Author(s): Scott Sutherland. Published on March 1, 2020.

The Act of Forgetting

What happens when a small town tries to move on after a devastating fire?


Related Content

Read an excerpt from Thérèse Villeneuve's book, The Real Faces of the Chapais Tragedy.
Read the 1980 report on the Chapais fire that appeared in the NFPA Fire Journal.

Florent Cantin wasn't one to give up easily on a joke. The first time he tried to light the dried fir bough with his cigarette lighter, it flared a bit but didn’t catch. The idea was to spark a little flame and snuff it out with his fingers. Why? Wrong question: why not? It was all in good fun, part of the high spirits of a New Year’s Eve celebration. A small act of bravado to cap the evening.

Friends egged him on. Hey Cantin, try again.

He flicked the lighter and touched the blue flame to the bough, and this time the fire was like an explosion. The bough was part of a large arch constructed of cut fir pieces, a holiday decoration that adorned the inside entryway of the Opemiska Club, a community hall in the small town of Chapais, Quebec. It was a bit after 1 a.m., the year had just ticked over to 1980, and about 120 people were still partying in the hall. Some were dancing, while others grabbed a last beer before braving the sub-zero temperatures outside and heading home.

Startled by the sudden bloom of fire, Cantin looked at it wide-eyed for a moment, then threw the remains of his beer at the flames. Others did the same, to little effect. Fire raced up and over the 10-foot-high arch, framing the entryway. A couple of people grabbed fire extinguishers and shot them at the arch, but they made no difference. Further into the hall, some of the revelers continued to dance.

The September 1980 edition of Fire Journal, the precursor to this magazine, contained a terse three-page description of what happened next. The fir boughs had been in place for three weeks and were very dry; they burned violently, igniting combustible ceiling tiles. Fire began to spread rapidly along the ceiling, and pieces of the burning tiles fell on occupants as thick smoke descended toward the floor. Anyone who hadn’t gotten out the front door in the first moments moved to the rear of the hall, which included two emergency exits along the east and west walls.

About 60 people got out through the west exit. An estimated 42 tried to get out the east door, but most could not; a ventilation-exhaust fan above the door was operating, pulling products of combustion toward and through it and creating untenable conditions just outside the door. Smoke and fire filled the room, and people near the east door began to fall. Local volunteer firefighters soon arrived, but the fire was already so advanced that they could only mount an exterior attack. Within minutes, the Opemiska Club was totally consumed, with the exception of a few structural members at the front of the building. Forty-one people died at the scene—many within feet of the east-side emergency exit—and in the following days another seven would die of their injuries at a hospital in Quebec City. Dozens were hurt. Among those who got out alive was Florent Cantin. 

Chapais was an isolated mining community of about 3,500, nearly 450 miles north of Montreal, and the impact of the fire was profound. Everyone in town had a direct connection to someone who had died. Some families lost multiple members. As people attempted to register their own shock and grief over the event, they wondered how the larger community would cope. How would Chapais be different? Would Chapais even be Chapais?

A new book explores the answers to those questions, as well as the unexpected factors that shaped post-fire Chapais. In The Real Faces of the Chapais Tragedy, scheduled for release in March, author Thérèse Villeneuve methodically details individual responses to the fire while creating a larger picture of a community not just impacted by loss, but profoundly warped by it. Tied to the 40th anniversary of the fire, The Real Faces of the Chapais Tragedy is a long-term look at the impact of a community-wide trauma, and of the particular set of social and economic conditions in Chapais that impeded individual healing and transformed even a mention of the event into a collective taboo.

Photos from JFD Editions

It is also, indirectly, an account of Villeneuve’s solo attempt to act as a witness for a community of people unable, or unwilling, to come to grips with the event, even decades later. “I don’t know why, but I had a kind of mission to go there,” she told me, of her early notion to study Chapais as part of a doctoral thesis in social work. “I said to my teacher, ‘I want to take them out of forgetting.’ He considered this an unrealistic dream. But this is what I did.”

Trauma, grief, and omerta

In the early 1940s, Dr. Erich Lindemann was chief of a psychiatric outpatient department at Massachusetts General Hospital, or MGH, in Boston. On a bitterly cold November night in 1942, a fire at one of the city’s most popular nightclubs, the Cocoanut Grove, killed 492 people, nearly half the number that had shoehorned themselves into the club for an evening of dinner and dancing. Emergency personnel rushed more than 100 patients to nearby MGH. Many were badly injured and faced long and agonizing recoveries in the hospital’s burn ward. Many had also lost friends or loved ones and were stunned by overwhelming grief.

