Transport minister didn't know of traffic jam, so can't be blamed, Couillard says

As the boom lowers on everyone from police officers to bureaucrats to truck drivers for their alleged role in the 12-hour traffic jam on Highway 13 last week, Premier Philippe Couillard said Monday that his transport minister would be spared a similar fate.

Quebec's Transport Ministry was unable to clear a minor accident near the Hickmore Street exit of the highway Tuesday evening. With a record-breaking snowstorm hammering the province, hundreds of motorists were stranded overnight.

An estimated 300 calls were made by trapped motorists to 911. But no one bothered to call the minister responsible for Quebec's highways, Laurent Lessard.

That, said Couillard, was enough to absolve him of blame for what happened.    

"When you're not made aware of a situation it's difficult to be blamed for that situation," he told reporters Monday in Montreal.

"There was no indication given to him that we were dealing with anything more serious than a big snowstorm," Couillard added.

As the French say, a 'cafouillage'

The premier's steadfast defence of Lessard comes as provincial authorities continue on a growing number of people for what even Couillard is calling a cafouillage, or mess, on Highway 13.

Over the weekend, Quebec provincial police announced they had placed a captain on administrative leave for his handling of the snowstorm operation. A lieutenant with the force was also placed on leave last week for the same reason. 

There are few precedents for the force taking such strong measures against such senior officers, said one former Sûreté du Québec member. 

"In one situation two officers? It's quite a strong signal," said François Doré, who spent 33 years with the SQ.

The SQ also arrested a truck driver on Saturday, issuing a news release that said he could face mischief charges for refusing to allow his truck to be towed after it slid off the road, clogging traffic on Highway 13.

The driver, Palwinder Singh Johal, was promptly shipped to Kingston, Ont., where there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest on a minor fraud charge dating back to 2012.

Johal still hasn't been charged in connection with the Highway 13 incident, and the SQ is refusing to comment on his case.

On Sunday, he showed Radio-Canada a copy of a receipt from a tow truck company, and said he cooperated when they came to tow his truck. 

"They found the scapegoat they wanted," said Pierre Aubin, vice-president of the Quebec Trucking Association. 

"They are trying to take the pressure off the minister of transportation, the snow plow company, the SQ and the [transport ministry staff]."

Along with the two SQ officers and the truck driver, a Transport Ministry official responsible for civil protection was relieved of her duties last week.

"There have been consequences already ... there will be more," Couillard said. 

More blame coming?

An inquiry into the Transport Ministry's response was ordered last week, and Couillard said the public should put aside its desire for "finger pointing" pending the results. 

He also noted that he apologized for the cafouillage last week, adding it was the first time the government had issued an apology in "many, many years."

But motorists who were caught up in the overnight traffic jam have yet to be soothed. Lawyers took steps to launch a class-action lawsuit last week. 

On Monday, lawyers said they would expand the eligible motorists to include not only those stranded on Highway 13, but Highway 520 as well. 

"The basis (of the suit) is that the Province of Quebec and the City of Montreal were negligent in the way they reacted to the traffic jam that happened last Tuesday evening," said Jean-Marc Lacoursière, one of the lawyers involved in the lawsuit. 

"They were negligent in failing to respond in due time, negligent in failing to adequately coordinate amongst each other and ... negligent with the way they prepared for this type event."