LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. – Canada’s new transport minister rolled into Lac-Megantic on Wednesday but had little to offer in the way of specifics to a community where shock appears to be shifting to anger 11 days after the train derailment.
Frustration is already at a boil with the rail company involved, which has been slammed for its response to the disaster and has now laid off one-quarter of its Quebec work force.
There are even reports that locals have been throwing rocks at passing trains owned by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway.
On Wednesday, some of the anger was aimed at Ottawa.
Many residents want more stringent federal train regulations and a clearer financial commitment beyond the general promise that the federal government will eventually help with longer-term reconstruction.
Lisa Raitt, who was appointed to the cabinet position in the shuffle only two days ago, came to a news conference in Lac-Megantic with more promises to help but nothing new in the way of specifics.
“You can count on the federal government to be supportive and that we will be here to help with the reconstruction in whatever way the province wants us to,” said Raitt, who speaks little French but managed to read a statement in that language.
“My door is open, if they need someone to talk to. If they ask me to come, I will come.”
The Quebec government has already set up a $60-million emergency fund and begun doling out $1,000 cheques to people stranded by the crisis.
When asked why the federal government has taken longer than the province to offer specifics, local Tory MP Christian Paradis said there are discussions with the province and municipality to see what’s required.
Claude Boulet, a cook at a restaurant near the blast zone, stormed up to reporters after listening to Raitt speak.
“Those who lost their jobs in Lac-Megantic’s downtown have been forgotten,” Boulet said, arguing that Ottawa needs to immediately put some kind of compensation in place.
“It’s the jobs that matter for the most vulnerable, people making $10 or $12 an hour,” he said. “Some of these people have kids.”
Boulet said he won’t be able to go back to work anytime soon because, like many downtown businesses, the restaurant remains behind a security perimeter where police and search crews are sifting through the rubble.
That process could take months.
Search crews have found the remains of 38 people, with another 12 missing and presumed dead.
It’s not just money that people want from the federal government.
Jocelyn Breault, who works at bottle depot only steps from the fenced-off area, said Ottawa needs to take immediate steps to make sure nothing like this happens again.
“It’s not the first time a train has derailed around here,” he said in an interview just prior to Raitt’s news conference.
“I hope she will say that, starting now, we will not allow this to happen.”
The government has promised to examine the eventual investigation report by the federal Transportation Safety Board and apply changes where necessary.
The fallout from the disaster has stretched well beyond the town limits of Lac-Megantic.
Laid-off employees from Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway — 17 workers and two managers — received their notices the previous afternoon, the provincial branch of the United Steelworkers Union said Wednesday.
Quebec union director Daniel Roy said his members are furious.
“They are currently left on their own in this situation,” he said in an interview. “The anger is at its maximum with this company.”
The union representative denounced what he called the company’s cavalier attitude and said MMA has been completely uncommunicative since the July 6 disaster.
“Our members tell us that the company has never met with them,” he said. “There’s been no channel of communication to help them and to answer their needs.”
Roy said MMA is already operating with a minimum number of workers.
Members fear that safety will only diminish now that the company has laid off employees who are involved in inspection and maintenance, he said.
The union wants tougher rail regulations from Ottawa.
“We see a company that’s operating at a minimum … to make money,” Roy said.
“They’re applying the minimum of rules — with the authorization of Transport Canada.”
Roy said the layoffs touch workers on MMA lines that are still operating — not just the Lac-Megantic route.
On its website, MMA says it owns 820 kilometres of track in Maine, Vermont and Quebec and employs approximately 170 people.
A company official said the layoffs are temporary. She said the move is prompted only by the current paralysis of the Lac-Megantic line.
When contacted by phone in Chicago, the MMA employee said chairman Edward Burkhardt has already warned of layoffs in both Farnham, Que., and in Maine.
“This is because of the track break at Lac-Megantic and they intend to rehire the employees when the line is re-opened,” said the woman, who works in Burkhardt’s office and requested anonymity.
The company has been the main target of local wrath in the tragedy aftermath.
News reports have quoted anonymous employees saying they’ve been threatened and accosted; some have also quoted ex-employees lamenting the company’s tight-fisted ways.
Local resident Gaston Dupuis said he’d heard that people were throwing rocks at MMA trains as they went by.
He laughed when asked if people were upset with the company.
“What do you think?” Dupuis said in an interview.
“Everyone is angry.”
“It’s a massive screw-up.”
The layoffs even prompted a brief work stoppage Wednesday during the ongoing cleanup at the disaster site.
Lac-Megantic’s mayor said the cleanup workers had been recruited by MMA, and they temporarily laid down their tools amid fears they might not get paid. She said that brief stoppage did not affect the separate operation to recover bodies.
The fallout from the tragedy has even altered the democratic calendar.
The municipal government asked the province to put off the election scheduled for Nov. 3. The campaign was supposed to start in two months, on Sept. 18.
The provincial government accepted that request Wednesday and promised to table legislation when the national assembly reopens.
“Sept. 18 is practically tomorrow morning,” said Municipal Affairs Minister Sylvain Gaudreault.
“It’s not time to be putting posters on lamp-posts and shaking hands while the downtown is completely levelled.”
He said town councillors’ current term will be extended by two years; then the next term will be shortened by two years to keep future Lac-Megantic elections synchronized with other municipalities.
– with files from Pierre Saint-Arnaud and Peter Rakobowchuk