Lindemann was struck by the patients’ responses to grief, how the emotional wounds could be as debilitating as the physical trauma, and began to consider how physicians could help. Lindemann recognized that the post-recovery world would be a different place for survivors, and that they would need to find new, fulfilling social patterns that allowed them to exist in that world. It meant, in part, letting go of their ties to the dead. The job of the psychiatrist was not to point the way, Lindemann reasoned, but to share this difficult work with the patient.

He also recognized that bereavement could exist on a community scale, and that survivors needed their communities to recover from it. As a result, people needed to be treated in their communities. This outward-focused approach formed the foundation of what would come to be known as the community mental health movement, and in 1948 Lindemann founded the nation’s first community mental health center.

The community-wide approach to threats and risks has also been adopted by the fire and life safety world, which for much of its history was concerned almost exclusively with the quantitative details of building protection—the design of a sprinkler system, say, or the placement of detection and alarm devices. Qualitative factors like human behavior are implied in codes and standards, but overt references are rare. Behaviorial studies of major fires were conducted as far back as the 1950s, but it was behavior analyses of later events—the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Kentucky, the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas in 1980, and the World Trade Center attacks of 1993 and 2001 among them—that ushered in the modern era, where building and safety codes are informed by a more acute understanding of how people react in emergencies.

More recently, as community-scale threats including terrorism and natural disasters have risen to prominence, standards developers have recognized the need for a more expansive approach to community risk and emergency management. At NFPA, for example, this holistic view has produced documents like NFPA 3000™ (PS), Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program, and NFPA 1300, Standard on Community Risk Assessment and Community Risk Reduction Plan Development. These documents and others acknowledge that, while we can’t prevent bad things from happening, our communities can at least be better prepared to respond, and recover, when they do.

It would be difficult to find a community tighter-knit than Chapais in 1980, but that doesn’t mean it was prepared to handle a disruption on the scale of the Opemiska Club fire. The town had only been founded in 1955, with the intent of creating a permanent community around the Opemiska mine, a large copper and gold mine owned by Falconbridge Copper Ltd. The mine was Chapais’ economic engine and its largest employer; jobs were plentiful, the money was good, and Chapais, the town that residents had created from scratch, was thriving. A strong vein of self-sufficiency ran through Chapaisiens, a characteristic of the hard-headed mining culture. Got a problem? Figure it out. Put up or shut up.

The community pulled together in the immediate aftermath of the fire. Friends and neighbors assisted each other, and there was a strong sense of shared mission. Volunteers put on large suppers at the high school, feeding as many as 1,200 people each night. The mayor, Gerard Pellerin, had suffered burns in the fire, and he delegated an array of responsibilities to make sure things got done while he recovered. On January 6, 2,200 people, including Rene Levesque, the premier of Quebec, attended a mass funeral in the town’s arena and offered an outpouring of support for dozens of the victims and their families.

But the goodwill was short-lived, and the enormous strain on the community soon became evident. A rift developed over who was actually responsible for the fire. Falconbridge owned the hall, which had recently undergone renovations that included the boarding-over of 10 large windows—windows that may have broken in the fire, allowing smoke and flame to vent and giving occupants precious extra seconds to get out. It also contained combustible interior finishes, and the exhaust fan over the emergency exit had been improperly positioned. But the mine insisted it was Cantin and the event organizers, the local Lions Club, who were at fault, even though many of the Lions Club members were also executives at the mine.

Top photo from Getty Images, bottom photos from The Canadian Press/Bill Grimshaw

Cantin proved to be a polarizing figure. He was 21 and unemployed at the time of the fire, and he’d spent New Year’s Eve drinking beer and smoking a little hash. There were people in town who wouldn’t hesitate to say they wanted to kill him. Others, though, were sympathetic. He meant no harm, they would say; it was a prank, a joke. The fir boughs had been left up too long and were too dry. The building was a fire trap. He’s one of us. That could’ve been my own son who flicked the lighter.

In a clumsy attempt to smooth over such divisions and regain a sense of normalcy, town officials, including the delegates of Mayor Pellerin, pushed their own peculiar version of what had occurred: the town had responded well to the calamity, everyone was fine, no one needed any help. It was a fiction that also served as the de facto guide to getting on with life in post-fire Chapais. The fire happened, it was hard, we move on. The approach had the ring of the familiar in Chapais, and the heads of the town’s institutions fell into line. There would be no room to consider Lindemann’s notion of community-scale grief and the heavy lifting necessary to combat the corrosive effects of trauma left unacknowledged and untreated.

One by one, Chapais’ institutions failed its citizens. Critically, the emergency measures provided by local health care resources did not include social work; psychosocial support was new to some outlying regions of the province, and some town officials regarded it with outright suspicion. (Even medical workers, as well as the volunteers who recovered and managed the burned remains of victims, were not offered additional psychological support.) Debriefings for students in local schools were avoided in favor of keeping pupils busy; no extra support was provided for teachers, but there was a push to increase the frequency of fire drills, which sometimes included fake smoke and proved especially traumatic for some of the participants. Churches downplayed the event’s impact by preaching the rejection of anger and hatred; large banners at the mass funeral had championed the ideals of strength and resignation.

