A new television series based on the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster is dividing opinion in the Quebec town where it is set.
Citizens of Lac-Mégantic were given a chance to watch the first episode of Mégantic at a screening Monday, several days before the French-language series begins streaming on Quebecor’s Club Illico Thursday.
The eight-episode show comes months before the 10-year-anniversary of the July 6, 2013, disaster, when a runaway train hauling tanker cars loaded with crude oil derailed and exploded in the Quebec town of 6,000, claiming 47 lives and destroying a large part of the downtown area.
Daniel Pilon, a Lac-Mégantic resident, is among those who won’t be watching. In a phone interview, he said he’s uncomfortable seeing a production company “romanticizing” the tragedy.
“We lost 47 people. There are children who lost their parents, people who lost their friends, a mother who lost her son, a grandmother who lost her grandson,” he said in a phone interview.
Pilon says the train passed within 500 metres of his house, and he still remembers watching his neighbours panic and cry as they desperately awaited news of their loved ones.
In addition to the trauma, he said many of the issues and divisions arising from the tragedy are still ongoing, including tensions over a rail bypass to divert trains around the city centre and what he sees as a botched process to rebuild the town’s downtown.
There’s also the December Quebec Superior Court decision December that exonerated Canadian Pacific Railway for its role in the tragedy, which is currently under appeal.
Pilon said that if the series had come in another 10 years, he might have watched. “For now, too many things are unresolved,” he said.
Others in the town who attended Monday’s screening came back with positive things to say.
Nathalie Michaud, a native of Lac-Mégantic who appeared as an extra in one scene, said she found the first episode to be “respectful, and not sensationalized.”
She praised the way the screening was presented, which included explanations from the production team and the presence of support workers from the local public health authority.
She said the collective experience of getting to see the screening with hundreds of members of her community was helpful to her, personally.
While the events and characters are clearly based on real people, their stories were often combined or intermingled, which allowed her to keep “a certain distance” mentally, she added.
While she acknowledged some people might feel it’s too soon for such a production, “I don’t think the time will come when everybody is ready at the same time.”
André Tanguay, another resident, said he was a little apprehensive about the screening, but emerged relieved.
He said what was depicted was a “human” story about “simple people overtaken by a situation bigger than themselves.”
He was glad to see the story done by a Quebec company, with local actors, and hopes it might help speed up discussions on the rail bypass, so that no more trains laden with dangerous materials pass through downtown.
However, he added that the first episode is more of a scene-setter, meaning others to come might be harder to watch for some people, especially those who are more closely connected to the tragedy than he is.
Dr. Isabelle Samson, the director of public health for the Estrie region, said she and other health care workers were present at the screening to offer support if anyone needed it.
She said her main worry was that a series like this could bring up negative emotions that could cause some people to become anxious. On the other hand, seeing the show can be positive for some people, because it can give them a way to talk about the tragedy.
“Now with the show, it gives them legitimacy to to talk about their emotions, and for those people it could be quite positive,” she said.
The most important thing, she said, is for people not to force themselves to watch if they don’t feel ready, and to reach out and seek support if they experience symptoms such as anxiety, trouble sleeping or extreme sadness after watching.