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Almost nine years after the rail disaster, Ottawa is expected to begin construction on a controversial rail bypass – sparking bitter debate in a tightly woven community hoping to heal

Gilles Fluet would have been the train’s first victim.

He had just crossed the tracks in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que., on his way home from the bar, when 72 black cylindrical tank cars full of crude oil sped behind him at 105 km/h.

No lights, no whistles, no screeching brakes. Just a terrible rush of air and a low rumbling sound.

When he turned, the train hit a sharp angle and derailed. Its cars jackknifed, then pierced like pop cans. Oil flowed from the twisted metal. Fireballs leapt out of the resulting explosions. Forty-seven people died in the flames, many of them in the Musi-Café, where Mr. Fluet had spent the evening; where he had just said no to another drink.

Almost a decade later, he can’t stop replaying the scene, clear as a movie in his mind. It doesn’t help that freight trains still regularly roll through Lac-Mégantic, past the site of the derailment. Some residents, including Mr. Fluet, experience that sight as a kind of waking nightmare and want the trains out of downtown, to help banish the ghosts of July 6, 2013. “That’s an image engraved in our memory, that puts us in survival mode in similar situations,” he said. “There’s a saying that a scalded dog fears boiling water.”

Firefighters work to put out the flames on July 6, 2013.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

This year, the federal government is expected to finally begin construction on a long-delayed rail bypass that is intended to heal psychological wounds by removing one of their most potent triggers, rerouting the tracks along a more rural area.

But in a region where almost everyone has an intimate link to the tragedy, the bypass has gradually turned from a source of celebration into one of bitter controversy. The web of pain is tightly woven in Lac-Mégantic, and the new tracks are set to cut across the property of at least three families who lost loved ones in the derailment. The same trauma that has made the bypass seem necessary to Mr. Fluet has made it unthinkable to them.

Other residents oppose the bypass because they feel bullied into selling their land, or that they weren’t properly consulted about the plan – feelings that are aggravated by a deep mistrust of Transport Canada bureaucrats and rail companies. A citizens’ committee for rail safety recently withdrew its support for the current route in part because trains will be allowed to travel faster on it than they currently do when they pass through the city.

The debate has underscored a tragic reality in Lac-Mégantic: For some people to move on, others are being dragged into the past. In his living room, Mr. Fluet wades through piles of paper he has kept about the tragedy – thousands of pages of government reports and academic studies that testify to how powerfully it has lingered in his mind. At the top of one stack is an article he wrote for the local newspaper.

The headline reads: “Healing from July 6? Not so easy…”


Isabelle Boulanger stands near the spot where a rail bypass will run through her family's 270-acre farm. The Boulangers have been lobbying to stop the bypass. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
Gilles Fluet, who saw the 2013 derailment just after crossing the tracks, gets uncomfortable when trains pass and says he wants them out of downtown. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
This memorial stone, whose French inscription reads ‘to always remember,’ was excavated from the site during a decontamination process. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

On the site where the Musi-Café once stood, the city has built a monument to the dead, a tiered concrete pavilion carved with 48 ghostly figures. All but one of those represents the human victims – people like Réal Custeau, whose beaten-up old guitar sits there in homage, a gift from his brother.

The final engraved figure stands in for the destruction of the downtown itself, about half of which burned to the ground in the disaster: dozens of buildings, many of them reduced to ashy foundations.

What remains of the old main street now resembles a jagged scar. New buildings have gone up sporadically – a chain hotel, an optometry clinic and eyewear boutique – leaving many vacant lots, including a large open field behind the memorial.

In this landscape of significant absences, one unsettling presence is hard to avoid: the trains. They chug with funereal slowness past the turn where the derailment happened, sounding their mournful whistles at 12 separate level crossings as they pass through town. Some people never get used to the sight or the sound.

“There are people who tell me, ‘Every time I hear the whistle, I jump; I get a shiver,’” said Julie Morin, the city’s mayor, who strongly supports the bypass.

In part because the local economy depends on it, freight rail service resumed in Lac-Mégantic less than six months after the disaster. The city’s rubber stamp came with certain conditions, including a speed limit of 16 km/h, which trains still observe, and no fluid cargo, which was soon lifted. By 2015, tankers of propane and sulphuric acid were again permitted to rumble past the crash site.

