Lac-Mégantic urges tourists to be respectful ahead of rail disaster anniversary

the municipality has asked a team of support workers to meet with business owners to help them prepare for tourists' uncomfortable questions

By Stéphane Blais in Lac-Mégantic, Que

The town of Lac-Mégantic, Que. is urging tourists to be respectful after noting inappropriate behaviours in the run up to the 10-year anniversary of the rail disaster that claimed 47 lives. 

The municipality has asked a team of social workers to help business owners handle tourists who sometimes ask insensitive questions, and who have even occasionally tried to capture selfies with passing trains.

Almost two-thirds of the victims of the 2013 train derailment and explosion were inside the popular Musi-Café restaurant, which has seen an increase in visitors since a pair of TV series about the disaster aired earlier this year.

Co-owner Katie Stapels says that while the vast majority of visitors are respectful, a few have lacked judgment. 

Since February, she’s seen at least three people try to take selfies inside the building while the train passes by outside.

Stapels also says some people have asked employees if they know people in the series “Mégantic,” which featured fictional characters inspired by real people. 

“It’s a bit awkward, it’s not a tourist attraction” Stapels said, adding “it’s uncomfortable for the employees who were there at the time, and for the local clientele”.

“Nobody comes here with bad intentions,” she said. “We have to welcome them without judgment, but sometimes it’s hard for those who lived through the tragedy.”

Mayor Julie Morin says municipal employees have also been asked uncomfortable questions, including where bodies were located after the train derailed and exploded.

To help the residents, the municipality has asked a team of support workers to meet with business owners to help them prepare for tourists’ uncomfortable questions.

As an example, a business owner who is asked whether they knew a victim of the tragedy is advised to answer “in Lac-Mégantic, everyone knew a victim,” if they don’t want to answer.

The town is set to mark the 10-year anniversary of the July 6 tragedy with a series of sombre commemorations. Morin said she understands non-residents will want to come, but is hoping they will show respect and understanding.

“It’s normal that people want to come to Lac-Mégantic, it’s really a story that touched everyone,” Morin said. “We just want people to be kind.”

Tourists who want to learn more about the tragedy can see an exhibit at the historic train station, or visit a home that has been converted into an interpretation site where people can discreetly look out at the scene of the tragedy. 

“People look for it, tourists want to know where it is, but citizens don’t want to see it, so we don’t want to put out a big red dot or a flag that says ‘it’s here,'” Morin explained of the site. “Because daily life, it isn’t tragedy.”

A local church will also open its doors for 24 hours straight, from July 5 to 6, and will hold a commemorative mass and concerts. 

A number of politicians will attend, as well as a large contingent of media.

Morin said that while it’s important to remember the tragedy, she doesn’t want the event to become a show, “because there’s a community living here on a daily basis.”

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephane Blais

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2023.