Lac-Mégantic residents grapple with verdict while looking to future

The reaction of Lac-Mégantic residents to the acquittal of three former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic railway employees has generally been one of satisfaction, with many saying they thought those higher up the corporate ladder should have been the ones charged. However, the verdict hasn't given everyone closure.

Some found verdict unfair, while others say focus should now be on town's safety

A train rolls through the town of Lac-Mégantic, Que. Many residents of the town say they are satisfied three former railway workers were found not guilty in the criminal trial following the 2013 explosion, but not everyone found solace in their acquittals. (CBC)

Many residents of Lac-Mégantic are grappling with the acquittal of three former railway employees indicted for their roles in the 2013 rail disaster, and what, if anything, it means for what happens to their town now.

On Friday, a jury in Sherbrooke, Que., acquitted locomotive engineer Tom Harding, 56, rail traffic controller Richard Labrie, 59, and operations manager Jean Demaître, 53, of criminal negligence causing 47 deaths.

In general, the verdict has left most townspeople satisfied, with many saying they thought people higher up the corporate ladder at the now-defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) railway are the ones who should have been tried in connection with the derailment and explosions on July 6, 2013, which killed 47 people.

However, the verdict has not given everyone closure.

Unsatisfying verdict

Raymond Lafontaine lost his son, two daughters-in-law and an employee in the disaster. Soon after, he and his wife of 57 years divorced. Their relationship couldn't endure the grief.

"The verdict says you can kill a town; you can kill 47 people; you can break thousands of peoples lives: all the consequences of that, you're absolved of them," said Lafontaine.
Raymond Lafontaine, who lost several family members in the July 6, 2013 disaster, said the acquittals don't give him any satisfaction. 'We know very well that if they had done their job right, as employees, the train wouldn't have gone off track,' he told CBC. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

He said despite his best efforts, he still lives with bitter anger, and the acquittal of the three men was a setback in his attempts to carry on.

"After five years, you tell yourself, 'I have to move on,' and I did move on, but there is a voice inside me looking for vengeance. Even if you want to just accept it and you tell yourself, 'I'm at peace,' your subconscious will never accept it."

Lafontaine said he would have liked to see charges that would have led to convictions — some kind of legal consequences for the rail workers involved in the train's operations.

"MMA is responsible for its employees. The bosses are responsible for their employees," he said. "But the employee is supposed to do his job the right way."
Ex-MMA locomotive engineer Thomas Harding leaves the courtroom with a member of his legal team, Charles Shearson, left, after being found not guilty. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"Now, in court, [the workers are] exonerated, even though we know very well that if they had done their job right, as employees, the train wouldn't have gone off track."

He called the financial compensation that families of the deceased received a joke. The money was added to his earnings, so he had to pay taxes on it.

Pushing for a safer town

Jacques Gagnon says he still feel as if he and his family escaped with their lives: His home is only 100 metres from the spot where the train went off the tracks on July 6, 2013.

He is pushing for a judicial inquiry. He thinks it's more important to find out everything that went wrong rather than to determine who is responsible for the tragedy.
Lac-Mégantic resident Jacques Gagnon said he blames a corporate approach that he says prioritized profits over safety in the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

He said while he recognizes the justice system isn't perfect, he believes the Crown chose the easy route in prosecuting the locomotive engineer who had last operated the train and two of his colleagues, instead of the company that ran the railway.

He said the real issue is a system that "prioritizes profit over safety."

What matters most to him right now, he said, isn't the verdict, it's safety — his, and the safety of his hometown, a place he really loves.

He said Lac-Mégantic desperately needs the railway tracks to be rebuilt to bypass the town, to keep explosive cargo away from residents.

"The train, the way it passes here, it's not good for the future because people may be afraid to invest in the downtown area," he said.
Trains still roll through Lac-Mégantic, even though some locals, including the mayor, are calling for the tracks to be rebuilt to bypass the town. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Lac-Mégantic Mayor Julie Morin agrees, although not all residents share their opinion.

During a town hall event a year ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government would speed up the process to build the bypass track.

Mistakes in reviving the downtown core

For resident Jean St-Pierre, what hurt the town second only to the tragedy itself was the mishandling of the reconstruction of the downtown core.

"There were big, big mistakes there," St-Pierre said.
Lac-Mégantic resident Jean St-Pierre says what hurt the town most, second only to the tragedy, was the mishandling of the reconstruction of the downtown core. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

Two businesses, the Metro grocery store and Jean-Coutu pharmacy, were forced to rebuild in a neighbourhood some distance away from downtown, where they'd stood.

Some businesses with minor damage were destroyed rather than renovated.

The town also paid for an expensive bridge so that people could access the relocated businesses, St-Pierre said.

It also built two new streets — Papineau and Frontenac streets — outside the downtown area.
This was once a quaint downtown strip, lined by brick buildings housing restaurants, bars, small businesses and apartments. Now it's a mostly empty field. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

The reconstruction is bad for businesses downtown, he said.

"In Lac-Mégantic, there's nothing close to the lake.… This was a very stupid way to do it."

Mayor Morin has said she is counting on future outside investment, but business isn't what it used to be, merchants say, and taxes are up because of all the new infrastructure.

With files from Rebecca Martel