7th Anniversary of Lac-Mégantic Tragedy

The Need to Build a Public Authority that Defends Public not Private Interests

July 6, 2020 marked the seventh anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, one of the worst train disasters in Canadian history. 

On the evening of July 5, 2013, a freight train comprised of five locomotives and 72 tanker cars, unsuited for the type of crude oil they carried, was left unattended in Nantes, in Quebec's Eastern Townships. At around 1:00 am the train started to roll down the slope towards the town of Lac-Mégantic. Shortly after, 63 of the tanker cars derailed in downtown Lac-Mégantic, spilling their contents and causing a series of fires and explosions of catastrophic proportions. 

Forty-seven people were killed and many others were injured. Downtown Lac-Mégantic was destroyed. The Chaudière River and the lake itself were heavily contaminated by the crude oil spill. 

The people of Lac-Mégantic suffered heavy loss of life and property as well as environmental destruction because of the frenzied pumping of crude oil in North Dakota's Bakken fields to serve the U.S. war machine and the machinations of the U.S. against sovereign nation-building projects such as that of the Venezuelan people. Suddenly, old worn-out tracks were declared perfectly suitable for such shipments, unsuitable tanker cars became suitable, and years of state-organized rail industry deregulation served rail and oil monopoly greed and prepared the conditions for the disaster. 

On this occasion of the seventh anniversary of the tragedy, the people of Lac-Mégantic held commemorative ceremonies and reiterated their urgent demands for rail safety. They have been fighting without ceasing since the tragedy of July 6, 2013 to rebuild their lives, which cannot be done without improved rail safety and without a say and control by the community over the measures that are to be taken. 

On the occasion of the 7th anniversary the city of Mégantic inaugurated an Espace mémoire,
dedicated to the 47 victims.

A main demand is for a bypass track, which the federal and Quebec governments have now committed to build by 2023, so that dangerous goods will no longer be transported through Lac-Mégantic's downtown core. Rail communities affected by train derailments -- which continue to occur regularly across Quebec, Canada and the United States -- are greatly inspired by the steadfastness of the Lac-Mégantic community, backed by all of the people of Quebec.

The fight of the Mégantic people and of so many rail communities is difficult and challenging as they are up against the state-organized deregulation of the rail industry in the service of rail monopolies and the oil and gas industry. They are also up against the biggest challenge of all which is that governments no longer constitute a public authority. They are a wing of the narrow private interests which have usurped the state apparatus. 

The conditions for the Lac-Mégantic tragedy were prepared during thirty years of wrecking activities by the state and the rail monopolies.

To name just a few, in the 1990s, national rail companies such as CP and CN were allowed by the Liberal government to get rid of regional lines under the hoax that they were not profitable. Some were sold to vulture U.S. companies in the business of buying and selling rail companies, which cut the workforce, did not maintain the lines and lowered safety standards. When CP got rid of many regional lines, the regional line that includes Lac-Mégantic ended up, in 2003, in the hands of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA), the owner at the time of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.

In 2001, the Liberal government at the time introduced the Safety Management System (SMS), a self-regulating safety system that rail companies themselves devise and which Transport Canada merely audits and whose content is kept secret from the workers and communities with the ruse that this is to protect the competitiveness of the rail companies.

In 2012, the Harper government authorized MMA to run its trains with a one-man crew. Again the conditions that had to be met for the government to grant the authorization were never made public, under the sham of protecting MMA as a private business.

Anti-social concepts such as "risk management," "safety as a cost that has to be balanced against the other costs companies have to pay," and "competitiveness" have become the name of the game at the expense of the rights and safety of, and in spite of the voice of the communities.

Today, claiming these are private business decisions, the Canadian government is turning a blind eye and letting CP, for example, put maximum pressure on office workers to drive and load trains instead of hiring professionally trained locomotive engineers. Near-miss tragic accidents have been reported but this is all part of "risk management" under which everything is declared fine until tragedies happen and governments and companies express sorrow and concerns and nothing changes. Rail companies are now using inexperienced people equipped with remote control belt packs walking alongside trains to assemble and disassemble trains in yards, instead of having experienced locomotive engineers direct the operation from the locomotive itself. This has led to an increase in runaway trains.

The fact is that seven years after the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, the dangers to human life, property and the environment are even more acute due to the criminal negligence of the railway monopolies, supported by governments. They claim their overriding responsibility and most urgent task is to remain competitive with other carriers nationally and internationally at any cost, with governments taking no responsibility and refusing to hold the monopolies to account. They also claim more and more that the human factor is the cause of accidents and tragedies and that unless the process is 100 per cent mechanized, with no workers involved, rail safety will continue to deteriorate and be subject to "human error."

Workers and communities reject this anti-social outlook and these anti-social practices. It is thanks to their activation of the human factor/social consciousness that the demand to provide real problems with pro-social solutions exists and is firmly planted as the basis for opening a path to progress. Even as workers and communities keep pushing their immediate demands for measures to enforce safety in terms of working conditions, required personnel, maintenance of the tracks, safe stationing of trains and the bypass track, they continue to suffer the daily trauma of repeat accidents because of the government's anti-human approach to the problem. The trauma they suffer is not just post-traumatic, but the present foreboding that at any time the mischief could be repeated. 

Any authority worthy of the name must have mechanisms that enable those affected by the decisions taken to have the decisive say over what decision is to be taken, how it is implemented and how it is monitored. Governments and the narrow private interests they serve must be held to account for their anti-human, anti-social and irresponsible response to the demands of the Lac-Mégantic community. 

Lac-Mégantic was a tragic and profound eye-opener as to how the neo-liberal outlook and practice of placing all of society's assets at the disposal of the global monopolies directly led to the self-regulation of the railways and to criminal negligence causing death and chaos, as well as joint attempts by the private owners and the government to blame the workers. The people of Lac-Mégantic have faced the tragedy with immense courage and with the support of people from all over Quebec, Canada, the U.S. and the world. All together, the people are fighting to put an end to these tragedies by empowering themselves so that they can exercise control over their lives.

On the occasion of the seventh anniversary of the tragedy, our warm salute to the Lac-Mégantic community who continue to rebuild their lives and to make an important contribution to the fight for the security of all.

(Photos: TML, La Tribune)

This article was published in

Volume 50 Number 25 - July 11, 2020

Article Link:
7th Anniversary of Lac-Mégantic Tragedy: The Need to Build a Public Authority that Defends Public not Private Interests - Pierre Chénier


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