February 20, 2018

English Edition, No. 2

Employees Acquitted of Criminal Negligence in Lac-Mégantic Disaster

Attempts to Hide Economic
Aim of Those Responsible

Employees Acquitted of Criminal Negligence in Lac-Mégantic Disaster
Attempts to Hide Economic Aim of Those Responsible
Governments and Oil Monopolies Must Render Account
for Their Criminal Negligence

Important Demands to Ensure Accountability and Safety
for Lac-Mégantic and all Rail Communities

Employees Acquitted of Criminal Negligence in Lac-Mégantic Disaster

Attempts to Hide Economic
Aim of Those Responsible

Three former employees of the now defunct Montreal Maine and Atlantic (MMA) railway company accused of criminal negligence in the deaths of 47 people in the Lac-Mégantic tragedy of July 6, 2013 were acquitted on January 19. The train driver Thomas Harding, the rail controller Richard Labrie, and Quebec MMA operations manager Jean Demaître were charged by the Quebec Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions (DPCP) in May 2014, at the behest of the Sûreté du Québec (SQ). The trial began on October 2, 2017 at a time everyone was still mourning the victims and discussing the root causes and economic aim that led to the tragedy. Meanwhile, MMA declared bankruptcy in August 2013 and its assets were bought by Fortress Investment Group in January 2014.

From the get-go, the state and its agencies presumed that the three former MMA employees were guilty until proven innocent, and sought to divert the people's attention from the important discussion to seek the truth. The SQ's tactical squad violently arrested Thomas Harding, throwing him on the ground and handcuffing him in front of his family. All three accused workers were paraded into court in handcuffs as if violent criminals, further humiliating them and undermining the presumption of innocence.

Since being charged in May 2014, the lives of these three men have been a nightmare. Charging these individuals is one of the most blatant examples of the criminalization of workers that covers up the real criminal negligence and economic aim which leads to tragedies such as the devastation in Lac-Mégantic and the loss of 47 lives, while blocking the efforts of working people to build public support to find a way to ensure such tragedies never happen again.

To convince the jury and others that the assumed criminal negligence of these three employees was the cause of the tragedy, the prosecution ignored the context in which the event occurred on that fateful night. Prior to the commencement of the trial, the judge refused a request to admit into evidence the report of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada released in August 2014. The report raises safety issues related to the relationship between MMA's practices, Transport Canada's policies and the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic. Also banned was any discussion of the cause of the fire that broke out on the lead locomotive two hours before the train began to roll, which experts say played a decisive role in the disaster. All attention was focused on the two hours before the tragedy, just before the convoy of crude oil laden rail cars began to drift downhill with no one on board, derailed at a turn, caught fire and exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic.

Having willfully ignored the context in which the events took place and the economic aim that dictates actions, the prosecution called dozens of witnesses to "corroborate" the charges of criminal negligence laid against the three employees. The state prosecutors summoned all their weapons to prove the three caused the accident through "wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons" as per the wording of the Criminal Code.

Had the defendants been convicted of criminal negligence in the deaths of the 47 people killed at Lac-Mégantic, they could have faced life imprisonment. However, the evidence presented by the prosecution was so weak and the charge so outrageous that the lawyers for the accused decided not to call witnesses during the trial. They presented the case for each of the accused, demonstrating that the charge of criminal negligence had not been and could never be proved.

The DPCP has also laid criminal charges against the corporate entity MMA, the U.S. rail company in control of the convoy and former employer of the three accused. That case is scheduled to begin in April; however, the proceedings are uncertain, as the U.S. company declared bankruptcy in 2014 and its assets have been liquidated. The judge refused the defence request that the charges against MMA, which are of the same nature and were filed at the same time as those against the employees, be heard simultaneously. Meanwhile, the former Chairman of MMA is living a life of impunity in Chicago, apparently at this point unconcerned with being held to account.

Following the trial and acquittal of the three employees, a hearing began in the Quebec Court on February 5, on charges the federal government laid in 2015 related to the violation of the Railway Safety Act (RSA) and the Fisheries Act. Based on out-of-court settlements at the end of 2017, Thomas Harding, Jean Demaître and four executives of MMAC (MMA Canada) pleaded guilty to violating the RSA. This relates to the failure to perform as prescribed by law an effectiveness test to ensure the hand brakes as applied were sufficient to immobilize the convoy. Harding was sentenced to a six-month conditional sentence with community service and the others were fined $50,000. MMAC was sentenced to the maximum fine under the Fisheries Act, namely $1,000,000 for the crude oil spill into Lake Mégantic and the Chaudière River.

These proceedings and charges are an attempt to hide the federal government's role in this tragedy. They highlight the hypocrisy and socially irresponsible inaction of the federal government and its state institutions, which are ultimately responsible for the well-being and security of the people. The government in these proceedings is treating the company's owners, management and employees as equal entities when in fact the company is in control of the operations and was proven not to be enforcing the security measures prescribed in law, and the government was turning a blind eye. The MMA was known for its constant pressure on workers to take the least possible safety measures in the name of maximizing train travel time and controlling costs.

The community of Lac-Mégantic and the people of Quebec were never fooled by the charges of criminal negligence against the three employees. The people have persisted in demanding that the root causes of such tragedies must be exposed and the real culprits and their aim be held to account. This struggle must be relentless in this era of state social irresponsibility and corporate aim and dictate that money profit trumps all other considerations.

