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Multi-billion dollar lawsuit begins in Quebec

Defence claims cancer cases in Quebec town unrelated to Canadian military’s contamination of groundwater

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One of the largest class action lawsuits in North America began in the Quebec Superior Court on Monday over contaminated water in Shannon, Quebec, a small municipality 24 kilometres north of the provincial capital.

In a lawsuit that has been nearly a decade in the making, residents of Shannon and the Valcartier Canadian Forces Base (CFB) will seek compensation from the Department of National Defence (DND) and two ammunitions companies for damages suffered as a result of the carcinogen trichloroethylene (TCE) draining into the water supply from the 1940s to the 1980s.

It was not until 2000 that residents learned they had been consuming the colorless and tasteless TCE, a solvent to clean World War II-era cannons and ammunition. Research has shown TCE causes cancer approximately 35 years after exposure, which coincides with the increasing prevalence of cancer in the area.

In December 2003, Marie-Paule Spieser, a Shannon resident, filed the lawsuit in the Quebec Superior Court. Spieser is the lead plaintiff representing some 3,500 past and present residents of Shannon and CFB Valcartier. The court will hear 120 witnesses from Quebec and 23 experts from around the world.

“These are people who consider themselves victims of their own government.  Many of them cannot be here this morning because they are dead,” said Charles Veilleux, the lead attorney for the residents of Shannon and Valcartier, in his opening statement, as reported by the Toronto Sun.

According to the website, administered by the Shannon residents themselves, the National Research Council formed the SNC Research Centre to develop ammunition in an “isolated laboratory” because of the dangerous materials.  While the large population of Quebec City was a safe 24 kilometres away, the city of Shannon remained a negligible distance.

The first traces of TCE were detected in a well near the SNC Research Centre in July 1992. Residents, who mistakenly presumed they were living healthy lifestyles, have complained that they did not learn of the TCE contamination until 2000.

Spieser experienced gastric problems, nausea, fatigue, and what her doctor believed to be an ulcer.  She claims that upon leaving Shannon in 1998 and deciding to drink only bottled water, she saw drastic improvement in her health.

Although the lawsuit is requesting $200 billion in compensation, the DND website “estimates the damages at $2 billion.” The gamut of damages for which the residents hope to be recompensed include physical, moral, and material hardship, damages to personal integrity, and harm to the environment.

The defence stated in their document presented at court on Monday that “the study of Dr. Tremblay, epidemiologist for the plaintiff, was unable to show that there are more cases of cancer in Shannon than elsewhere in Quebec that are linked to TCE.” These cases include 440 instances of cancer, 200 of which proved fatal, in a town of 4,000.

To receive this compensation, “the plaintiff must show fault, damages and a causal link,” according to the defence team’s court document.

Francine Robichaud, the department  of justice spokeswoman, told The Daily “that this is not the case.  It is our intention to show that the class action has no basis in law, either scientifically or factually.”

According to the Montreal Gazette, the government has given Shannon “$26.5 million to ensure an alternate, safe source of drinking water.”

Veilleux acknowledged in court that the minister of national defense gave Shannon $3.5 million to build an aqueduct after TCE was discovered in the water.  While preventing further TCE contamination, the aqueduct system left forty years worth of the toxic solvent in the groundwater.

Despite the rising instances of cancer, Jack Siemiatcycki, epidemiologist for the defence, asserts in the defense’s document that “the science of epidemiology recognizes a link only between TCE exposure and renal cancer and possibly liver cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.”