After Jean-Philippe Chabot’s novel Le Chemin d’en haut, in 2021, another work placing the Irving group of companies at the centre of its concerns came out in Québec: Mégantic: Un train dans la nuit, a graphic novel written by Anne-Marie Saint-Cerny with illustrations by Christian Quesnel.
The book deals with the devastating fire caused by a transport train carrying flammable crude oil, which occurred at Lac-Mégantic in the night of July 6, 2013. The fire killed dozens, including several subsequent suicides, and plunged an entire community into a pit of despair. This event is emblematic of negligence of the industry with respect to the oversight and maintenance of its equipment. These economies of scale are meant to satiate the financial spreadsheets of billionaires tied to the firms involved in such convoys, like those of Hunter Harrison, William Ackman and other shareholders of CP, as well as partner Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) and its primary beneficiary Edward Burkhardt and, by extension, their client, Irving Oil. The disaster also revealed the complicity of Canadian political authorities, who allowed stacks of reports to pile up – all of which showed the deficiencies of the rail system – and the failures of the industry to regulate itself. Several federal transportation ministries, if they’d cared to, could reasonably have predicted the occurrence of such a catastrophe. Moreover, one needed not ask whether such a calamity was going to happen, but merely await notification of the date, time and location of an inevitably fatal accident.
The nuanced, sobering illustrations by Christian Quesnel confer a psychological depth and, at times, a synoptic understanding of Saint-Cerny’s argumentative positions previously articulated in 2018 in a book-length essay titled Mégantic. We owe both titles to Éditions Écosociété. The former was translated and published in English in 2020 by Talonbooks [as Mégantic: A Deadly Mix of Oil, Rail, and Avarice] and the graphic novel will appear this year with publisher Between the Lines [as A Train in the Night: The Tragedy of Lac-Mégantic]. In Quebec, the Mégantic essay was a finalist for the Publishers Prize (2019), as well as the Governor General Prize and the Pierre-Vadeboncoeur Prize (both in 2018).
In both the essay and graphic novel, the structure of the text follows the planned route of the crude oil cargo, from its extraction in North Dakota – where workers are subjected to negative effects of pollutants – up to the refinery in Saint-John controlled by Irving Oil. The route was destined for passage through the eastern townships of Quebec, including the municipality of Lac-Mégantic.
At their North Dakota site, we’ve learned that the company World Fuel produced dirty crude oil according to unconventional exploitation methods. Toxic chemicals are injected into ground in massive quantities…. Once extracted, this crude is loaded into tanker cars of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP). The trains mobilized for this task are notably old models and notoriously poorly maintained, making them especially dangerous.
To squash criticism, those responsible for the cargo falsified transport manifests, saying the tankers contained a heavier crude which is less flammable, as harmless as molasses into which one might harmlessly toss a lit match. In truth, those trains carried a most volatile and flammable crude. The victims of the Lag-Mégantic catastrophe, forced to bear witness to their own imperilment are proof of this (as well as the firefighters on the night of the conflagration, who relied on the official data on record to extinguish the flames).
One is flabbergasted, then, at the thoughtlessness with which the authorities accepted the self-reported data from these companies at face value, especially when authorities were deciding whether to issue permits, an abdication of large portions of the government’s own authority, to guarantee the profits of private firms. As an example, the state recognizes the right for rail companies to train their own overseers, whose authority eventually supplants the government’s own; firms are in the constant habit of investigating themselves without further oversight.
What “arguments” and other tactics have these private firms mobilized to become so powerful?
There are three entities who interests converge on the Lac-Mégantic affair: the oil producer World Fuel, the transport firm CP and its partner MMA, as well as the client for this operation, Irving Oil. All of them benefit from the poor maintenance of transport infrastructure and the falsification of their paperwork.
Author Anne-Marie Saint-Cerny gave remarks at Salon du livre de la Péninsule Acadienne, in New Brunswick, in October of this year. According to Saint-Cerny, the responsibility the Irving companies bear is the greatest of all because they refine the crude delivered to them at their Saint-John site. Irving Oil was informed of the false report data about these kinds of train convoys and profited from it anyway. Saint-Cerny insists upon the illegal nature of these falsifications in the eyes of the law. To wit, in October 2017 in provincial court, in Saint-John, New Brunswick, Irving pleaded guilty to four charges under the law for the transportation of dangerous materials linked to the Lac-Mégantic affair. The sanctions imposed amounted to $400,320 – mere pocket change from its massive coffers. These guilty pleas helped Irving avoid a jury trial which might have aided the public to understand the facts of the case, especially given the negligent management of the rail system in Canada.
Then, one must consider, from a sociological point of view, the question of political influence. Let’s assess the known sequence. First, Yves-François Blanchet, Quebec’s Minister of the Environment at the time, compelled the ministry to launch legal actions naming all the firms tied to the convoy. To their surprise, the name “Irving” was consistently struck from all relevant documentation as the top authorities of the Quebec government reviewed them, specifically the office of the Premier at the time, Pauline Marois. The lengthy statement from the ministry about the opaque apparatus of the federal state even for a provincial minister – quoted on page 250 of Mégantic – is worthy of a longer look.
Anne-Marie Saint-Cerny also points to several governmental documents which attest to the resolute aim of the federal authorities to not conduct a public inquiry concerning the affair, in order to ensure they’d choke off all discourse in the public sphere. No media organization has ever completed a comprehensive accounting of the numerous revelatory facts of our federal extractivist regime – both consumerist and capitalist. They prefer to use a purely sentimental tone and to throw older details into the waste bin of forgotten facts as soon as a new theme satisfies the tyrannical demands of “what’s current.” It was therefore necessary for one especially militant ecologist and writer – namely, Saint-Cerny – to prepare a proper, factual and holistic narration of the facts based on sound data.