MIRABEL, Que. — The Canadian government made a "big mistake" in 1969 when it expropriated thousands of hectares of land north of Montreal to build the ill-fated Mirabel airport project, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Monday.
Roughly 3,000 families were affected by the expropriations in the 1960s. Some of those who lived through it attended the minister's news conference north of Montreal. Garneau told them Ottawa planned to sell back the last remaining unused land it expropriated for construction of the Mirabel airport.
"We learned difficult lessons, and I am sorry you were the victims of that," Garneau said.
The project was supposed to turn the Mirabel airport into the main air travel hub for the Montreal region. But that vision never came to be. The airport never caught on with passengers, and its terminal was demolished in 2014. It now serves only cargo airlines.
About 38,800 hectares of farmland were expropriated by Ottawa in the 1960s to make way for the project. The federal government had sold back 32,000 hectares in the 1980s, and in 2006 it began returning what remained outside the airport zone. But it excluded 300 hectares that were inaccessible by road.
That obstacle was removed in 2016 when Ottawa and the city of Mirabel reached an agreement to open up the last bit of territory.
Monday's announcement was related to the final unused 300 hectares and it ends the long-running dispute over expropriated lands outside the airport zone. But the city of Mirabel continues to eye excess lands within the airport zone for industrial development purposes.
Rita Lafond, one of the people expropriated 50 years ago, said the government's decision "caused great suffering." She asked if Garneau was able to formally apologize on behalf of the Canadian government.
Garneau said he didn't have the mandate to do that.
Marcel Denis, whose father was expropriated in the 1960s, is the president of the local chapter of a major farmers' union in the province. He said the 300 hectares were once maple syrup farms.
"It's clear that for 50 years, no one took care of the trees," he said. "But the potential is still there."
The decision on what to do about the land within the airport zone will be put to public consultation, Garneau said. He added that any consultations need to include the Mohawks of Kanesatake.
Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon told the news conference that the airport is located on territory promised to the Mohawks in 1760.
"Minister Garneau is the first person to have given us a minimum amount of consideration," Simon said. "All the others ignored us."
Pierre Saint-Arnaud, The Canadian Press