever reasons, it didn't work as envisioned. Farmer protests, overly-optimistic projections, governmental hubris, a location too far from the city itself, connecting rail and highway lines never built, the inevitable cost overruns. "Mirabel was a bust from the beginning."
It was even a P.R. disaster, with "abandoned homes ... deliberately torched to train firefighters."
So the airport never really got off the ground, and the "final strike against Mirabel’s prospects came when revisions to old bi-lateral agreements in the 1970s enabled international flights to land at other Canadian cities, including Toronto."
A white elephant, the main passenger terminal, shuttered since 2004, was torn down in 2014-15. "[W]hen the wrecking balls swing, they will level a monument to heartless government planning."
Today, what is left of the airport serves cargo carriers. And if our visit was any indication, only a handful.
In 2006, the Prime Minister even announced offering back much of the expropriated "surplus" property to the former owners.
Today Canada’s New Government will correct an historic injustice. On March 27, 1969, the federal government did a horrible thing to the population of Sainte-Scholastique. Ottawa announced that their land would be expropriated to allow the world’s largest airport to be built. Nearly a hundred thousand acres of the province’s best farm land would be rendered unproductive. No consultations. No consideration. No choice. It was done in what they called “the national interest”.That was back in the days of big, centralist government. And they had some big ideas. And big plans. That cost big bucks. And led to big taxes. And a big debt.But no big deal. Back then, Ottawa took what it wanted. This decision affected thousands of people. Entire families lost their homes. Farmers lost their livelihood. And a Quebec community that had worked hard for generations was simply brushed aside. And for what? In the space of a few short years, it became clear that Montreal did not need an airport of that size. The Dorval airport was already there and, ironically enough, has since been renamed after the Prime Minister who initiated the Mirabel project.I’m not saying that the Mirabel project was a complete mistake. An airport was needed for cargo, and Bombardier needed a place where it could build its aircraft. But 6 000 acres was all that was required.
And when the region’s farmers asked why they couldn’t buy back the rest of their land, the government replied: “Forget it, we may need that land some day.” But that never came to pass, and the land was never returned to the farmers.Until Prime Minister Brian Mulroney took office, that is. Within one year, he returned 80% of their land.
Today, the old bones of the airport are pretty bleak. Lots of open space. A derelict hotel. A whole lot of empty, and a ghost town vibe of a place locked and lost in time.
That football field?
There used to be a passenger terminal there.
There's still a pretty modern-looking control tower,
but it's over on the cargo side.
Dulles travellers, you know these contraptions.
Here, idling in the snow, rusting.
Minus 20-degrees out?
Au contraire mon frère - we feel positively balmy.
So convenient to the terminal!
All the parking you'd ever want.
They built it, they didn't come.