Morons ‘r’ us

Dressed for distress: one of those trapped on Highway 13 at the height of Wednesday’s blizzard makes her way to safety. (La Presse photo)
I was sorely pissed at Wednesday’s slapdash snowclearing in here in Duckburg, but that was before lurid accounts of blizzard-induced suffering and inconvenience reached their crescendo yesterday. Eight dead. People trapped in their vehicles for hours on Highway 13 while the SQ, the Ministère des Transports (MTQ), towing contractor Burstall and snowclearing contractor Roxboro crossed their arms, each refusing to move until the other cleared the way.

By all accounts, it was a battle of jurisdictions gone berserk. The SQ claims its patrollers called the MTQ more than 100 times starting at 6 p.m., when a tractor-trailer rig spun out and blocked all three southbound lanes at Hickmore. The SQ claims it tried without success to convince the MTQ to close the highway as traffic piled up. Roxboro, with the exclusive contract to clear the 13, couldn’t or wouldn’t send out its ploughs until Burstall had removed immobilized vehicles. Burstall couldn’t move vehicles because of two truck drivers who refused to be towed and the SQ wasn’t there to order them because its patrollers were busy elsewhere. It wasn’t until around 4:30 a.m. that Montreal firefighters took it into their own hands to begin removing stranded motorists to a fire department bus before they could begin disentangling the jam by directing vehicles off the nearest onramp.

Once again, firefighters showed why they’re trusted and politicians aren’t. (La Presse photo)
No sooner had the record snowfall stopped that the politico-legal shitstorm began. Leaders of both opposition parties began by demanding Transport Minister Laurent Lessard’s head. Vehicles were still being towed off the 13 as ambulance chasers specializing in class-action lawsuits began signing up an estimated 500 clients with the lure of a $2,000-plus-costs payout, with the City of Montreal as a co-respondent. The SQ placed a lieutenant on administrative leave. At the chronically dysfunctional MTQ, the assistant deputy transport minister in charge of catastrophe co-ordination – a woman – was a handy scapegoat.

Philippe Couillard’s office moved quickly to get the government out from under a growing wave of recrimination. Thursday, Couillard, his hands firmly clamped around the necks of Lessard and Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux, made a short, unconditional apology and named veteran government fixer Florent Gagné to conduct an independent inquiry into what went wrong.

From an experiential standpoint, Gagné would be an inspired call, having served as both SQ director-general and as a former MTQ deputy minister. But Gagné has lived under a cloud since his testimony before the Charbonneau Commission probe into the construction industry, which accused him of turning a blind eye to collusion. Wiretap warrants unsealed since the commission’s report was presented strongly hint it was apparently decided by both the Liberals and the Péquistes that senior elected officials and their opposite numbers in the civil service would enjoy a form of diplomatic immunity.

So, you ask, what has all that to do with Wednesday’s Highway 13 fiasco?

Better late than never, SQ officer lends a hand to the task. (La Presse photo)
Begin with Roxboro, one of the rare examples of a private-sector contract to clear snow from a major public highway. According to the MTQ, Roxboro’s ploughs were unable to keep up with the intensity of the snowfall by the start of Wednesday’s rush hour. Tractor-trailer rigs were rolling at normal highway speeds because they could see over the whiteouts, so motorists were having to deal with truck-caused whiteouts as well as snow buildup. In seconds, a fender-bender froze that river of traffic for the next 10 hours. Was Roxboro negligent, or did its low-bid contract set the stage for what could have been a tragedy with loss of life? Why couldn’t the SQ reach the MTQ? Why weren’t the MTQ’s patrollers able to convince their bosses to close Highway 13?

It’s mind-boggling that the MTQ’s eyes and the SQ’s cops, each alone in his or her cruiser at that time of day, wouldn’t have  supervisors capable of breaking through the layers of bureaucracy to those with the power to co-ordinate an emergency response.

I’ve always questioned the ridiculousness of having the SQ patrolling Montreal-area highways, where city cops have no jurisdiction. Isn’t everyone using the same roads? Moreover, police vehicles aren’t designed to patrol in those conditions. The OPP uses big SUVs, even in urban settings. Why doesn’t Quebec?

Communications are a big silo issue. The MTQ patrols have their frequencies. The SQ, SPVM and Montreal firefighters have others. Theoretically, they have common clear channels. But do they function? Are they monitored? Are there cellphone numbers that allow patrollers to cut through the bureaucrap? If any of these answers are no, catatastrophe co-ordination is a myth.

Then there’s truck traffic. Montreal’s highway network, designed and built half a century ago, was never designed for today’s volumes and velocities, yet there is no effort on Quebec’s part to slow down traffic, especially not truck traffic in bad weather. Throughout the U.S. and Europe, real-time speed-reduction and lane-closure signage is common. Some jurisdictions  go as far as to limit or ban truck traffic from some highways during rush hour.

