Raymond Savoie has spent his entire life in the small stone house in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that was built by his great-grandfather almost a century ago. However, Savoie recently received news that his home and part of his land will be expropriated by the federal government on August 1st. The expropriation is part of a project to divert trains from the downtown area of Lac-Mégantic, which was devastated by a train derailment in 2013 that claimed 47 lives.
Initially, Savoie and his partner, Rita Boulanger, were told that their house would be moved or carefully dismantled and rebuilt. However, they believe that the government plans to bulldoze their home instead. The proposed 12.5-kilometer rail bypass was meant to aid in the town’s healing process after the tragic event. However, ten years later, construction has yet to commence, and the bypass has created more division and anger within the community.
In mid-June, the federal government confirmed that it would expropriate land from 43 residents, including Savoie. Responding to this, lawyers representing some of the affected residents filed an injunction request in federal court to halt the process until the case can be properly heard. They argue that the government did not follow the correct procedures and that the Canadian Transportation Agency has not yet approved the construction of the bypass.
At public consultations in May, several parties and their lawyers expressed objections to the bypass. Concerns were raised about the increased number of curves in the proposed route, potentially leading to more derailments. The majority of residents in all three communities along the bypass route, including Lac-Mégantic, also oppose the project. Additionally, critics argue that alternate routes have not been adequately studied, and the project’s cost has skyrocketed.
The most significant concern expressed by residents is the potential environmental impact of the bypass. They fear the loss of wetlands, a decrease in the water table, and contamination of private wells. A hydrogeology report published in May 2022 confirmed that several wetlands would likely be affected by the construction or water table changes. Yolande Boulanger, who will lose almost 36 acres of her family’s cattle farm, is particularly concerned about the potential contamination of the town’s water supply due to construction activities.
Frédéric Paré, one of the lawyers representing the expropriated residents, argues that the route was chosen based on outdated information and cost considerations. He states that most environmental assessments were conducted before specific construction details were known, leading to unforeseen changes and increased land expropriations. Paré claims that opponents believe the project will now cost close to a billion dollars, serving as little more than a gift to a private rail company.
Transport Canada maintains its full commitment to the bypass, as it will reduce the number of residences close to the track from 265 to eight and minimize level crossings from 16 to four. However, despite these commitments, the final project has not yet received approval. The Canadian Transportation Agency has deemed the application from Central Maine and Quebec Railway Canada incomplete and requested more information, including the integration of a recent hydrogeology study’s findings into the project’s environmental impact assessment.
Lac-Mégantic Mayor Julie Morin asserts that the bypass is necessary due to the town’s topography, the lasting trauma of the derailment, and the increasing transportation of hazardous materials through the downtown area. While the price of the bypass has not been confirmed by Transport Canada, they state that the federal and provincial governments have agreed to increase funding to cover rising costs.
In the face of uncertainty, Raymond Savoie and Rita Boulanger refuse to leave their cherished stone house. They continue to tend to their land, growing vegetables and harvesting hay for their three cows. However, the stress and uncertainty surrounding the expropriation have taken a toll on their well-being, with both needing medication to sleep. Despite these challenges, they are determined to fight until the end, hoping that Savoie can spend his remaining days in the place he calls home.