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Arresting development

The Juno Beach Centre is at the heart of the area where Canadian troops landed at Courseulles-sur-Mer.
Juno Beach Centre

Opposition to a French developer’s plan to build condominiums at the site where Canadian troops landed on D-Day was mounting as petitions, protests and political pressure came to bear over what some called the desecration of hallowed ground.

Authorities in Courseulles-sur-Mer awarded a construction permit for Domaine des Dunes in February 2019. The two four-storey buildings were to go up metres from Juno Beach, where Canadian soldiers fought and died during the June 6, 1944, invasion that marked the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror.

More than 60 units and a parking lot are to be built by Foncim next to the Juno Beach Centre, Canada’s primary Second World War museum and commemorative site in Europe. Centre lawyers fought the developers in court for two years.

“To build condos on the memorial site is just an enormous insult to the memory of the Canadians who volunteered and conquered their fears to fight and liberate France and the continent,” said Cindy Clegg, an Ottawa-based communications consultant who was spearheading efforts to block the project.

More than 14,000 Canadian troops landed and 359 died on the 10 kilometres of sand code-named Juno. It was the outset of what the commander of Allied forces in Europe, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, called “The Great Crusade.” More than 5,000 would be killed during two-and-a-half-months of fighting in Normandy.

“Canadians are being betrayed,” the centre’s director Nathalie Worthington told Legion Magazine. “They have been given this land and now this land—the road—is being taken away. It’s like an expropriation.”

Opponents to the development have made their feelings known on signage promoting it.
Aaron Kylie/LM

In a statement, the Juno Beach Centre described the project as the “greatest threat” it has faced since it opened 19 years ago. “We are not generally opposed to projects like these on former battlegrounds; the French deserve to enjoy the freedoms our veterans’ sacrifice brought them,” it said.

“However, the Dunes project plans to use the [centre’s] private road for access to the building site by construction vehicles and workers. We have great concern for the impact that this will have on the Juno Beach Centre.”

Worthington said basing legal arguments on the sanctity of the ground on which Canadian blood was spilled won’t fly in court.

“Technically, we are not against the building,” she said. “We are against the fact that they want to use our road because this will make us die. We are limited by the court to this position.”

More than 1.5 million people have visited the centre—a non-profit charitable corporation—since it opened in 2003, including 103,000 in 2019, D-Day’s 75th anniversary year.

The centre’s roadway is the only vehicle access to the site. The museum paid for its construction on land administrators of Courseulles-sur-Mer leased to it for 99 years “for the sole purpose of providing visitors with access” to the facility.

Foncim lawyers launched legal action for the right to use the route. Museum resources were almost exhausted fighting the effort when a judge in nearby Caen upheld the building permit and ordered the road open to the developer. Having already spent $400,000 in legal fees, the centre had filed for appeal.

It said construction traffic represents “an existential threat” to the centre and “the Canadian memorial presence in Normandy.”

The number of vehicles using the road was expected to balloon to more than 850. “When that happens chaos will ensue,” said the centre. “The [centre] is now at serious risk of being overrun and severely damaged by this road opening.”

Construction was expected to take 22 months. The centre said the effects of the pandemic combined with the construction would lead to its “decline and possibly…eventual closure.”

Les Amis du Centre Juno Beach and residents of Courseulles-sur-Mer have been vocal in their opposition to the project. The mayor who approved the permit, Frédéric Pouille, was recently voted from office. His successor, Anne-Marie Philippeaux, is said to oppose it, but has not revoked the permit.

Canadians have sent nearly 50,000 letters to members of Parliament, cabinet ministers and ambassadors in Canada and France, demanding the development be stopped.  

Clegg’s petition—one of several on both sides of the Atlantic—has garnered 60,000 signatures. The Commons veterans affairs committee unanimously passed a resolution supporting resistance efforts and urging government action.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay vowed to do “everything possible to bring a proper resolution to this dispute.” The Royal Canadian Legion, the Canadian Historical Association and the Anishinabek Nation were among groups backing the Juno Beach Centre. 

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