Planned Lac-Mégantic rail bypass

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THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

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Planned Lac-Mégantic rail bypass

The route

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10e Rang

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Rue Laval

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Lac-Mégantic

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Rue Frontenac

Ruelle De Centre Ville

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THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS; GOVERNMENT OF CANADA

Planned Lac-Mégantic rail bypass

The route

The 2013 derailment

Areas that were affected

by the explosion

Buildings that

were affected

Existing track

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Ruelle De Centre Ville

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Lac-Mégantic

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; GOVERNMENT OF CANADA

Although former mayor Colette Roy-Laroche – who earned the nickname “The Granite Lady” for her stoicism in the wake of the tragedy – supported the return of rail operations, she also quickly began calling for a bypass.

To many residents, moving the tracks seemed like an obvious first step, after what they had lived through. As Ms. Morin put it recently: “The train is the murderer. Do we want it in the house, or do we want it to go?”

What some advocates forgot, in the rush to expel the train from downtown, was that the murderer would have to go somewhere.

The tracks that traverse Lac-Mégantic are part of an important rail network; they feed a local industrial park that employs hundreds of people, and form a key leg of Canadian Pacific’s route from Montreal to the East Coast. The trains couldn’t just disappear.

When the federal government finally agreed to build the bypass in 2018, after years of pressure from safety activists and the town itself, there was intense relief in some quarters. A public-health study conducted by the regional government found that 33 per cent of participants said the announcement significantly improved their personal well-being.

But it soon became clear that the proposed route, a 12.5-km detour to the north of central Lac-Mégantic, would entail collateral damage. Although it dramatically reduced the number of buildings lying within 500 metres of the tracks – an important safety measure – it also sliced across land belonging to 43 different owners, many of whom had suffered terrible losses in the disaster.

Yolande Boulanger at home with daughter Isabelle.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

One of those properties was the ancestral farm of the Boulanger family, who quickly became a symbol of resistance to the bypass and the agonizing dilemmas it involves. The close-knit clan continues to grieve the death of 19-year-old Frédéric, a precocious and affectionate “little gentleman” who died while fleeing his apartment as flames consumed the city on the night of the derailment.

Now, the train will be routed through land that has been in their family since the 1930s, containing the house where 84-year-old matriarch Yolande still lives. The family has been lobbying Transport Canada and local governments to have the new route stopped. “We’ve given enough,” said Isabelle Boulanger, Frédéric’s mother, wiping away tears at the mention of her son.

As currently proposed, the bypass will sit at the bottom of a deep trench and run less than 100 metres from Yolande’s modest farmhouse and the barn where her son raises beef cattle. On a practical level, she worries that the train’s vibrations will disturb her peaceful home and that dynamiting in the granite beneath the soil could contaminate the local groundwater.

But the family also fears the memories that proximity to the railway will dredge up. Isabelle, who lives down the road from her mother in neighbouring Frontenac, still consciously avoids the part of downtown Lac-Mégantic where her son died. Nine years later, she hasn’t set foot there, or visited the nearby memorial. “I don’t need that to remember,” she said.

Yolande Boulanger looks over plans for the rail detour.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Yolande would prefer to keep the current route or, alternatively, for the bypass to stop short at the industrial park and loop back down to meet up with the existing tracks, sparing her property. The family feels that all the talk about social healing has left out people like them, who lost a teenage boy with “an urgency to live” and are now being asked to live face-to-face with his killer.

“You want to talk about mental health?” said Isabelle. “What do you think it does to our mental health to have the train pass here?”

Other families along the bypass have been similarly tormented by the land-purchasing process, which Transport Canada recently extended by three months to allow for further negotiations.

Sylvain Côté lost his childhood best friend in the disaster and is now losing nearly a quarter of his 28-acre property, where he hoped to build a small house and a sugar shack for his retirement. When Transport Canada announced its chosen route, it blindsided him – he had only recently purchased a property whose value would now inevitably plummet.

“It’s miserable,” said Mr. Côté. “They don’t tell us anything.”

Kurt Lucas said his wife’s hands now shake involuntarily when she receives an envelope from Transport Canada. They have a country home in Frontenac that sits on land in the path of the proposed route, and Mr. Lucas said the ministry has threatened them and other property owners with expropriation if they refuse to sell – a tactic he believes amounts to “bullying.”

A project that was supposed to be about social healing has instead reminded people of the tragedy, and the helpless feeling it inspired. “This is reopening a lot of old wounds,” he said.

Faced with overwhelming opposition from residents such as Mr. Lucas, the municipality of Frontenac announced that it was withdrawing its support for the bypass on May 4.


