On 6 July 2013 a runaway freight train exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Québec, killing 47 people and destroying the town centre. I know this town well as I lived and worked here in 1978-1980, and ever since have returned at least once a year to a cottage on the lake for weeks at a time. We were here on that fateful 2013 day and have closely followed the painful aftermath, the slow recovery and the commemorations.
This year Ian Austen remembered events and described the current situation with two moving essays in the New York Times and its Canada Letter. Those of us who love this place were pleased to find it given such prominent attention. His reporting was respectful and accurate; however, perhaps owing to word limits or the selection of photographs, the tone was gloomy and the analysis incomplete. He is right– no one will forget the tragedy here in town, or in the country– and it will join the litany of infamous Canadian disasters, like Springhill or Ocean Ranger or Air India. He is also right that almost every one of the rebuilding decisions provoked controversy, regret, and argument– a process that continues.
Motivated by Austen’s reports, I wanted to add something else to this story of loss, destruction, and slow recovery and to reinforce his recommendation that you visit, in solidarity with its wounded citizens. Lac-Mégantic is a warm and welcoming place.
Saturday is market day. The town is now using the old train station for the purpose. A piano and a basketball hoop stand outside. The bright rooms accommodate local growers and crafts people and there is a corner for kiddies to play while they wait. The tourist information centre is housed in the same building–as it was before the disaster– with very helpful staff and an excellent display on the tragedy, the responders, and the rebuilding.
I especially like the outdoor cafe at the back of the station…it is right beside the railway tracks with historic photos explaining the history of this railway town — and a massive train accident that occurred in exactly the same place in 1918.
Nearby a big brick building (overlooking the little park with turquoise Adirondack chairs), is brand new in 2019 to accommodate offices and affordable apartments. Its design is sympathetic to the old style. The 1960s grey town hall is across the street; like the train station— it survived the blast.
The signature St Agnes church lies beyond the “wasteland” (Austen’s word) of the old town centre and main street between train station and church. Rebuilding the old main road goes slowly because all the soil had to be dragged away and decontaminated. The design was the product of extensive public discussions that took a long time (see here and here). You can see –as Austen said –it is now repaved with sidewalks and streetlights and few buildings. But new structures are going up — for commerce on the ground floor and apartments above. There are also plaques explaining the lost buildings and the town history.
In front of the church and running alongside the railway tracks at the site of the explosion is a wooden memorial boardwalk, called La Marche du Vent, with a kiosk and panels to explain and commemorate the disaster. From here, the sweep of the burning oil is still evident, as it ran down to the lake, destroying shops, homes, and big trees in the park. The old yellow firehall ironically survived the blast although it was right beside the flaming tracks; it appears in Austen’s photos too — but the mood is different.
In the middle of new buildings, including some modern dwellings in a style reminiscent of Bauhaus, is a new town park with a small pond created by talented local landscaper François Lessard.
From this same site looking left one can see the back of the “condos commercials” erected after the tragedy.
The “condos commercials” stand on a newly extended rue Papineau, east of and parallel to the original main street. This section is two blocks long. Hastily erected, Austen called the “condos” “lifeless.” Being all the same vintage and fabric, they do possess a weird, Francis-Ford-Coppola sameness. But something had to be done so that enterprises would not leave and the town would not die. It was amazing how quickly the building was accomplished. First to open by Christmas 2013 (just five months later) was the SAQ (liquor store), which has since moved (more below). Huge pots of flowers and young trees decorate the new street, merchants use sidewalk tables for their displays, and the brulerie does a roaring trade as a cafe with great coffee and delicious baked goods and lunches.
A new Poulet Frit is at the north end, and at the south end the resurrected Musicafe — where so many died in 2013–always had one or two palm trees.
The existence of this new thoroughfare contributes to the slow rebuilding and re-definition of the old main street. There’s a limit to the amount of commerce a town of 7000 people needs or wants.
A new, tasteful bridge on rue Papineau connects the condos commercials beyond the Musicafé to the new grocery store. The new bridge was absolutely essential because the town is divided by the Chaudière river and the old bridge on the main street had to be closed for 3 years. To get around from the south side of town to the north added 18 km to the trajectory.
These new houses below are on the south side of the river on the hill overlooking the lake and town centre (hard to photograph). They are small but tasteful and affordable at between $160K and 220K. There are also new apartment buildings — with 6 to 8 units each — balconies overlooking the lake and Tafisa.
These new dwellings show that rather than being in stagnation or decline, the town continues. And it needs the railway for many other businesses that are vital to the community, including Tafisa wood factory, the largest employer of more than 1000 workers. Its products include fire-resistant laminates, pressboard, doors, window frames, mouldings, and cabinets that are shipped across North America.
The old Metro grocery store near the train station in the town centre was a victim of the explosion. Poignantly — during the crisis when the old Metro was closed and torn down — the more modest rival Maxi (3 km away)—ramped up service and volunteer workers came from all over Quebec; they welcomed the out-of-work Metro employees too. Metro has reopened in a different location — close to the train station, the site of an 1940s church which had already been deconsecrated and was for sale before 2013.
The town has never had such a wonderful grocery store. The Metro company opted to build a “top of the line” store for the town, which it might not normally do for a place of this size. SAQ is located there now too.
Money from both the federal and the provincial governments has helped with the rebuilding. A completely new campground and trailer park opened a few years ago and is growing with numerous amenities, woodland cabins, swimming pool, and games. A new microhotel is planned for the town centre. Music festivals take place in the town park and in nearby Piopolis each summer. Athletic events such as the Grand Tour du Lac for cyclists every June and the Canada Man/Woman extreme triathalon draw international participants. Artists, sculptors, and crafts people are featured in an annual summer gallery in the athletic centre; seven local artists have opened a pop-up gallery on the new rue Papineau. And there’s always the beautiful lake and the numerous short or long hiking trails along the Route des Sommets.
Ian Austen described the mandated changes in oil-carrying railway cars that have been enforced by the government and the controversy over the rail bypass, which has been a huge issue locally. People are divided on the proposed route, and on whether it is even necessary. While the changes and the rebuilding may seem slow, funds have been allocated and, once again, extensive public consultation and environmental hearings on the proposed route concluded only this month in July 2019. Most Canadian towns arose because of the railway and have tracks running through their centres; not all can have a bypass.
Austen situates the accident in the context of a boom in Canadian oil and gas production, but that boom was irrelevant to this tragedy—the train had originated in North Dakota. That reality illustrates why Canada-US regulatory alignment is so important on rail transportation improvements. The most authoritative study of the regulatory failures that led to the tragedy was completed by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board. On the five-year anniversary of the accident it assessed progress on its main recommendations as largely satisfactory, although there is more to be done.
But Austen did not mention pipelines. The Lac-Mégantic disaster will forever be a participant in these discussions. As long as the world relies on fossil fuels, their transport will be an issue. In recent years, Alberta’s government, frustrated by delays in expanding pipeline capacity, has encouraged shipping oil by rail; massive increases have occurred. Pipelines definitely have their problems, but some experts contend that their spills are easier to clean up than derailments, and rarely do they result in human tragedy. Many mégantois are baffled by opposition to pipelines from their own province and beyond.
If you visit Lac-Mégantic, you will learn a lot about resilience, democracy, and human strength. You will have done something for its people, yes, but you will do much more for yourself.
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