History Repeats Itself: Megantic becomes a flashpoint for Quebec and Canadian political struggles

History Repeats Itself: Megantic becomes a flashpoint for Quebec and Canadian political struggles

Main pic: Picture taken from a Sûreté du Québec helicopter of Lac-Mégantic, the day of the derailment.
Photo credit: Sûreté du Québec

Opinion piece by Colin Standish

Donald Morrison, the "Megantic Outlaw"

Donald Morrison, the “Megantic Outlaw”

One man’s stay at a Megantic hotel precedes a string of events which thrusts Lac-Mégantic (formerly Lake Megantic Village) to the forefront of the popular imagination of Quebec and Canada, with death, a community in crisis and governments struggling to understand and regulate changing economic realities and urgencies. Unassuming locals are caught in the middle with a seemingly uncaring businessman drawing the ire of many. Respect for the rule of law, indeed the efficacy of the laws themselves, is questioned. A troubled nationalist government in Quebec City turns its attention to an isolated border region. The minuscule community of Nantes (formerly Spring Hill) plays a critical role in the drama unfolding along the the densely wooded banks of Lake Megantic.

Sound familiar? We have seen it all before, though few remember it outside the Eastern Townships’ English-speaking community.

The year was 1888, and Donald Morrison, the so-called Megantic Outlaw, was the object of one of the largest manhunts in Canadian history. Morrison was a young Scottish-Canadian born into the Gaelic-speaking areas of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Morrison had supported his struggling parents by working out West as a cowboy, eventually returning home to his family homestead on the shores of Lake Megantic to find his family evicted by an unscrupulous local businessman. Morrison harassed the new French-Canadian tenants and the burning down of their barn and a gun shot was blamed on him (charges he denied). A warrant was issued for his arrest, and a bounty-hunter, Jack Warren, volunteered to bring Morrison to justice. Warren was holed up at a Megantic hotel when Morrison came to town. Pistols were drawn and Warren was killed. A 10 month manhunt ensued, with Morrison sheltered by the local Scot community and outwitting the increasingly frustrated authorities. Brazen in his disregard for the rule of law, local legend recalls he hid under womens skirts during surprise raids. Spring Hill (Nantes) often served as his centre of activity. The incident became an embarrassment for the provincial government of Honoré Mercier, a fiercely nationalist Premier bent on confronting the federal government to win more provincial autonomy. Hundreds of provincial police were called out. Locals suspected of aiding Morrison were jailed. Morrison was eventually shot during an Easter truce and sentenced to 18 years in prison for manslaughter, and released four hours before his death in 1894.

Gun duels, a handsome and charismatic outlaw, flagrant disregard for the rule of law and state authority in an isolated backwater provided fodder for media across Quebec and Canada. The incidents’ notoriety highlighted the changing economic and political landscape of Quebec; undergoing a painful shift from agriculture to industrialization with overcrowded seigneuries sending masses of people into industrial centres across the continent, new merchant classes taking advantage of agriculturalists, linguistic struggles in Eastern Townships communities dealing with increased French-Canadian settlement, and Quebec finding its place in Canada during the early days of Confederation.

The scenes of contorted train tankers, fireballs in the night sky, charred brick chimneys where buildings once stood, oil-slicked shorelines and families wrought with grief are the iconic images of the Lac-Mégantic disaster. All are surreal. The community’s pain escapes expression and comprehension. Support for the victims, their friends, and families and ensuring immediate disaster relief are primary concerns. Experts are sifting through the ashes, hoping to recover presumed victims and make sense of the disaster and its causes. Railway man Edward Burkhardt has been heavily criticized for his reaction to the disaster, raising the ire of locals and the media.

What issues has the Lac-Mégantic disaster revealed? Petroleum extraction, transportation and export have figured prominently in recent public debates. From the oil sands to the Pacific Gateway to Keystone XL, and the dangers of rail transportation now apparent as well, our petrol economy will endure increased scrutiny. The incident has highlighted modern government struggling to understand, regulate and keep pace with economic realities. Federal transportation regulations appear to have failed to keep pace with new cargoes. Questions remain about whether employees or the company followed their own procedures, and indeed, if these met industry standards and if the current standards are acceptable. As well, distrust of political elites runs deep in contemporary Quebec, with corrupt officials on daily display at the Charbonneau Commission. Politicians of all stripes have descended on Megantic to offer condolences and support. It would be inappropriate to impune their good intentions; however, the Conservatives are mired in controversy, the NDP has failed to solidify its gains in Quebec, and the PQ government is reeling from a troubled legislative session with toxic linguistic debates and corruption charges dominating the agenda. Compassion and benevolence are on display; small-town Quebec is where the next provincial and federal elections will be decided ensuring a steady flow of political good will.

The hearts and minds of Quebecers, Canadians and the world have been drawn to Megantic. Support for the victims and their families during their long mourning process while ensuring a similar tragedy does not happen again are our priorities. Besides odd similarities in the same geographic location, a romanticized criminal has no direct connection with the horrifying loss of life which occurred in Megantic. Yet, like the Morrison saga over a century ago, recent events on the shores of Lake Megantic provide a looking glass into the current state of Quebec and Canadian economic and political affairs.

Morrison is still revered as a folkhero by local English-speakers, as a defiant last stand against the effects of modernity (state control, population change, and industrialization often ushered in by the railroad) which irreversibly changed this quaint corner of Quebec. A simple tombstone to him exists on a deserted dirt road. His family had the day of his imprisonment marked as the date their free-spirited son died.

In contemporary Megantic, July 6, 2013 will not mark the date a community ceased to exist.

From the ashes of this tragedy, rebirth will follow.

Categories: News, Opinion

About Author

Colin Standish

Colin Standish has a law degree from Université Laval in Quebec City and a history and politics degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Colin was born and raised in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and is currently a candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada nomination in Compton-Stanstead. He has learnt French in order to be able to study his chosen degree subject in the language.

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