I’ve saved the worst for last, and that’s our responsibility for our own safety. Why is it that people can listen to a weather forecast for a severe winter storm warning, yet leave home without adequate clothing, emergency survival kit with a bottle of water and at least half a tank of gas? I see vehicles with all-season tires. I see motorists stopped on the highway, using snow to clean their windshield.

Last month, I eyewitnessed a spectacular crash on the 40 as a westbound cube van was broadsided by a blast of wind on that stretch just east of the highway scales. Another moron in a rush, but at least he didn’t take anyone with him.

Quebec’s obstinate refusal to make its highways the slightest bit safer makes no sense from an economic or public-security perspective. I’m  betting Gagné won’t touch any of that because he has the background to know those issues are not part of his mandate. Just like personal preparedness isn’t a part of ours.

Updated Monday, March 20: The head of the SQ’s Highway Patrol is the latest head to roll in the wake of last Wednesday’s blizzard crisis on Highway 13. This follows Friday’s arrest of a long-haul trucker who faces charges because he didn’t see why his truck, which wasn’t stuck, needed to be towed. Quebec’s shoot-the-survivors response to public relations misfires satisfies public bloodlust. But suspending bureaucrats and arresting a Sikh trucker (while sparing les homeboy de Ste Clothilde de Tabarnak) won’t address the core issue – Quebec’s bunkered bureacracies competing for power, influence and budget envelopes.

5 thoughts on “Morons ‘r’ us

  1. Hi Jim. There’s a problem with the SQ. They seem to be able to take.orders from truck drivers, and selectively apply laws depending on the rules.

    I’d like to back up two years, at the ferry in Hudson. Summer. Traffic was backed up all along main road and up Bellevue. I was coming along main road, heading direction Vaudreuil. There was a police officer who had just arrived and was looking at the situation. He stopped me and told me main road was blocked and I would have to go up Bellevue as a detour which would have taken me way out of my way. I told him absolutely not. Not used to being told no, he asked me to repeat myself. I told him absolutely not, I wasn’t making a detour because 30 cars are violating local bylaw. I pulled over and parked my car and got out. I asked him if he intended to fine everyone that was breaking bylaw which is clearly posted at the ferry that there was strictly no stopping. At first, the officer refused to admit a bylaw existed. I then pointed out the sign, which the officer refused to admit existed.. now in a corner, he said municipal bylaw enforcement was not in the SQ mandate, and that I would have to go to the police station and file 40 complaints for each car illegally parked. I told him this was unacceptable and that he was going to commence issuing tickets to everyone, or I was calling his Sargent down here to deal with this. He then asked to see my driver’s licence, I said no, he then quoted the law I was breaking.. and the conversation went further down hill from there. Voices were elevated, people were recording our exchange which I have a video of.

    It seems that when the SQ have to enter into an altercation with more then 2 people breaking a law, they run away and cower.

    In my situation, issuing a ticket to 40 people by 1 officer is impossible and is frowned upon or will cause a riot. It sends the message that if you’re going to break the law in SQ territory, do it it numbers.

    Our mayor and council, former mayor and council would never take on the SQ the way I did. I don’t take balogna. It seems whatever the SQ tells the mayor, he simply parrots at a council meeting in lieu of questioning it.

    I’m glad I didn’t end up in jail, and had this of been the Montreal Police I almost most assuredly would have been.

    The SQ is supposed to order people to do things when things go haywire. Why is their such a lack of this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just the tip of the “We no longer know how to organize and manage” iceberg.

    Too much job security and it’s always someone else’s responsibility seems to rise to the Cabinet level.

    Remember, overpasses fall and the resulting inquiry found no one was really responsible. Same issues, no value for lots of money, no quality control and no metrics.

    Frankly that bastion of not the best and not the brightest, the average biker gang, is at least twice as well organized as our government and police are. And they know how to move a stuck trucker who doesn’t want to move.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They arrested a truck driver and are actively looking for the other one. What a scapegoat. That’s just looking to pronounce someone guilty as quick as humanly possible. The trucker said he wasn’t being towed, the tow truck company called the police, and as far as i’m concerned.. THIS is the point the domino effect started.. They said They were too busy, or couldn’t make it, or where 1hr away, or no one was available – Or whatever their garbage excuse was- That is where the problem started. I blame the SQ. It starts with them, it should finish with them.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Well said , Kevin. I can’t imagine what a towing bill would have been for that trucker but I’m guessing as an independent operator it was a bill he couldn’t afford on roads that had been poorly cleared and for which he was not responsible. The towing should have been paid by Transport Quebec and the SQ should have arranged that with a couple of phone calls and there has to be a procedure in place for this because as far as I know this is Quebec and at times we get 30 cm.


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