Quebec launches inquiry into epic snow storm; stranded motorists launch class action lawsuit
SQ and MUC officers try to clear up Highway 520 near Cavendish road on Wednesday March 15, 2017 following massive snow storm that left many motorists stranded overnight. (Pierre Obendrauf / MONTREAL GAZETTE)
QUEBEC — With opposition calls for heads to roll and angry victims launching a class action suit, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has launched an inquiry into how 300 motorists ended up stranded overnight Tuesday on Highway 13 during a blizzard.
And Couillard has formally apologized to people who were traumatized or injured as a result.
"I wasn't happy yesterday," Couillard said Thursday at a news conference. "I am less happy today because I see the shortcomings in how people should have worked together.
"Faced with such a foul up, and there is no other word for it, I want to apologize to people who were left feeling insecure, injured and to the families of victims. Yes, we were faced with an exceptional situation but the response did not reflect it."
The apology, a rare event from a head of government, comes as the Couillard's team tries to douse the political fire over Transport Quebec's handling of the blizzard.
But the crisis only grew hours later when lawyers representing trapped motorists fired a missile at the government, announcing they are launching a class action suit against the government on behalf of 500 persons they say were affected.
Represented by Deveau et Trudel, Johnston and L'Esperance, the lawyers announced they will seek $2000 for each person trapped for hours in their cars.
In their legal brief, filed in Superior Court Thursday, they argue those trapped "were prisoners in their vehicles for hours and hours, in cold weather, and with limited, if non-existent, information," .
They all suffered "discomfort, stress and anxiety."
The move came despite Couillard's reassuring announcement that he has named a former deputy minister of transport, Florent Gagné, as head of a formal external inquiry into the events.
Gagne's mandate is two-fold: establish the chain of events and evaluate the level of coordination of all the actors.
His report will be made public with possible discussions before a committee of the legislature, Couillard indicated.
And in the meantime, the two ministers in the hot seat, Transport Minister Laurent Lessard and Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux were in full damage control Thursday as the extent of the foul ups under their watch come to light.
Lessard, who has been accused by the opposition of dozing as motorists were freezing, acted first, announcing he has suspended his deputy-minister for civil protection in Quebec, Anne-Marie Leclerc.
In theory Leclerc should have been the person to hit the red alert button which would, among other things, have brought in more troops to help clear the road and coordinate a rescue mission on the highway which is under provincial control.
Standing beside Couillard at a news conference, Lessard continued to argue he was never informed of the magnitude of the event. He said he was home watching the news like everyone Tuesday evening with the understanding his ministry had things in hand.
Both Lessard and Coiteux said they were not informed of the magnitude of the problem until the morning after.
But Lessard said what is clear now is as of 10 p.m. Tuesday there were enough red flags on the field to spark a civil protection operation designed to rescue people and not just "clear the snow."
That explains Leclerc's suspension.
"At the ministry of transport, they don't usually apologize but, for the first time, we are going to apologize to the population affected because they were prisoners (in their cars) for a long period when they were entitled to better treatment," Lessard said.
Lessard said Quebec will also look into how to cancel the sub-contract with the private company responsible for snow clearing, Roxboro Excavation.
Coiteux said if there are people in government or the police who didn't do their job there would be sanctions. As it is the more he learns about what happened inside the government machine the more disappointed he is.
"I will not defend the indefensible," Coiteux said. "This was not acceptable."
At about the same time as he was speaking, Surete du Québec spokesperson Guy Lapointe announced in Montreal that the official in charge of the operations on Highway 13 has been relieved of his duties.
The provincial police force has launched its own inquiry into the Highway 13 debacle, Lapointe said. He would not provide a chronology of what happened that night because of the provincial government investigation.
But we know hundreds of 911 calls came in over the evening.
Coiteux said he wants to know why the SQ let so much time go by before contacting Montreal's firefighters for an evacuation of the trapped people once it became clear Transport Quebec could not clear the road or remove the tractor-trailer trucks which sparked the jam at around 6 p.m. as Montrealers were headed home in the blizzard.
On Thursday Coderre said he still doesn't understand why the transport ministry didn't tell city officials earlier that hundreds of people needed to be rescued from the highway.
A request for the city of Montreal to help with the rescue came only at 3:39 a.m. Wednesday, Coderre said. At that point people had been stranded for hours.
Coderre said that in a civil-security operation, different levels of government have different roles. Montreal, he said, fulfilled its responsibilities by sending firefighters in.
The stupefication was generalized. Parti Québécois public security critic Pascal Berubé noted that while Transport Quebec surveillance cameras were sufficiently monitored for the ministry to post an image of a snowy owl that went viral on the Internet "are we not able to see what's happening on the highways? There are cameras everywhere."
Earlier, both PQ leader Jean-François Lisée and Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault held news conferences calling for Lessard's head.
They did not let up during the morning question period — keeping the heat mainly on Lessard who, in the heat of the moment Wednesday, snapped at reporters pestering him with questions.
"The hour is grave," PQ transport critic Alain Therrien fired across the floor. "This minister was twiddling his thumbs. He won't even say where he was that evening. We know where he was. He was in bed."
Lessard has insisted the mess was not due to a lack of employees on duty. There were enough, he said, but they were not deployed correctly.
But the union representing Transport Quebec workers, the Syndicat de la fonction publique du Quebec (SFPQ) said the ministry did not add troops to the workforce despite repeated warnings of the pending storm.
SFPQ president Christian Daigle told reporters Thursday there were four or five Transport Quebec patrollers on the scene and they advised their superiors as early at 8 p.m. that trouble was looming. They specifically asked for reinforcements to help shut down access roads to the highway.