But what many Chapaisiens wanted most in the months following the fire was to simply talk to someone about it, to acknowledge its horror, to offer comfort and be comforted. But to do so, at least outside of one’s own home, risked upsetting a fraught new social order that had been imposed on the citizenry. Best not to talk about it. No one wants to hear it. Move on. Falconbridge played a critical role in supporting this new order, and few dared put their jobs at risk by alienating mine managers. Omerta, the code of silence, became the rule. The minutes of city council meetings in the immediate aftermath of the fire made no mention of the event. In time, the fire wasn’t even discussed in local schools. At some point, a newspaper in the province observed that “in Chapais, ‘fire’ is removed from the vocabulary”—a distant echo of the Middle Ages, when it was forbidden to utter the word “plague.”

By 1990, the prohibition had thawed enough that the town was able to erect a memorial on the site of the Opemiska Club. The plot had sat empty for a decade, according to Villeneuve, and still contained some of the charred debris from the fire. Even then, some townspeople opposed the project, fearing the memorial could become a tourist attraction.

The resistance was a signal that, at least for some, the trauma was perhaps best left buried. Villeneuve writes about a Chapais resident she interviewed who described her emotional response to the fire as a kind of secret, likening it to a tabloid fable of a woman who for decades had carried inside her a fossilized fetus. “There was a kind of cage, like a limestone deposit” that encased the remains, the interviewee said. In that manner, she added, “I fossilized my memory.”

Bearing witness

In 1980, Therese Villeneuve was a social worker at a hospital in Montreal, working with burn victims who were undergoing reconstructive plastic surgery. She was aware of the tragedy that had struck Chapais, as were many Quebecois, but it wasn’t until 1990, when she studied the effects of severe burns for a master’s degree in social work, that she began thinking more about Chapais. Her original notion for a doctoral project was to use Chapais to study a large number of people who’d been severely burned in the same incident. That plan didn’t come to fruition, but in the meantime she’d landed on another, even more ambitious undertaking: a large-scale survey of the psychological impact of the fire on Chapais. She began work on the project in 1999, part of a joint doctoral program between McGill University and the University of Montreal, and launched her field research in Chapais in 2002.

She encountered some reticence at first. Over the years, many townspeople had been irked by other outsiders, especially journalists, arriving in Chapais in search of a story, and they were suspicious of her intentions. But Villeneuve wasn’t just another outsider. She’d grown up in the Lac St. Jean region, where a lot of Chapaisiens had come from. Her brother had worked in Chapais, and a sister also had connections to the town. Villeneuve knew these people, and knew how to talk to them. She was patient, and she listened. And she wasn’t a journalist.

A few people spoke to her, and then many wanted to—the effect was like a dam bursting. “It’s like they’d suddenly been delivered,” she said. “A lot of people had been keeping secrets that they weren’t able to talk about before.” They passed her number along to friends and family, and recommended other troubled residents they thought she should talk to. “Once it started, they were quick to open their doors to me,” she recalled. “My experience as a social worker for almost 30 years did the rest.”

Villeneuve’s work in Chapais bore many similarities to Lindemann’s model for community mental health, a critical missing piece for most of the town’s residents back in 1980. “My advisor at McGill stressed that we should be there not only to conduct research, but to help people as part the research,” Villeneuve said. “It had to be give and take. People would talk to me, but they would also learn something useful about themselves.” Often that would involve helping people exhume the grief they’d tried to bury years earlier; her extensive social work experience made her a skilled interlocutor on the subjects of death and dying. Interviews could last hours. Villeneuve would eventually talk to 75 people about their experience of the fire.

PROBLEMATIC BUILDING Top, a plan of the Opemiska Club that appeared in a 1980 issue of Fire Journal showing the location of the fir bough arch, the fire's origin, and the area where most of the victims died. Below, onlookers gathered to watch the site being cleared in the days after the fire. A memorial to the victims was erected on the site in 1990. Top photo from NFPA, bottom photo from Getty Images

Along with catharsis, the interviews also made apparent the tremendous damage that had occurred. Unable to coalesce around the idea of Cantin as the sole villain, people sought other scapegoats: the funeral director, municipal officials, their fellow partygoers the night of the fire. Litigation ensued. The town’s social fabric frayed. Friendships dissolved, and people moved away. Alcohol and drug use were more prevalent, as were diseases including cancer and heart disease. Social involvement declined—the Lions Club, once a social engine for the town, withered to a handful of members—as did support for local sports and athletic leagues. Villeneuve writes of a “period of collective depression,” three to five years following the event, after which life in Chapais “resumed its course,” if only in appearance.

