Quebec town votes 'no' to controversial rail bypass system despite expropriation plans

Residents of Frontenac, Que. gathered in the home of Yolande Boulet-Boulanger on Sunday night to encourage people to vote in the local referendum. About 92 per cent of voters voted against the bypass system which would cut through a number of properties. (Rachel Watts/CBC - image credit)
Residents of Frontenac, Que. gathered in the home of Yolande Boulet-Boulanger on Sunday night to encourage people to vote in the local referendum. About 92 per cent of voters voted against the bypass system which would cut through a number of properties. (Rachel Watts/CBC - image credit)

Neighbours equipped with highlighters, pens and a pot of coffee gathered around a table in Yolande Boulet-Boulanger's living room as they sifted through pages of eligible voters in the Frontenac, Que., on Sunday.

Hours before the town voted against the proposed rail bypass system in a referendum, these volunteers called residents in the Eastern Townships municipality one-by-one, urging everyone to cast their ballot.

"It's certain it will be 'no' [for the project]. It can't be any other way," said Boulet-Boulanger.

She's been against the project since its inception.

The proposal would shift the Lac-Mégantic railway out of the downtown core nearly 10 years after the Lac-Mégantic train derailment — when a train carrying crude oil crashed into the centre of town 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 right through Boulet-Boulanger's farm which she has owned since 1964.

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

Boulet-Boulanger says most of her questions about water contamination and the railway's impact on her property and community have also gone unanswered.

Rachel Watts/CBC
Rachel Watts/CBC

Boulet-Boulanger said it was encouraging to get the news they were hoping for on Sunday night.

About 92 per cent voted against the proposed project in Frontenac and officially confirmed what many locals already suspected — the proposal is not welcome in the town.

Residents describe emotional toll

"The question [was] are you voting for or against the expropriation to build a bypass. We simply voted no," said Frontenac resident Roger Venne.

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

"My father-in-law, he's close to a major depression because the land has [always] been transferred from generation to generation," said Venne, adding that now he is at risk for expropriation.

"Transport Canada doesn't care at all for the human distress which this dossier has been causing."

On Feb. 13, Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra issued a statement confirming the government's intent to expropriate — therefore ending the negotiation period with residents. He said as minister he has to "make decisions, and sometimes they are very difficult decisions.''

Rachel Watts/CBC
Rachel Watts/CBC

'This is going to be a catastrophe'

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

"I can't say I'm doing well but I'm trying to do it for a greater purpose… I laugh because that's my coping mechanism because otherwise I would 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 towns — Frontenac, Nantes and Mégantic — because Transport Canada offered little to no education on what this would mean for citizens.

"The more people that become educated the more they see that this is going to be a catastrophe," said Lucas.

In addition to leasing a section of his family property, the government wants to purchase a 125-metre wide, 143-metre long and 20-metre deep parcel on Lucas' land.

Rachel Watts/CBC
Rachel Watts/CBC

Lucas sought out information on how he can be expected to access and insure his property as well as the impact of the vibration of the trains and sound pollution but he says he hasn't received any meaningful response.

Water contamination top of mind for residents

Through consulting with a third party engineer, Lucas confirmed that the construction of this railway could seriously pollute the water supply with chemicals and bacteria — especially considering most residents rely on wells in the area.

It's a major concern for Frontenac resident Elizabeth Veary.

Veary says the government is "choosing to deliberately destroy certain wetlands that are actually imperative 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 town's water supply.

"He said that the government promises to give them support," said Veary.

"But what does support mean? Like is he going to bring them water bottles and a condolences card? Or does support mean that all the farms will get regular water and that they'll have tanks that are being filled with water to supply the working farms? Like, what does support mean? Nobody could answer that."

Martin Bilodeau/Radio-Canada
Martin Bilodeau/Radio-Canada

Vote won't stop federal government's plans

Even if the Frontenac referendum does not change the federal government's position on the bypass rail, Veary says it sends a message to the mayor.

"The mayor needs to know what his citizens want. And if his citizens are against having this project … he can [now] back them up," she said.

Mayor Gaby Gendron said Sunday evening that the referendum results will be useful to minister Alghabra.

He said on the minister's last visit, he mentioned to Gendron that acceptability was the same in Frontenac as it was in Lac-Mégantic.

"With the results we have, it will be up to him to see if it is in fact true that social acceptability is as good for the people of Frontenac as for the people of Mégantic," said Gendron.

He says he intends to protect the wetlands going forward and will be reaching out to organizations for support as the project moves ahead.

Rachel Watts/CBC
Rachel Watts/CBC

'This is killing us', says resident

Lucas says years of discussion on the project have been "nothing but headaches" for the three neighbouring towns.

He notes that it has also divided what is usually a tight-knit community.

"All of this is really upsetting a lot of people, they are fighting amongst each other," he said, adding that some people in favour of the bypass want the tracks moved out of Lac-Mégantic as a way of moving forward from the tragedy.

Rachel Watts/CBC
Rachel Watts/CBC

Lucas notes residents have 30 days to contest the expropriation 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 which has been in his family since the 1970s.

"This is killing us, this has been going on for years," he said. "These people and myself we're going to have to live with this catastrophe for the remainder of our days."