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Governments and Oil Monopolies Must Render Account for Their Criminal Negligence

A frank public discussion is needed regarding the responsibility of governments and oil monopolies for tragedies such as occurred at Lac-Mégantic. The people are fighting for justice and to ensure the safety of all railway communities in Quebec and Canada which are at risk. Successive Canadian governments have deregulated the rail industry since the 1980s in the name of competitiveness amongst the railway monopolies and with the monopolies of other transportation systems. This deregulation is a key element that led to the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic.

For example, in the 1980s and '90s the federal government allowed the major railways to rid themselves of railway lines they considered unprofitable. This led to a proliferation of railway companies, particularly U.S.-controlled ones, that specialize in the purchase and resale of railway lines.  These companies drastically reduce the workforce, attack the working conditions and wages of workers and concentrate on cutting any value they put into the rail service. Montreal Maine and Atlantic (MMA) is one of the companies whose trademark has been not to maintain railways properly.

In 1995, the federal government privatized Canadian National without public debate, putting it in the hands of major private interests, mainly from the U.S., who dictate policy for the sole purpose of obtaining the highest possible rate of return on their investment. They have responded to workers' struggles for safe working conditions with a steady reduction in the number of workers (while workers are scapegoated for accidents) and with previously unimaginable developments such as the assignment of office workers to drive trains. The government says it "cares" about rail safety as a top priority but it considers such measures "private decisions" that are not its concern.

The entire industry has been turned into a secret world of private decisions that are not the concern of the government. The introduction in the early 2000s of Safety Management Systems, secret deregulated security systems of the railways (secret so as to protect their competitive position) has heightened security problems and deepened the culture of secrecy that is in open conflict with the public interest.

All these decisions and the socially irresponsible inaction of the government have ensured that Lac-Mégantic tragedies, derailments and other events are just waiting to happen.

The Lac-Mégantic tragedy and other similar derailments and explosions that did not cause mass casualties simply because they occurred outside (but sometimes near) inhabited areas, occur because of the irresponsible aim and race of oil monopolies for the highest profit possible regardless of the consequences to communities, workers and the economy.

In the case of Lac-Mégantic, the significant increase in oil production through fracking in North Dakota led Irving Oil in New Brunswick to demand greater amounts of oil for refining be shipped across the two countries. This resulted in a tremendous increase in the number and size of train loads of oil travelling to the east coast.

All the parties involved, who saw the potential for huge profits, were fully aware of the nature of the oil being transported and the dangers involved. Due to the fracking process, the cargo was a highly explosive mixture of oil and solvents. The labelling of the rail cars was false and did not match the highly explosive contents that were being transported. Besides being aware of the dangerous contents, these monopolies were also aware that the DOT111 tank cars being used were inadequate. Despite all the known risks of transporting this oil in this manner, they ramped up production and transportation to satisfy their aim of maximum profit without any consideration for the safety of the workers or the communities put at risk. This negligence driven by a degenerate aim was the source of the problem. It should be considered a criminal offence.

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Important Demands to Ensure Accountability and Safety for Lac-Mégantic and all Rail Communities

The recent acquittal of the three former employees of the bankrupt U.S. company Montreal Maine and Atlantic (MMA) on charges of criminal negligence in the Lac-Mégantic disaster has rekindled the community's demands for accountability and safety for itself and all communities with rail lines running through them.

One of these demands is that an independent public inquiry be held to shed light on the tragedy so as to avoid similar disasters in the future.

"This is the only way to review all the elements that led to this disaster. It's not for fun, it's for the purpose of preventing others elsewhere in Canada," said Robert Bellefleur, spokesperson for the Coalition of Citizens and Organizations Committed to Railway Safety in Lac-Mégantic. Bellefleur added that a public enquiry is needed so that the dangers are identified publicly and the regulations adjusted accordingly and enforced. "It is imperative that we do a broader investigation to give Transport Canada its real role as a watchdog for rail safety in Canada," he said.

The City Council of Lac-Mégantic passed a resolution in May 2015 calling on the Government of Canada to hold an independent public inquiry into the tragedy that befell their community. The former federal government of Stephen Harper simply dismissed this demand and the people are now asking the Trudeau government to support and facilitate this demand.

The community has also put forward specific demands to ensure its safety and peace of mind after the trauma the people have experienced. It wants and expects the construction of a railway bypass so that trains do not pass through downtown Lac-Mégantic. Agreements are being finalized with neighbouring municipalities on a route for the bypass.

The community also demands immediate security measures. For example, when the railway was rebuilt, it was done with a curve even more pronounced than the one where the runaway train derailed in 2013. In addition, Transport-Canada still allows the Central Maine & Quebec Railway (CMQR), which acquired the assets of the defunct MMA, to park and sort convoys carrying dangerous goods on the same slope and at the same place in Nantes where the train broke loose. These convoys are left unattended for long periods of time. The demand that the curve be modified to be less pronounced and for an end to the parking of convoys on the main slope is widely supported by the population. The people of Lac-Mégantic also demand that the maintenance of the railway be improved and repairs be made in various places along the rail line which they have identified as problems.

For the sake of all the communities across the country with rail lines running through them, measures must be taken to ensure that all the parties to this enterprise render account for their actions. Regulations must be put in place that require full information be made available to everyone, including railway workers and communities, in advance of any transportation of dangerous materials. The anti-social outlook that rail safety is the private business of the railways because it is a "cost" to them and affects their profit, and the culture of secrecy that pervades railway operations under the hoax of preserving the private competitiveness of railways and the oil and other monopolies involved must be rejected with utter contempt and replaced with full disclosure so the people are conscious of the activities and dangers involved and can draw warranted conclusions.

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