One of the walls in Yolande Boulanger's home has a picture of her grandson Frédéric Boutin,19, who was killed in the derailment after leaving the Musi-Café.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

An anti-bypass sign hangs from a fence. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
A lamp illuminates one of the memorial stones. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In the immediate aftermath of the derailment, Lac-Mégantic was not only a community in mourning, but in acute distress. Many people suffered from flashbacks and night terrors; disturbing memories seemed to be everywhere. “Here the trains no longer whistle,” said the resident Paul Dostie before a provincial consultation on the bypass. “They scream.”

When the University of Sherbrooke public-health researcher Mélissa Généreux led a series of surveys into local mental health in 2014 and 2015, she was shocked at what she found. Anxiety, alcohol consumption and depression were all markedly higher in Lac-Mégantic than in the Eastern Townships region overall. Seven in 10 residents showed signs of suffering from post-traumatic stress.

The city was entering a period of anguished division about everything relating to the disaster, from the reconstruction of the downtown (should it look old-fashioned or cutting-edge?) to the design of the memorial (big and unmistakable or quiet and sombre? Should victims be named?).

“Everything is delicate,” said Ms. Morin. “[Should] we cut down a tree because it’s sick? It’s controversial. Because we lost all our heritage.”

Mayor Julie Morin speaks with a visitor as freight cars pass Lac-Mégantic.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Before the bypass, no debate was more delicate than the one about the remaining section of downtown.

When the train derailed, it spilled about 6 million litres of Bakken crude, a kind of oil extracted in North Dakota that was known to contain high concentrations of the toxic chemical compound hydrogen sulphide. Although much of the oil burned off, dangerous quantities also rushed into the Chaudière River and the municipal sewer system. About 100,000 cubic metres of soil were believed to have been contaminated.

Half of the historic downtown was also left standing and largely untouched, but the mayor pushed to have it razed anyway, citing uncertainty about the scope of the spill. Many people fiercely opposed the move at the time, and losing that remnant of normal life in Lac-Mégantic still haunts some of them. One resident, Robert Bellefleur, calls it “the second tragedy.”

In the months and years to come, the city would experience many more tragedies. There were prominent suicides among those who had an especially close brush with the carnage: a musician who had stepped outside for a cigarette moments before the Musi-Café went up in flames, and a firefighter who discovered the body of an ex-girlfriend amidst the rubble, both took their lives.

Something more intangible was lost just as irretrievably: faith in authority. Many people in Lac-Mégantic blamed the rail companies and government regulators – the two actors responsible for building and operating the bypass – for unleashing the disaster.

It was Canadian Pacific, after all, that hauled volatile Bakken crude from North Dakota to Montreal in relatively fragile DOT-111 tank cars, originally designed for carrying non-hazardous liquids like corn oil, before handing them off to a regional railroad for the rest of their journey, said Bruce Campbell, adjunct professor in York University’s faculty of environmental and urban change, in the 2018 book The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster.

It was Transport Canada, meanwhile, that allowed the use of those cars for the transportation of dangerous goods, despite years of warnings from safety watchdogs in Canada and the U.S.

When the federal government agreed to build the rail bypass – to “help in the healing process,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said – and placed Transport Canada in charge, residents were already wary. The ministry had little good will to draw on in Lac-Mégantic.

Workers comb through wreckage on July 9, 2013.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The involvement of CP – which purchased the railway running through Lac-Mégantic in 2019 – added another sour note. The company carries a stigma in the region for being the only party allegedly involved in the derailment that denied any responsibility and refused to pay into a compensation fund for the victims. (A class action against the firm is currently at trial in Quebec.) Because the new tracks will be paid for by the federal and provincial governments, CP “won’t have to pay for the reconstruction,” said Prof. Campbell, “which is also controversial.”

In a written statement, the company said, “CP is not among those responsible for the Lac Megantic derailment as the train was not operated by CP employees or travelling on CP tracks, and it was not powered by CP locomotives. Additionally, CP did not own the railcars or product involved in the derailment. CP believes the victims of this terrible tragedy should be compensated. CP believes that compensation must come from those responsible.”

The city’s role as a booster of the bypass did little to inspire confidence, either. Some of the plan’s critics were so scarred by the administration’s determination to demolish the remaining section of the historic main street in 2014 that they doubted its stewardship of another major initiative, said Mr. Bellefleur. “The people who we trusted, betrayed us.”


