The wrong men were charged in Lac-Mégantic

A show trial for Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway employees may give the impression of justice, but the blood of those 47 dead is on the hands of government & industry.


Three men were charged on Tuesday with 47 counts each of criminal negligence causing death in last summer’s explosion of an oil-tanker train in Lac-Mégantic.

In many ways, that’s a little like arresting a mail carrier for delivering a letter bomb.

Holding a show trial for Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway (MM&A) train engineer Thomas Harding, railway traffic controller Richard Labrie and train operations director Jean Demaître may give the impression of justice, but the employees of the grand defunct railroad are minor players in the tragedy of Lac-Mégantic.

The fuse that lit up the night skies of the small Eastern Townships town wasn’t set 11 kilometres up the hill, where Harding had parked the train overnight. It was set in Ottawa and Washington, D.C. It was set in the boardrooms of oil and gas exploration companies around the world and, ultimately, as consumers, it was set by you and me.

Ironically, politicians and entrepreneurs like to refer to the frenetic exploitation of oil and gas resources in places like the Alberta oil sands and the Bakken shale formation in the U.S. (the source of the MM&A’s deadly cargo) as a “boom.”

The word evokes an explosion of prosperity and economic growth, but it’s actually the sound of the fuel industry scraping the bottom of the barrell. The costly extraction of crude from Alberta bitumen and oil and gas by “fracking” shale formations has been made profitable because of rising prices, themselves a reflection of the fact that the planet is running out of hydrocarbon-based fuel while we continue to burn it with abandon.

The mad rush to profit from these sites is driven by greed and consumer excess, not any urgency to get the fuel out of the ground, and that is why old freight trains and new pipelines are being pushed into service with precarious haste.

The only reason there’s a “boom” is because we know that a bust is just around the corner.


On the same day that charges were filed against the MM&A’s sacrificial lambs, federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt announced that the Harper government was setting new policies around the issue of oil spills at sea. Most of changes were recommended by an expert panel appointed by the Tories, yet Raitt decided to ignore the key recommendation that any companies responsible for a spill be liable for the full cost of cleaning it up. Instead, she raised the cap for liability from $161-million to $400-million per spill, with any extra costs to be covered by a levy on the company.

But as the post-Mégantic bankruptcy of MM&A showed us, a significant accident could easily wipe out a company’s resources before even a fraction of the costs have been covered. Almost a year after the derailment spilled 100,000 litres of oil into the la Chaudière River, Quebec’s environment minister announced Tuesday that a 30-kilometre stretch of the riverbed still contains heavy deposits of oil even after Quebec spent $16-million on clean-up.

Whatever the final price tag, it won’t be MM&A that pays for it — it will be you and me.

The decision to limit liability for accidents at sea doesn’t bode well for the next plank of the Tories’ oil transportation safety plan: dealing with spills from all those new and old pipelines criss-crossing the country from B.C. to New Brunswick.

And the Harper government showed Monday that it’s not receptive to suggestions from the United Nation’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, James Anaya, that Ottawa solicit the support of native groups before approving the building of new pipelines like Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project.


All this goes to show that the industry that literally fuelled the deaths of 47 Quebecers last July 6 will continue to get government support and protection that ignores the real — publicly funded — cost of doing business.

But that’s okay. Yesterday we perp-walked three men through a town still mourning 47 of its residents.

Meanwhile, the people who wrote the policies that put that deadly cargo on an unsafe train and ran it through an unsuspecting town will continue to collect their dividends and their performance bonuses — or continue to seek re-election.

If we really want justice, they are the ones who should be on trial. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every Wednesday. You can contact him by email or follow him on Twitter.