Edmond Vautour was at home that morning getting ready to go to school when the RCMP showed up in the yard. Government officials in suits followed close behind, clutching an eviction notice.
“They told my mother, ‘You have 15 minutes to pack and leave,’” he recalled. “She said there’s no way we’re leaving.”
His father, Jackie Vautour, had already spent years fighting against the expropriation of his family’s land to create Kouchibouguac National Park on New Brunswick’s eastern shore. By November, 1977, the government said it had waited long enough – they were ready to clear the family out, one way or another.
Jackie Vautour, who died Feb. 8 at 92 from liver cancer and pneumonia, was away at work in Richibuctou when the police arrived. What happened next led to a fight that would last the rest of his lifetime, and help turn the plain-speaking fisherman into a celebrated figure among his province’s Acadian people.
When he learned police were at his house, Mr. Vautour sped home. He hit the first officer who tried to arrest him, and a melee ensued, with his four sons joining in.
“That’s when there was a bit of a stir in the yard,” Edmond said. “We jumped in to protect my dad. They put us all in handcuffs and took us all away.”
That night, with his wife and nine children in jail with him, Mr. Vautour was told his house had been demolished. Bulldozers knocked the home down and his belongings were carted away and stored in a warehouse. Something in him changed after that.
“He was never the same after that,” Edmond said. “He could never get over the injustice that was done to his family. He could never accept that.”
Mr. Vautour died on the land he vowed never to leave. After his eviction, he and his wife, Yvonne, returned and squatted in tents on the property, eventually moving into a rustic shack and trailer he called his ”castle” and living the next 40 years without electricity, water service or a telephone line.
Because the Vautours resided in Kouchibouguac illegally, Parks Canada forbid them from building a more comfortable home. In his final months alive, his family tried to bring a modern mobile home onto the property, but were blocked by park wardens.
It was not an easy life, and he suffered a lot for his convictions, his son said. A small solar panel powered lights inside the home, while they bathed outside and used a portable toilet.
More than 250 families, almost all of them poor Acadian farmers and fishermen, had their homes expropriated in the early 1970s to make way for the new national park. Mr. Vautour’s opposition to the government’s plan quickly made him a leader among his neighbours, and earned him the nickname the “Rebel of Kouchibouguac” – a title he resented, because he said it made it sound like he was doing something wrong.
His lifelong protest, fought through the courts and in physical clashes with police and park staff, turned him into something of a folk hero among Acadians, at a time of growing political activism among New Brunswick’s French-speaking people. Mr. Vautour saw the forced evictions as reminiscent of the expulsion of the Acadians from the Maritime provinces in the 1700s.
He was particularly angry that the money offered to families for Kouchibouguac was about half what English-speaking families received for their homes when the military base CFB Gagetown was built on the other side of the province.
Mr. Vautour’s resistance inspired a whole generation of Acadian activists and artists, who wrote songs, plays and poems about him.
“Few people have made such an impact on the collective imagination of the Acadian people as Jackie Vautour,” said Alexandre Cédric Doucet, president of the New Brunswick Acadian Society. “His struggle will be forever etched in our memories, the legacy of a dark part of contemporary Acadian history.”
Mr. Doucet recalled the determination and strength that made Mr. Vautour, while short in stature, a “larger than life” figure. For other Acadians, he represented something more than that – a symbol that the province’s francophones could no longer be treated as second-class citizens, and couldn’t be pushed around any more.
“He became a symbol of resistance,” said Donald J. Savoie, a New Brunswick political scientist who grew up in nearby Bouctouche. “There is a folklore that he is the lone ranger, standing up against big government.”
Months after they were kicked out of their home, the Vautour family were again evicted from a hotel after government refused to keep paying the bill. Once again the RCMP had to drag them away after using axes and tear gas.
The fight against the park consumed him and affected the family deeply. The Vautour children were treated “as pariahs” by some in the community, Edmond said. Others in the small coastal communities of Kent County felt Mr. Vautour was too outspoken and too prone to grandstanding.
On the school bus, some children wouldn’t let the Vautour girls have a seat, so their father had to drive them to school every day.
“We could never be a family like other families are,” Edmond said. “He could never be a normal dad, because he was always stuck in the fight with the government.”
Just days before he died, New Brunswick’s Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal by Mr. Vautour on behalf of more than 100 people who claimed they had Métis Acadian-Mi’kmaq heritage and wanted their land back. The federal and provincial governments argued the case was an attempt to relitigate something already decided by the courts.
After an arrest in 1998 for illegally harvesting clams, he argued, unsuccessfully, that as a Métis person, he had the right to fish for food in Kouchibouguac.
As he lay dying, Mr. Vautour told his son he wished he could have done more for the families who lost their land in the expropriation.
“I told him, ‘You did more than anybody else could do,’” Edmond said.
“He said he would die on his land, and that’s exactly what he did.”