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From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Drawing Conclusions

Representing the tragedy of Lac-Mégantic

Christian Quesnel

When I was a child, like many boys my age, I was fascinated with trains of all kinds. I remember a grey October day in 1977 when my family and I stood at Wakefield station in the Gatineau Hills, not far from where we lived, to await the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. I must admit I was more captivated by the steam locomotive puffing away than by the royal couple. But this was no simple machine: it had a certain aesthetic, forged in metal — a beauty paired with brute force. It looked like a big colourful toy drawn from my imagination and made manifest.

Years later, in 2018, when the writer and activist Anne-Marie Saint-Cerny approached me with an idea for a collaborative project about the Lac‑Mégantic rail disaster, I had just completed the illustrations for Vous avez détruit la beauté du monde: Le suicide scénarisé au Québec depuis 1763. For that book, I worked with a team of criminologists and historians to consult coroners’ reports, and I frequently had to confront disturbing photographs. My task was to develop strategies to depict the deceased in a manner that preserved their dignity. The challenges of this particular bande dessinée motivated me to further explore my medium’s capacity to convey sensitive topics with discretion and respect. Anne-Marie came along with a subject that allowed me to do just that. And she gave me carte blanche for the choice of images.

I didn’t just want to provide pictures to accompany the text. I wanted to write the story in pictures. I even indulged my old childhood passion and bought a model of the GE locomotive so I could design it from every angle. I knew about the disaster in that small community in the Eastern Townships, of course, but Anne-Marie had been gathering information that never made the nightly news. When I saw the photographs and papers she had collected, I was shocked. I was shocked, first, when I read the names and ages of the victims. Death strikes indiscriminately. Later, I was shocked again, and most of all, by a video clip: some weeks before her death, a young woman, Kathy Clusiault, had been filmed singing the Elvis Presley hit “It’s Now or Never” for her father. The line “Tomorrow will be too late” seemed to convey the whole tragedy of Mégantic, and the video moved me profoundly. Kathy stayed at the centre of my thoughts as I drew. I wanted to be conscientious and respectful with my illustrations, and she helped me to give each person a face — to which I clung.

I’ve been to downtown Lac-Mégantic twice to speak with its residents but also to feel the place. Nowhere else in the province have I sensed such a leaden atmosphere. The closest comparison I can make (though on a different scale, of course) is to Berlin, a city still haunted by the destruction of the Second World War. Similarly, the heaviness left by the vanished town centre much closer to home — today it is a large empty space — and by those forty-seven lives lost will not disappear any time soon.

At the beginning of the project, I put a lot of pressure on myself. Because I had met some of the people (or their relatives) whom I was drawing, I knew they would recognize themselves and one another in the pages. But I also knew from conversations that they felt that someone was finally searching for the truth — something they had asked of the Canadian government in vain. The story — but also the images — had to reflect the reality of Ottawa’s response (or lack thereof). The representation of the town as it was before the catastrophe touched many residents. On the evening we launched the French version of the book, one of the survivors said to me, “You can look us straight in the eye.” I was relieved.

After speaking with the victims’ families, I began to reconsider my childhood interest and the fantastical daydreams I used to have when gazing down a railway track. This fascination, I must admit, has persisted throughout my adult life. When I was barely twenty years old, I had the pleasure of meeting Alex Colville in Ottawa and viewing his marvellous paintings. Almost thirty years later, it was Horse and Train from which I drew inspiration for the book’s cover. My early love of locomotives, which lit so many sparks in my youthful eyes, later gave birth to stars, like the image of Kathy Clusiault.

Real trains are not toys. They should be left only in responsible hands.

Christian Quesnel is an author and illustrator of comics, graphic novels, and children’s books.