Lac-Mégantic marks 10 years since deadly derailment

By Katy LeRougetel
August 7, 2023

LAC-MÉGANTIC, Quebec — The 10th anniversary of the July 6, 2013, Lac-Mégantic oil train derailment, which killed 47 people and burned out the city’s downtown, has sparked a broad discussion among working people here on how to fight for safety for rail workers and those who live by the tracks. This discussion includes Ottawa’s drive to build a rail bypass there in the interests of Canadian Pacific Railway shareholders and last February’s toxic chemical train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Militant worker-correspondents Steve Penner and I traveled to Lac-Mégantic to discuss these questions with workers and farmers July 13-16.

“Those promoting the rail bypass are responsible for the tragedy in 2013,” declared the Coalition of Collateral Victims on July 6. The coalition’s statement refers to the widely recognized truth that government and rail company collusion in the drive for rail bosses’ profits laid the basis for the tragedy through cost-cutting, criminally lax safety and dangerous operating procedures.

We joined seven opponents of the bypass at a discussion organized by Yolande Boulanger, 85, a beef cattle farmer and former dairy farmer. Linda Proteau described the July 6 commemoration of the Lac-Mégantic disaster attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier Francois Legault. “There was reserved seating for the politicians, including water bottles,” she said.

“For the families, there was nothing, no invitation, nothing,” she said. Proteau and her spouse, Rejean Roy, lost their daughter Melissa in the disaster.

The bypass, to be built at federal and provincial government expense, will give Canadian Pacific Kansas City railway a faster route to the Atlantic.

“This is economic predation,” Robert Bellefleur, spokesperson for the Coalition of Citizens and Organizations Committed to Railway Safety of Lac-Mégantic, told the Militant. “We want a bypass but this isn’t the right one.”

Rail union joins debate

“[T]he burden of protecting workers and the public has often fallen on the shoulders of our union,” Teamsters Canada President Francois Laporte said in a statement marking the anniversary.

“Just last month, after years of work by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, a federal judge found Canadian Pacific in contempt of court. The railway disobeyed an order to stop overworking train crews,” Laporte said. “Right now, as you read these lines, fatigued railroaders across this country are operating trains when they should be resting.”

Strikes waged by Teamster rail workers at Canadian National and Canadian Pacific over the past years have centered on the need for humane work schedules and for rail safety.

Trudeau’s determination to push ahead with the rail bypass land expropriations despite widespread community objections is of a piece with destruction of homes, businesses and expropriations carried out only weeks after the derailment in Lac-Mégantic itself.

Bellefleur explained, “There were over 30 noncontaminated buildings standing, half the downtown.” Most were razed anyway. Of the multimillion-dollar fund created to aid victims of the disaster, major chains, such as pharmacy Jean Coutu and Metro supermarket received $241,000 and $494,000 respectively to relocate, while homeowners got as little as $1,000.

On May 5, the Union of Agricultural Producers in Estrie and the Union of Forestry Producers spoke at a government hearing on the bypass. Opposing the expropriation of 33 farm and forestry producers, they pointed out Ottawa has refused to consider alternate routes.

Patricia Beliveau, resident of a subdivision in nearby Frontenac where all residents use artesian wells, told the Militant, “Transport Canada asks us to be cooperative. They’ll send a firm to test the water quality in our wells. But they won’t tell us what firm they’re using. We want to do our own tests.”

Many area residents make the connection with their fight and the ongoing debate on the East Palestine derailment. “We think East Palestine will bring changes,” said Bellefleur. Referring to the tank cars used in both the Mégantic and East Palestine trains that derailed and broke apart, he said, “DOT-111 are not allowed for oil transport anymore, but for other dangerous material, yes. That can be even more dangerous.”

The rail safety coalition calls for an independent committee of inquiry on the disaster and a government-appointed mediator to resolve the community divisions on the bypass, Bellefleur said.

“Capitalist governments defend corporate profits not human needs. Workers and farmers need to fight for the right to make the decisions,” said Penner. “When rail workers and unions speak out on behalf of working people, this shows the way forward.”