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Valley Lives - Douglas Cowden

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the June 09, 2010 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Expropriation took its toll on pioneer family descendant

by Mark Burgess

In Rupert Union Cemetery, a freshly-etched gravestone reads: "Descendant of the pioneers of the Gatineau Valley."

Douglas Cowden, who died May 22 in Ottawa at the age of 80, hadn't lived in the Meech Creek Valley for 55 years, but the land that his ancestors carved from nothing but wilderness, and that the Quebec government expropriated in 1975, remained both a point of pride and a primary preoccupation right until his last breath.

"It left my father fairly heartbroken," said Mark Cowden, Douglas's son, referring to the expropriation that took place 35 years ago.

"He never really got over that, because it was someone coming in and taking his home away and it was hard for him to deal with that."

Valley Lives
Mervin Cross gazes across the Meech Creek Valley, land that was expropriated from farmers in 1975. Mark Burgess photo.

That someone was the Societe d'amenagement de l'Outaouais (SAO), an administrative body created in 1970 with a mandate to promote regional economic development through industry, commerce, tourism and recreation. In 1975, it decided it wanted a zoo in the Meech Creek Valley.

The SAO sent out 47 expropriation notices for 1,461 acres of land in April 1975. Douglas had been living in Ottawa since 1955, where he worked as a service manager for Mack Trucks Canada, but he still maintained a portion of his family's land that he used as a weekend retreat. Mark said the SAO letters left his father and those on neighbouring farms in a state of disbelief.

"I remember the talk at the time," said Mark, who was in his mid-teens when his father received the notice. "People generally thought that it was a pretty farfetched idea. Nobody believed there was going to be a zoo built there. That was kind of a farce." Mervin Cross, whose family farm across from the Farm Point IGA was mostly spared by the expropriations, agrees. It was a white elephant, that's all it was," he said of the zoo. "It was just a way of getting hold of the land."

Mark places the expropriation in the context of the language politics sweeping through Quebec at the time, noting that nearly all the families farming the land were anglophone descendants of 19th-century settlers. "It was part and parcel with what was going on politically and culturally in Quebec in the mid-70s," he said.

He remembers his father fighting a 10-year court battle to contest what the SAO offered for the land but can't remember the outcome. Cross said some others did the same.

Valley Lives
Douglas Cowden.

"About three or four went to court, but in the end they might as well not have," he said. "What they got went to their lawyers."

Cross used to drive the school bus through the valley, picking up the kids at the Brookdale Home orphanage on his run. The road up to the former site of the orphanage is now blocked off and overgrown, and Cross doesn't know where the kids ended up after the expropriation.

"I don't come down here anymore," he said, driving through the valley; even though he still lives just across the highway. "Too many memories." Mark said it became too painful for his father to return as well. The farms and houses his ancestors had built were bulldozed in the early 1980's, even though nothing - a zoo or anything else - ever replaced them.

The SAO was dissolved in 1993, passing the valley on to the Communaute Urbaine de l'Outaouais, who sold it to the NCC in 1994. A secondary entrance and parking lot for the Gatineau Park now sits just beyond the junction of Cross and Cowden Roads. Mark said the latter only goes back a quarter-mile now before it's blocked off and overgrown. "There's nothing there to indicate there was ever anyone there," he said. "That kind of hurt my father. There's nothing to say there were people here and they came with nothing and they took almost nothing and made it into something."

Tribute to Meech Creek Valley

By Doug and Mark Cowden

There is no place on earth like the Meech Creek Valley created by the hand of God
Where in the 1840s my forebears cleared the land of its maples and pines
In this valley of mine
For its beauty I yearn

Where the surrounding hills in the fall are all covered red and gold
Where in the spring and fall you hear the Canada geese a-calling

Where you heard the partridge drumming, the melodies of the frogs,
The mother duck's call to her goslings, the slap of the beaver's tail
The sheep and cowbells tinkling as the evening drew to a close

Where we swam and lazed away many a happy day by the old bridge over the stream,
Where brook trout hid in the cold spring pools

Where in the winter you could hear the bushes roar announcing a coming storm,
Trees creaking and cracking in the cold winter's night
The brilliance of the northern lights dancing in the skies with stars so bright
You felt you could reach up and touch them

I mourn the loss of, this valley
Which provided a livelihood for the settlers and descendants
Their homesteads, my homestead, which is going back to nature
Land that my forebears toiled to clear in the 1840s


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