Québec votes “no” to controversial railway bypass system despite expropriation plans

Residents of Frontenac, Que.  gathered at Yolande Boulet-Boulanger's home on Sunday evening to encourage people to take part in the local referendum.  About 92 percent of voters voted against the bypass system, which would cut through a number of properties.  (Rachel Watts/CBC - photo credit)

Residents of Frontenac, Que. gathered at Yolande Boulet-Boulanger’s home on Sunday evening to encourage people to take part in the local referendum. About 92 percent of voters voted against the bypass system, which would cut through a number of properties. (Rachel Watts/CBC – photo credit)

Neighbors armed with highlighters, pens and a pot of coffee gathered around a table in Yolande Boulet-Boulanger’s living room as they perused the pages of eligible voters at Frontenac, Que. on Sunday.

Hours before the city voted in a referendum against the proposed rail bypass system, these volunteers called residents of the Eastern Townships community one by one, urging everyone to cast their votes.

“It’s sure to be ‘no’ [for the project]. It can’t be otherwise,” said Boulet-Boulanger.

She was against the project from the start.

The proposal would move the Lac Mégantic railroad from the core of downtown almost 10 years after the Lac Mégantic train derailed – when a train carrying crude oil crashed into the city center on July 6, 2013, killing 47 people.

Boulet-Boulanger lost her grandson Frédéric Boutin in the tragedy in 2013. He was 19 years old. Now the proposed line would go straight through Boulet-Boulanger’s farm, which she has owned since 1964.

Like many others in her city of 1,600, she feels unsupported by the federal government as the railroad plans to move away from the core of downtown but get closer to many who lost loved ones or friends in the tragedy.

Boulet-Boulanger says most of her questions about water pollution and the railroad’s impact on her property and community have also gone unanswered.

Rachel Watts/CBC

Rachel Watts/CBC

Boulet-Boulanger said it was encouraging to receive the hoped-for news on Sunday night.

About 92 percent voted against the proposed project in Frontenac, officially confirming what many locals already suspected – the proposal is not welcome in the city.

Local residents describe emotional toll

“The question [was] Do you vote for or against expropriation to build a bypass? We simply voted no,” said Roger Venne from Frontenac.

He says this project has taken a heavy toll on the people, including his own family.

“My father-in-law is on the verge of a major depression because the country has [always] passed down from generation to generation,” Venne said, adding that he now faces dispossession.

“Transport Canada has absolutely no regard for the human distress this dossier has caused.”

On February 13, German Transport Minister Omar Alghabra issued a statement confirming the government’s intention to expropriate – ending the negotiation phase with local residents. He said that as a minister he “has to make decisions and sometimes they are very difficult decisions”.

Rachel Watts/CBC

Rachel Watts/CBC

“It’s going to be a disaster”

Kurt Lucas, one of more than 43 property owners whose land is being expropriated by the government for the proposed rail bypass system, says fear of expropriation has shaken his family. He voted no to the project.

“I can’t say I’m fine, but I’m trying to do it for a greater purpose … I laugh because that’s my coping mechanism, because otherwise I’d break down and cry,” he said.

Rachel Watts/CBC

Rachel Watts/CBC

Lucas says he and other residents took it upon themselves to educate people in the three affected cities – Frontenac, Nantes and Mégantic – because Transport Canada offered little to no education about what it would mean for citizens.

“The more people get educated, the more they see that this is going to be a disaster,” Lucas said.

In addition to leasing part of his family property, the government wants to buy a piece of land on Lucas’ land that is 125 meters wide, 143 meters long and 20 meters deep.

Rachel Watts/CBC

Rachel Watts/CBC

Lucas sought information on how he can be expected to access and insure his property, as well as the impact of train vibration and noise pollution, but he says he has not received a meaningful answer.

Water pollution is a top priority for local residents

Through consultation with an outside engineer, Lucas confirmed that building this railroad could seriously pollute the water supply with chemicals and bacteria — especially considering most residents rely on wells in the area.

This is of great concern to Elizabeth Veary, who lives in Frontenac.

Veary says the government has “decided to intentionally destroy certain wetlands that are actually essential to our water supply.”

She met with Alghabra during his visit to the region in January and recalled asking him what would happen if the construction of the bypass contaminated the city’s water supply.

“He said the government promised them support,” Veary said.

“But what does support mean? For example, does he bring them water bottles and a condolence card? Or does support mean that all farms get water on a regular basis and that they have tanks that are filled with water to feed the farm workers? For example, what does support mean? Nobody could answer that.”

Martin Bilodeau/Radio Canada

Martin Bilodeau/Radio Canada

The vote will not stop the federal government’s plans

Even if the Frontenac referendum does not change the federal government’s position on the bypass rail, Veary claims to be sending a message to the mayor.

“The mayor needs to know what his citizens want. And if its citizens oppose this project… it can [now] support them,” she said.

Mayor Gaby Gendron said on Sunday evening that the results of the referendum will be useful for Minister Alghabra.

He said that during the minister’s last visit he had mentioned to Gendron that acceptance in Frontenac was the same as in Lac-Mégantic.

“With the results we have, it will be up to him to see if it’s actually true that the social acceptance for the Frontenac people is just as good as for the Mégantic people,” Gendron said.

He says he intends to protect the wetlands in the future and will be asking organizations for support as the project progresses.

Rachel Watts/CBC

Rachel Watts/CBC

“It’s killing us,” says the resident

Lucas says years of discussions about the project have been “nothing but headaches” for the three neighboring cities.

He notes that it has also divided a normally tight-knit community.

“All of this really upsets a lot of people, they’re fighting among themselves,” he said, adding that some people who support the bypass want the tracks out of Lac-Mégantic to be moved to help overcome the tragedy.

Rachel Watts/CBC

Rachel Watts/CBC

Lucas notes that residents have 30 days to contest the eminent domain notice in writing.

He says “it’s not over until it’s over,” but hopes he won’t be forced to move out of the home that has been in his family since the 1970s.

“It’s killing us, it’s been going on for years,” he said. “These people and I will have to live with this catastrophe for the rest of our days.”


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