Dozens of prospective jurors were exempt on Monday as jury selection got underway in the trial of the three men charged in the Lac-Mégantic train derailment.

One woman broke down crying almost immediately after taking the stand, saying she personally knew many of the victims of the July 6, 2013 crash. She was immediately excused.

Another woman said her spouse lived in Lac-Mégantic's "red zone," the term used to describe the epicentre of the explosion. She was also allowed to go.

Many cited school, work, health reasons or loss of income as reasons they couldn't take part.

Quebec Superior Court Judge Gaétan Dumas accepted the majority of the requests for exemption.

On trial are engineer and train driver Thomas Harding, train operations manager Jean Demaître and railway traffic controller Richard Labrie from the now-defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway.

Each faces 47 charges of criminal negligence causing death in connection with the crash, one count for each of the 47 people killed. All three men have pleaded not guilty.

Finding a jury

The trial, which is being held in Sherbrooke, Que., and expected to last until the end of December, will be entirely bilingual.

Harding is anglophone, while Demaître and Labrie are francophone, so it is crucial that the selected jurors are comfortable and well-versed in both languages. 

Under Canadian law, the accused has a right to a trial in either English or French.

The judge said his goal Monday was to determine the bilingualism of potential jurors and Dumas began that process on Monday afternoon. 

Rail Accident Report 20141027

The trial in connection with the train derailment and explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic is being held in Sherbrooke, Que. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Charles Shearson, one of Harding's lawyers, told reporters selecting a jury will be a challenge. Three weeks have been set aside for that task.

"Lac-Mégantic is close to (Sherbrooke) so you may have people who are related to victims,'' he said.

"It's also important the candidates have a good (understanding) of English and French because the trial will take up terms that are complicated and technical to the railway industry.''

How selection will work

Potential jurors will face a series of questions to test their knowledge of both English and French. 

Under the Criminal Code, a jury must have a minimum of 10 people to render a verdict, but it is common to have 12 or even 14 jurors in case someone has to drop out.  

In this case, the judge is seeking 14 jurors.

QUE TRAIN FIRE 20130714

The train derailment led to the deaths of 47 people in Lac-Mégantic in July 2013. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

After the exemption portion is complete, potential jurors will then be asked questions to verify their impartiality.

"It should be known that the criteria is not to know if a person has heard of a case or not, but to know if the person is able to put aside everything they will hear outside of the courtroom and only judge based on the evidence that is presented within the courtroom," said Jean-Pascal Boucher, a spokesperson for Quebec's director of penal and criminal prosecutions.

Timeline of procedures:

  • May 13, 2014: The day after they were arrested, Harding, Labrie and Demaître were brought to Lac-Mégantic, where they were formally charged before being released.
  • April 20, 2015: The three men pleaded not guilty to the charges.
  • April 12, 2017: The location of the trial was officially changed to Sherbrooke instead of Lac-Mégantic.
  • Sept. 11, 2017: Jury selection begins.

With files from Kalina Laframboise and The Canadian Press