Log Cabin Chronicles

Old Quebec City

Photograph/John Mahoney

QUEBEC AFFAIRS

With PETER BLACK

Ramrodding Public Works Projects

Ile aux Coudres is one of the prettiest places in a province abounding in pretty postcard places. It's a recommended stop for any decent jaunt along the North Shore of the St. Lawrence.

But this summer the innkeepers on the quaint island an hour east of Quebec City say a steep slump in tourist traffic does not a pretty picture make. How is it that in a tourist season that seems well on track to smash all previous records for Quebec, this breathtaking corner of the picturesque Charlevoix region is being shunned like Chernobyl?

Some locals say the blame lies with the killer hill at Les Eboulements, the one that leads to the ferry for Ile aux Coudres.

Others blame it on an apparent autocratic streak in Premier Lucien Bouchard's government, which, in its latest manifestation, is ramrodding through a controversial and questionable project to reconstruct the hill that's scaring away precious tourist traffic.

The trouble with the hill is well-known.

Le Grand Côte des Eboulements was the scene of the bus crash in October, 1997, that killed 44 people on a Thanksgiving weekend foliage-watching expedition. It remains the worst highway accident in Canadian history and, in the view of the Quebec government, cause for strong, decisive and rapid action to ensure the steep hill descending to the town of St. Joseph de la Rive would never claim another victim.

And so, scarcely six months after the tragedy at Les Eboulements, and without a formal environmental assessment or public hearings, and almost a year before Coroner Luc Malouin had issued his report on the accident, then-Transport Minister Jacques Brassard announced a sweeping and pricey project to redesign the hillside road and render it less of a challenge to drivers of vehicles using it.

The only problem with Brassard's plan, according to Coroner Malouin, who took his cues from hours of expert testimony, is the accident was not the fault of the road.

Malouin concluded that Brassard's transport standards bureaucracy had allowed an overworked driver to get behind the wheel of a bus with brakes that went uninspected and were left to deteriorate.

Send a sleepy driver down a steep hill in a fully loaded bus with frayed brakes and something unpleasant may well happen, and this time it did.

Undeterred by the facts of the incident as determined by one of the most thorough accident inquiries in recent memory, Brassard's successor at transport, the equally prickly Guy Chevrette, has ordered that the reshaping of the historic hill proceed, and as of this writing, construction crews are hard at work churning up the road.

Naturally, heavy construction on a slope deemed a death trap by politicians is not exactly a magnet to tourists.

The bulldozers already may be at work, but that hasn't stopped a coalition of groups opposed to the project, which could cost up to $30 million, according to one estimate, from denouncing the tactics used by the Bouchard government to get it done. One letter to the editor from the coalition compares Bouchard to Maurice Duplessis for the heavy-handed way in which the transport ministry imposed the new Eboulements route on the population.

The group, which includes the vice-president of the Quebec council of monuments and historic sites, the president of the Charlevoix historical association, and several other credible professionals, sees grave dangers in the way the project was green-lighted and wants an enquiry.

"In the meantime," says the coalition, "Quebecers who visit the region will themselves note, upon seeing the excess of the project, the artificialization of the site and the destruction of the public heritage, how far a uncontrolled government can go."

The government order to proceed with the Les Eboulement project has echoes of another controversial plan.

This was the cabinet decree issued in the wake of the 1998 ice storm to authorize the erection of a new power line through the properties of hundreds of farmers in the Eastern Townships. A determined group of opponents challenged in court the government's right to unilaterally order this kind of project without proper hearings, and won.

Critics are saying the huge amounts of money spent on a new road at Les Eboulements may not save any lives - human error or negligence are endlessly creative when it comes to tragic incidents; nor will it do much to repair the reputation of the government in its handling of the bus crash aftermath.

CBC logo Peter Black is a writer living in Quebec City, where he is the producer of Quebec A.M. -- CBC Radio's popular English-language morning show (91.7 FM, 6-9, Mon.-Fri).


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