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Risk and post-disaster reconstruction of Lac Mégantic

Risk and post-disaster reconstruction of Lac Mégantic

The megadisaster of Lac-Mégantic offers important lessons on how disasters and recovery are negotiated within local capacities  and contingencies of smaller towns. Born and raised in Nantes, a rural community in Quebec where the catastrophic train disaster happened in 2013, Professor Liette Gilbert, is very familiar with the case and the region. She then started to write on the topic and further translated FES adjunct professor Bruce Campbell’s (2018) book The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied that details the regulatory failure of the rail industry which needed to be available to a francophone general public.  She also co-wrote articles with FES colleague Professor Anna Zalik comparing the regulatory and safety regimes of oil transport by pipelines and trains. Her work on Lac-Megantic also appears in a special issue of Revue Générale de Droit along the writings of Campbell and Professor Mark Winfield.

With reference to the post-disaster redevelopment of Lac-Mégantic, the research examines the particular conditions of disaster capitalism in the post-disaster recovery process of this small town in Quebec destroyed by a tragic train derailment in 2013. It specifically studies the social, political and economic processes enacting post-disaster redevelopment through the analysis of local contingencies, aspirations and capacities. In examining the political economy of post-disaster recovery, the research focuses particularly on the genealogy of ‘exceptional’ decisions and ’emergency’ actions taken by various actors (state, market, civil society) during various phases of the recovery process. 

While Gilbert’s research has been predominantly focused on migration and border politics, urban planning and the political economy and ecology of sub/urbanization, the tragic train derailment took her research back to her home region of Lac-Mégantic. These research areas are commonly framed by a politics of inclusion/exclusion – examining the oppositional struggles and alternative narratives or claims voiced by marginalized people as a form of resistance and expressions of citizenships. 

Aerial photo of the 2013 Lac Megantic rail disaster. Photo credit: Transportation Safety Board.

“I am particularly interested in how the logic of exclusion reproduces itself through control, precarity, risk and crisis discourses. At the core of these regimes and discourses are issues of incapacitation of everyday life, citizenship and ‘right to the city,’” she elaborates. “My work related to cities (from megalopolis Mexico City to small town Lac-Mégantic) looks at the entanglement of capitalist urban development, governance and resistance/activism in both normalized and ‘exceptional’ (post-disaster) agendas,” she adds.  

In a recent article on “Here’s why oil train derailments and pipeline spills keep happening” with Professor Anna Zalik,  the authors point to actual suspension of environmental protection measures for the oil and gas sector. The recent Saskatchewan train derailments and Trans Mountain pipeline spill proved this point given the  weak regulatory system marred by regulation in the corporate interest. Inconsistent and misleading reporting exacerbate the problem that thwart substantive monitoring and auditing measures needed to avert systemic problems related to oil extraction and transportation.  With the increasing dangers that train derailments and oil spills cause to the public — in particular those in lower income, Indigenous and rural populations — lessons of disaster-driven redevelopment are more relevant than ever. 

In an earlier article  by Gilbert and Zalik on “The limits of audit culture extractivism: Risk and reinsurance in Canadian oil transport by rail and pipeline,” their paper outlines the concept of ‘audit culture transparency’ to explain changing regulatory structures in oil and gas transport resulting from increased public concern about safety environmental risks. The authors argue that audit and transparency processes applied to industry-driven controversial oil and gas transportation projects emerge from the contemporary history of risk management and are part of broader characteristics of the so-called ‘audit society.’ 

Gilbert translated Bruce Campbell’s book The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied (2018) now available in French under the title Enquête sur la catastrophe the Lac-Mégantic: Quand les pouvoirs publics déraillent (Fides, 2019). She has also written on the politics of sub/urban re/development of Mexico City (as part of the SSHRC-funded Global Suburbanisms: Governance, Land and Infrastructure in the 21st Century research project led by Dr Roger Keil). She is the co-author of The Oak Ridges Moraine Battles: Development, Sprawl and Nature Conservation in the Toronto Region with colleagues L. Anders Sandberg and Gerda R. Wekerle.