The post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and other maladies that inflicted Chapaisiens after the fire would certainly have been present in some measure even with the most robust psychosocial response, Villeneuve said. But in the absence of such a response, their intensity, duration, and overall impact were greatly magnified. She cites another Quebec incident, the 2013 Lac-Megantic disaster, where a runaway freight train carrying crude oil derailed in the center of a small town, resulting in a series of massive explosions and fires that killed 47 people and destroyed large areas of the downtown. Much more psychosocial support was available to survivors in Lac-Megantic than in Chapais, Villeneuve said, and the outcomes for people struggling with PTSD and other psychological issues are more promising as a result.

When Villeneuve completed her field work in 2005, she organized a public presentation of her findings in Chapais. Dozens of people gathered in a community hall to hear her talk. There were meat pies and soft drinks, and people asked her questions about her research. They talked about the fire, with her and with each other. “It was a nice day for Chapais, I think,” she said. She received her PhD in social work in 2007.

Now 68 and semi-retired, Villeneuve recently began adapting her 500-page thesis into a book half that size, aimed at a wider audience. While there is still an academic framework around Villeneuve’s account, readers from the fire and life safety world can find plenty to admire and learn from: her empathy, deep understanding of the subject matter, and liberal use of interview excerpts offer a rare glimpse into the long arc of a traumatic event and its impact on a vulnerable community. For now, the book will only be published in French, though the book’s publisher, JFD Editions in Montreal, isn’t ruling out a possible English version in the future. I hope that happens—The Real Faces of the Chapais Tragedy is a story that deserves the widest possible telling.

Sometime this spring, Villeneuve will return to Chapais to promote the book and help the town mark, if somewhat belatedly, the 40th anniversary of the fire. There will be food and music, she said. Chapais has mostly healed, she said, but the event will serve as a reminder of the value of self preservation. “When these kinds of things happen to people in other communities, the people of Chapais are very generous in their response,” Villeneuve said. “But they also need to remember how vulnerable they may be if it happens to them.”

Afterword: The Cantin problem

Hey Cantin, try again.

The instant Florent Cantin flicked his lighter, he became as much a riddle as a person. What was he, exactly? A criminal? A victim of circumstance? A bit of a knucklehead who made a terrible mistake? He could be all of those, or none, or something else entirely. One of the most vexing aspects of the Chapais fire is that the figure at its center can be so blurry and indistinct.

In May 1981, Cantin pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to eight years in prison. His lawyer argued that a prison sentence of that duration could transform the impressionable young man into a hardened criminal. Cantin projected a youthful everyman persona that attracted legions of supporters, and 4,500 of them around the province, with support from churches and outspoken clergy, signed a petition urging a reduction of his sentence. In December of that year, Cantin’s jail term was reduced to two years minus a day—a move that only widened the divide between those proposing leniency and those who wanted his head. Once he was released, Cantin left Quebec for good. He still lives in Canada. He is reportedly a music enthusiast.

His family had left Chapais shortly after the fire, when local anti-Cantin sentiment was running high. A brother stayed, and lives there still. The rapid departure was difficult on the family, Villeneuve said. Cantin’s mother was active in a local choir, and the family’s exodus was widely viewed as a loss for the community.

In 2005, Cantin gave an interview to the magazine La Semaine to mark the 25th anniversary of the fire. He was asked what he thought about forgiveness. “Forgiveness, for me, is an act of faith, a deliverance,” he said. “The people who have forgiven me have probably done so to ease their own suffering. As for me, there is no worse judge than myself; I am very strict with myself. I try to live one day at a time, telling myself that it was an accident and that it could have happened to someone else.”

Villeneuve could never muster much sympathy for Cantin. She could see he was troubled, though how, exactly, she could never put her finger on. There might have been problems at home. He’d been kicked out of the Chapais schools at 14, a violation of provincial rules that require children be kept in the system until the age of 16, and she considered this a serious lapse in the community’s responsibility toward Cantin. “What did he do during those years he was not in school?” she asked. “This was wrong.” Even so, in the aftermath of the fire, she had little patience for his equivocating and reluctance to claim responsibility. “It was always, ‘It’s not my fault’—I couldn’t listen to that,” she said. “In any case, I wanted the victims’ perspectives. That was the important story.”

She never spoke with Cantin about that New Year’s Eve at the Opemiska Club. “I wasn’t interested,” she said simply. “I saw him on TV and read what he said. That was enough.” 

SCOTT SUTHERLAND is executive editor at NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Tedd Church/Montreal Gazette