Skip to main content

Canada is a land of lakes, from the pristine to the polluted, but there's surely only one body of water like the famed Lac St- Pierre -- armed, dangerous, and with the unfortunate potential to go boom.

Surrounded by several towns in Quebec, the lake looks on its surface like a postcard of Zen tranquillity. Herons float above its languid waters, and tall grasses sway in a late-summer breeze. But like a horror flick, its watery secret is what lies beneath.

For nearly 50 years, through the Cold War and subsequent military efforts, the Department of National Defence used this UNESCO-recognized natural wonderland as a munitions testing site. Year after year, soldiers used Lac St. Pierre as a firing range to test artillery.

Story continues below advertisement

Today, the Canadian army has left an explosive legacy. Some 300,000 shells lie on the lake floor. And, to the chagrin of residents and local mayors, an estimated 8,000 of the shells are unexploded.

"This is a cemetery of shells," Clément Dubois, mayor of Nicolet, said on a boat ride on the lake this week. "It just makes no sense."

The name that has become the byword for the artillery's lasting threat is Pierre Gentes. In 1982, while he and fellow merrymakers gathered to celebrate Quebec's St. Jean Baptiste holiday, a partygoer picked up a shell onshore and, in the dark, threw it on a bonfire. The shell, which had separated from its cone-shaped detonator, apparently resembled driftwood. In fact, it contained two kilograms of explosives.

Mr. Gentes died in the blast and nine were wounded, some of whom suffer hearing loss to this day.

The shells can still cause periodic commotion. In 2001, local resident Louis-Marc Bergeron picked one up near a highway and decided to take it home to his village of Saint-Léonard-d'Aston. In the ensuing panic, about 20 people were removed and the army and provincial police bomb squads were called in.

Over the years, shells have been carried by springtime ice to as far as Île d'Orléans, past Quebec City, some 150 kilometres downriver from where they were fired. The firing range, the Munitions Experimental Test Centre, is in Nicolet, 100 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

"I don't want to dramatize, but having unexploded shells hanging around the bottom of a lake is simply dangerous," said Louis Plamondon, the Bloc Québécois MP for the area who is pressing the federal government to act. "We're lucky we haven't had an accident. But we sense that National Defence is trying to buy time, instead of trying to find a way to do a cleanup."

Story continues below advertisement

Lac St-Pierre may well have been one of the most idyllic firing ranges to be found. The lake itself -- actually a widening of the St. Lawrence River -- is considered an environmental jewel. Home to the largest heron habitat in North America, it's also a migratory bird sanctuary, a wetlands with rare plant life, and a rich ecosystem that landed it a designation as a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2000.

It was into this oasis that National Defence used to fire artillery as large as 155 millimetres, about the size of a large fire extinguisher. The projectiles would soar as far as 25 kilometres across the water. At times, the thunderous explosions rattled residents' windows, shifted picture frames on walls, and made the insulation tiles on Mayor Dubois's city hall ceiling lift up.

The firing ceased in 2000, and now local officials want the lake cleaned up. Like a civic leader anywhere, Mr. Dubois has a vision: a golf course, a marina, perhaps a hotel. But the mayor's vision is munitions-free.

"I look at this and it makes me dream," Mr. Dubois said as a boat carried him onto the lake. "But we can't do anything. National Defence is promising us they'll pick up the munitions. But they never told us in what century."

National Defence has announced it would begin a pilot project to locate and remove shells from select sites, but the experiment has been delayed and was called off this year because divers found conditions inauspicious.

The problem is that any shell is a potential live shell. Captain Matt Braid, project director for the Defence Department's unexploded-ordnance program, said the pilot project would proceed next year, but he warned that removing artillery from water is complex, and coming by the technology isn't easy.

Story continues below advertisement

So in the meantime, National Defence sends out flyers warning the public not to touch stray projectiles and puts danger buoys in the lake.

These do little to deter locals, however, who tend to regard the shells as little more than a nuisance.

Now, Mr. Dubois says patience is running out. "When this test centre was set up in the 1950s, we didn't value the environment like we do today," he said. "We're in 2005. It's not normal for a lake in a biosphere to have artillery shells in it."

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies