ST. JOHN’S — Forty years ago today, Bill Callahan stood atop Gros Morne mountain with a young federal minister named Jean Chrétien.
They had reached the summit via helicopter and, after a time on the peak, flew to Corner Brook.
There, they’d reach what would be the pinnacle of Callahan’s political career — the signing of the agreement that led to the establishment of Gros Morne National Park and the historic sites at L’Anse aux Meadows and Port au Choix.
“It was a huge thing and it’s paying off now in spades,” says Callahan.
He was minister of mines, agriculture and resources in Joey Smallwood’s cabinet. Chrétien, the future prime minister, was minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in Pierre Trudeau’s government.
The park — named a world heritage site in 1987 — has become one of this province’s biggest tourist draws with L’Anse aux Meadows and Port au Choix ranking right up there with it.
The file was one of the first that came to Callahan’s attention when he was appointed to cabinet in 1968.
The concept of another national park — Terra Nova had already opened — hadn’t moved past the preliminary stage. Realizing the potential, Callahan tried moving it forward.
His push faced federal friction. He describes the negotiations with Ottawa as acrimonious.
“We tried to play a bit of hardball with the feds, but of course, who plays hardball with the feds and wins?” he says with a laughs.
At one stage, Callahan jokes, it seemed the feds wanted the entire Northern Peninsula.
He says that, seriously, Ottawa would have been pleased to get 3,000 square miles for the park.
The feds were eventually convinced to take about a third of that — Gros Morne Park is about 1,805 square kilometres.
Callahan says his department’s focus was always economic.
The Northern Peninsula was long considered a forgotten area, he said, so whatever they came up with had to create jobs.
Still, public support was split.
Callahan says some wanted the park at any cost and it didn’t matter what the province gave away.
Others feared the feds would take too much land or the park would interfere with their hunting, fishing and wood-cutting.
Callahan figures the results of the provincial election on Oct. 27, 1971 — almost a year to the day after the park agreement with Ottawa was signed — is proof of how divisive the issue was.
The vote in the district ended in a virtual tie, with one vote separating the St. Barbe candidates.
“That is a pretty good indication where (support for the park) was,” says Callahan, who lost his seat as the MHA for Port au Port in the election.
St. Barbe eventually went to the Tories, who had dethroned Smallwood’s Liberals.
Two years later, Gros Morne National Park opened.
Rocky Harbour Mayor Walter Nicolle remembers the days when people didn’t want it.
A few with that mindset remain, he says, but the majority of people realize, “if it wasn’t for Parks Canada, our town would pretty much be dead.”
Nicolle notes that numerous restaurants and other businesses exist only because of the park and the people who visit it.
Parks Canada’s numbers provide further indication of the sites’ importance to Rocky Harbour and other communities along the peninsula.
In high season, 155 staff and 30 students work at Gros Morne, L’Anse aux Meadows, and Port au Choix, with about $10 million spent annually on wages, operations and maintenance.
Outside of that spending, a survey conducted last summer found that the 174,000 people who visited Gros Morne spent $37.6 million in the area.
That’s up from the just over $35 million that 158,000 visitors spent in 2004.
The 2009 analysis also found that nearly 107,000 visitors continued on to Port au Choix and L’Anse aux Meadows.
Callahan — who was in government from 1966-71 and spent most of his working life in journalism — ranks that agreement as the best accomplishment during his term in the legislature.
Parks Canada says it has significant growth in mind for the Northern Peninsula sites and that it spent $3.5 million this year upgrading visitor facilities at L’Anse aux Meadows and Port au Choix.
It hopes that work will further stimulate tourism and the economy.
Nicolle, in Rocky Harbour, hopes for the same.
“I think the park has got a great future,” he said. “We’re a world heritage site and a lot of people want to come visit, so hopefully, it’ll continue to grow.”
Callahan has visited the area countless times over the years. He’s slated to go there again this week to speak at a conference of area mayors.
No doubt, he’ll be recalling the day he touched down on the top of Gros Morne with Chrétien.
“I took (that file) on with a vengeance and, today I tell you, I’m some glad I did,” he says.