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'Lac-Mégantic – This Is Not an Accident' docuseries analyzes one of Canada's most devastating tragedies

"I thought OK, in the post-Lac-Mégantic world, I'm sure this is safe," Quebec filmmaker Philippe Falardeau said

While many Canadians and people around the world remember the train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., Oscar-nominated Quebec filmmaker Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) exposes the systemic and political failures that led to this tragedy in his docuseries, Lac-Mégantic — This Is Not an Accident.

For the four-part series, which was screened at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, Falardeau had a statement he took from Battlestar Galactica as a motto for Lac-Mégantic — This Is Not an Accident, "all of this has happened before, all of this will happen again," which eventually turned into "this is not an accident."

On July 6, 2013, a train carrying 72 tank cars with Bakken shale oil derailed and caused an explosion. A total of 47 people were killed and 2,000 were displaced, with 7.7 million litres of crude oil spilled.

As Falardeau described, he felt "seized" by the project, particularly because he lives near a train track, where he saw an increasing number of oil tankers.

"I thought, 'OK, in the post-Lac-Mégantic world, I'm sure this is safe,'" Falardeau told Yahoo Canada. "But I find out soon after, by hearing an interview about this woman who just wrote a book about Mégantic, ['Mégantic' by Anne-Marie Saint-Cerny], that it's still not safe.

"I realized that everything I thought I knew was wrong and this anger started to rise inside of me, and I wanted to do something constructive with it. I never really wanted to do a doc, ... but I thought that the documentary was better suited to treat this. So we embarked on a journey."

Lac-Mégantic – This Is Not an Accident
Lac-Mégantic – This Is Not an Accident

'He still thinks that a company cannot be held accountable'

With four years of work on Lac-Mégantic — This Is Not an Accident, Falardeau's series not only documents that lasting impacts of the Canadian tragedy, but exposes the shocking circumstances under which it occurred, and how the Canadian government and rail industry responded.

In great detail, the docuseries chronicles the disaster, including comments from railway security expert Stephen Callaghan, who had been hired to asses the circumstances of the devastation. Callaghan had notably testified that there was no evidence that handbrakes had been applied to any of the tanker cars. In the docuseries, Callaghan also goes on to stress that the decision to not have a public inquiry into the deadly derailment was made before he was even involved.

In speaking to people who were significantly impacted by the tragedy, including one man who lost his wife and daughters, moments from Falardeau's interviews in the series feel emotional, intimate and incredibly powerful.

Falardeau revealed the most difficult part of creating this docuseries, in terms of getting access to the voices necessary for this project, was getting government officials to participant.

One person who did participate and is quite candid in his interview is Edward Burkhardt, former chief executive of Rail World, which owned Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MM&A). When Burkhardt arrived in Lac-Mégantic, days after that tragedy, he was booed by the town's residents, pressed by journalists at a press conference.

"I disagree with a lot of things that he says, but I will give him that he's not bullsh—ing,” Falardeau said. "He's very transparent and even though he still thinks to this day that less regulation is the best way to go, he was very much affected by it.

"He still thinks that a company cannot be held accountable because the people who committed the acts are accountable, he believes that to the core, and I disagree with him because people don't act in a vacuum, they act in corporate culture."

Lac-Mégantic – This Is Not an Accident
Lac-Mégantic – This Is Not an Accident

Ultimately, Lac-Mégantic — This Is Not an Accident exposes a frightening example of circumstances where our democracy has been challenged, including information that questions why Canadian Pacific (CP) has their own police force and why the industry can self-regulate and self-investigate itself in a circumstance like the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.

“Their only real concern is to keep the train lines running at all times," a former CP police officer, credited as "Mr. F," says in the docuseries. "That's their only need to have a police force. They don't care about anything else. So when trains stop moving, CP stops making money."

“"I will not accept to hear, 'Safety is our top priority.' No, this is not true. It's false," Falardeau said.

"Don't say that. Say that you're stuck between a rock and a hard place, that you have to promote safety and balance it with the economy. But don't say that it's your priority because it is not true."

He added that when elected officials, like former transport ministers Marc Garneau and Denis Lebel, refused to be interviewed and Burkhardt accepts, "We have a huge democratic problem."

"I asked them, first of all, do you think that it's compatible to be responsible for the safety and also to promote the economy at the same time, in the same department?" Falardeau said.

"Do you think that they should be able to write their own rules still? And why hasn't there been any public inquiry and why was the decision made so soon? Because there was still smoking in Mégantic when they made the decision."

Quebec filmmaker Philippe Falardeau
Quebec filmmaker Philippe Falardeau

What's incredibly evident in Lac-Mégantic — This Is Not an Accident is that Falardeau is very intentional in how footage and images of the rail disaster are shown in the series, keeping in mind that he didn't want to create a "spectacle" of such a tragic moment in history.

"It's about showing people the scope of it," Falardeau said. "I didn't really like to edit that part of the movie, but for [younger people] or people abroad or people who haven't heard of it, that don't have any real recollection, we need to show this, the sheer scope of it. There's no way around it."

"I do fiction, so my concern is always to make sure that I get the audience's attention. We know what's going to happen, the train is going to hit the town and we know the outcome. It's not a surprise to anyone, so how do you sustain the tension? You backtrack and you say, OK ... let's create this idea of a time bomb, but always in mind that there is a line that you cannot cross."

Rue Thibodeau in the downtown business core of Lac-Megantic becomes a ghost town after most of the construction workers leave the restricted entry red zone. Residents and shop owners are not permitted inside the red zone on Nov. 19, 2013. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Rue Thibodeau in the downtown business core of Lac-Megantic becomes a ghost town after most of the construction workers leave the restricted entry red zone. Residents and shop owners are not permitted inside the red zone on Nov. 19, 2013. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

'These tragedies happen, ... then they disappear'

When the Lac-Mégantic derailment occurred, it was all over the news, but more recently, like many tragic events, interest in and coverage of what happened dies down, even when there are still outstanding questions about institutional failures that led to the devastation. As Falardeau recognizes, that's a pattern our politicians are very aware of.

"These tragedies happen, it's all over the news, then they disappear," Falardeau said. "The politicians, they know."

He highlighted that when Canadian officials, including former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and ex-Quebec premier Pauline Marois, are asked if petrol should be transported by rail, their answer is that there is an inquiry with the Transport Safety Board (TSB) and they will wait for those results, but from the perspective of the technical reasons for the derailment.

"They know very well that the TSB will not look at that politically," Falardeau said. "They know very well that the criminal inquiry will go after the little guy, and they'll be home free by then."

"By answering that, they're making us believe that there is a public inquiry. There was no public inquiry."

For anyone who watches the docuseries, Falardeau hopes they are left with "a certain level of skepticism."

"When they hear the politicians tell us about their priority, that we understand that there are other things work," he said. "I hope that the humanity of the people of Lac-Mégantic will stay with them. Their resilience."

"People in Quebec and maybe people in the rest of Canada, if you think you know everything there is to know about what happened in Lac-Mégantic, I'm telling you this, you know nothing. I knew nothing.”