Canada's Gatineau Park is a picturesque wildlife haven just 15 minutes from the centre of Ottawa, writes Chris Rosie.

What is it about organisers of major political meetings? Are tranquil surroundings supposed to be good for the negotiating soul? Asia-Pacific leaders came to the Auckland Museum set in the gardens and lawns of the Domain.

When the Canadians had some momentous decisions to make in 1987, their provincial leaders gathered at a place called Meech Lake.

In the subsequent years the Meech Lake Accord became so identified with the turbulence surrounding the Quebec debate that, to those watching Canadian development, the idea of Meech as a place - and a most peaceful one at that - hardly registered.

Under the accord, Quebec would be recognised as a special entity within Canada, its legislature entitled "to preserve and promote the distinct society of Quebec".


The province would be guaranteed three justices in the nine-member supreme court. The accord also allowed any province, not just Quebec, to veto certain types of constitutional amendments.

The provincial leaders might have been pleased with their efforts. Many other were not. One of Canada's most well-known prime ministers, Pierre Trudeau, said the document "if accepted by the people and their legislators, will render the Canadian state totally impotent" of the Quebec politicians, he said: "They should have been sent packing and been told to stop having tantrums like spoiled adolescents."

In the event, the Meech Lake Accord collapsed in 1990, It required the unanimous agreement of all the provincial legislatures and came to grief when the Manitoba legislature, which required its own unanimity to allow extension of the debate, found a lone negative voice in a former Ojibway-Cree chief, representative of another Canadian community that considered itself a "distinct society."

So what started in a lakeside cottage in Canada's east failed 2200km away in Winnipeg, often described as "the place where the west begins."

The collapse of the accord was greeted with headlines proclaiming "Meech is dead," but Meech Lake and its surroundings are very much alive. And they owe much to the contribution of another politician, William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister of Canada from 1921 to 1930 and again from 1935 to 1948.

Meech Lake can be found in an area of parklands just 15 minutes' drive from the centre of Ottawa into, ironically given its place in Canadian political history, Quebec. Yes, the Anglo-Canadian provincial leaders did their negotiating in enemy territory. But what parklands.

Called Gatineau Park, and covering 35,600ha, the land was originally Algonquin and Iroquois territory.

With Mackenzie King's assistance, it was designated a park in the 1930s. At the Ottawa end, Mackenzie King had his summer residence, Moorside. He willed the estate to the nation in 1950.

A feature of the Domaine Mackenzie King is what at first sight appear the remains of historic buildings. They are, in a sense.

Canada's 10th Prime Minister created ruins, bringing stones from the original Parliament Buildings (burned in 1916), Westminster Abbey and the British Parliament Buildings.

The French influence is evident in a replica of the Arc di Triomphe. The 230ha estate blends the "ruins" into the gardens, which Mackenzie King also designed.

But the estate takes up just a fraction of the park that the Mackenzie King government established to ensure a natural area would be preserved close to the nation's capital for future generations. In keeping with Canada's size, it is logical that the park should be so vast.

Visitors can take the 125km of hiking trails, the 90km of bike trails or, in winter, the 200km network of cross-country ski trails. Self-service accommodation is available at one of the park's eight areas of cabins or yurts (a modern version of traditional portable tent-like structures), or on wooded campsites.

More than 50 glacial lakes provide plenty of opportunity for fishing, swimming and canoeing - hunting is banned.

The park's natural state means that visitors share it with the wildlife. Coyotes, black bears, white-tailed deer, beavers and timber wolves are among the animals that have made Gatineau their home. More than 200 bird species have been identified in the park.

Information material from the park advises visitors to never try to outrun, outswim or outclimb a bear.

"The animal might see it as a sign of weakness." Right.

Anyone who comes across a bear on a trail is advised to "make loud noises and keep your distance." And all this begins just 15 minutes from the centre of Ottawa.

It was spring when the provincial leaders met at Meech Lake in 1987. But for one of nature's most colourful displays, Gatineau Park is at its most spectacular in autumn.

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Chris Rosie travelled to Canada courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Canadian Airlines.