A freight train rolls through town. Railway sounds can give locals bad flashbacks: ‘Here the trains no longer whistle. They scream,’ resident Paul Dostie told a provincial consultation on the bypass. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
A guitar stands by one of the memorial stones, one of several dug up from the explosion site and inscribed with inspirational words. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
The memorial space also has 48 silhouettes, one for each victim and one representing residents and visitors. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Although Mr. Bellefleur was once one of the most prominent lobbyists for the bypass – as spokesperson for the citizens’ rail safety committee, he was long a thorn in the federal government’s side – he says he has lost confidence in the current project. His concerns centre around a stretch of the new route that will pass through the city’s industrial park, particularly alongside a particleboard factory whose grounds contain mountains of flammable sawdust. Because the track will no longer be traversing densely populated areas, CP plans to run its trains at up to 64 kilometres an hour, rather than the current 16 permitted downtown, and remains mute about whether it will resume the transport of crude oil through the area.

“If there’s ever a derailment, that’s a bomb,” said Mr. Bellefleur.

The retired social worker comes by his anxiety honestly. In a way, he was one of the lucky ones – he didn’t lose any immediate family members in the disaster – but he counted, and came up with the number of people he knew personally who died that night. It was 25. His contractor, the man who sold him his car, two of his daughter’s former babysitters – the list went on and on. It was a common-enough exercise in a small place like Lac-Mégantic, where everyone knows everyone.

“We’ve gone through a tragedy,” he said. “We want zero risk.”

Despite the problems with the current proposal, Mr. Bellefleur believes the safest option remains some sort of rail bypass. He would still prefer a route farther north, away from the residences and factories of the urban fringe. Today, he has resigned himself to advocating for slower trains carrying less dangerous materials along the bypass that he accepts is probably inevitable – albeit in characteristically pointed fashion.

“How can CP think it will reassure, protect, and work towards the healing of a population still wounded by the loss of loved ones,” he wrote in a recent press release, “when it informs us in very technical terms that its monster trains of more than 200 cars and cisterns containing dangerous materials like propane gas, auto fuel, sulphuric acid, sodium chloride, etc. will soon travel at a speed of 40 miles an hour on significant and winding slopes across several populated sectors and then on a new bridge across the Chaudière River, still contaminated with oil, to finally arrive in the heart of the Lac-Mégantic industrial park?”

Lac-Mégantic resident Gilbert Carette gestures toward the bypass route beside the Tafisa particleboard plant.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

There are still many advantages to the current bypass, said Ms. Morin, one of its most consistent defenders. The route is the shortest of the three options studied by an engineering firm hired by the city to perform a feasibility study, she noted. It will cut the number of at-level crossings – and with them the haunting whistle cries – from 16 to four. She also points out that it was the route favoured by the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement, a provincial body that assesses the environmental impacts of large infrastructure projects.

But even the mayor suggested that Transport Canada and CP have bungled the process. Although the ministry held a public consultation in January, she said it hasn’t sent enough staff to talk through issues like the slope and curves of the new track with anxious residents. Her administration is calling on the federal government to provide just compensation to people who will be affected by the route and to simply listen to residents more attentively. “What’s missing is that sensitivity on the part of Transport Canada and Canadian Pacific,” said Ms. Morin. “You don’t address a traumatized population like any other population.”

In a written statement, Transport Canada pointed to the safety measures it has implemented since the derailment, including mandatory two-person crews for trains carrying dangerous goods, and phasing out DOT-111 cars for flammable liquids by April, 2025. Ministry spokesperson Sau Sau Liu said the government held two informational sessions with landowners in the summer of 2021 and that there is an office in Lac-Mégantic where owners can arrange to meet with federal representatives by appointment.


Mr. Fluet says he still lives with vivid memories of the night of the derailment.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Trauma is something the residents of Lac-Mégantic have in common. It shapes the public conversation about the aftermath of the disaster, a rare lingua franca in an often-divided city. But it also appears in idiosyncratic ways, shaping different residents differently.

Isabelle Boulanger’s trauma makes her want to keep the trains passing through a downtown she can’t bear to face, for fear that they will soon end up in her backyard.

Mr. Fluet’s trauma made him demand a rail bypass and mistrust the people who will operate the one he’s getting. It makes him rewind the night of July 6, 2013, over and over in his head, sometimes stopping on surprising details.

On a recent rainy morning, standing by the train tracks, he remembered how he went door to door after the derailment, warning neighbours to get far, far away. He also remembered what the fire did to the trees that remained.

“The leaves were like in autumn,” he said. “They had all burned.”


From the archives: More on the Lac-Mégantic disaster

In 2013, survivors of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster told The Globe and Mail about the night the Musi-Café went up in flames and many lost family members and friends.

In depth: The last moments of Lac-Mégantic

The deadly secret behind Bakken crude and the Lac-Mégantic inferno

Lac-Mégantic memorial honours victims of train explosion


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