Quebec's premier is launching an external investigation into the snowstorm debacle on Highway 13 as opposition parties call for Transport Minister Laurent Lessard to step down.
Hundreds of drivers spent the night stranded in their cars on the southbound roadway between Highways 20 and 40 after an accident during a blizzard forced the road closure.
Many were stranded for as long as 12 hours, and others left their cars behind and walked.
The incident caused a firestorm and finger pointing in Quebec City.
Premier Philippe Couillard met with Lessard and Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux Thursday morning before formally apologized to Quebecers in front of cameras and announcing they would get to the bottom of what transpired.
He said he was unhappy on Wednesday, but even more unhappy now that more information has come to light about the failed response, adding he would launch an external investigation.
The results of that investigation will be made public, and it will be people could be called to testify in front of parliamentary committee.
Couillard has admitted that the storm response "lacked coordination."
He said Coiteux and Lessard weren't even informed of the situation on Highway 13 until Wednesday morning.
A civil servant in the transport ministry responsible for civil security has been suspended over the matter.
Parti Quebecois leader Jean-Francois Lisée called the handling of the snowstorm the "worst crisis management" since Couillard came into power.
On Lessard, Lisée said Thursday morning, "Everyone saw that he wasn't competent in a time of crisis," adding “Clearly we all saw that they were not up to speed. They failed in their responsibility. That's why we're asking Mr. Lessard to be removed from his post immediately.”
CAQ leader Francois Legault echoed those sentiments, saying, “We already had some problems to solve at the Ministry of Transport, so Mr. Couillard should have named somebody who has good management skills, and clearly that’s not the case with Mr. Lessard.”
Couillard said the opposition calling for Lessard’s resignation is simply partisan politics and exploiting the situation.
“Obviously you expect partisanship to be extreme in a situation like this. I think people should keep their cool here. We know exactly what happened, we see the shortcomings. Both my colleagues were not notified at all of anything until the next morning, so it’s a little bit too much to say that they should have been out there and taking care of people. I’m sure if they had known, Mr. Coiteux and Mr. Lessard would have been on the spot with the authorities,” said the premier.
It was revealed that during two conference calls about the highway closure, no one shared information that hundreds of drivers were stranded.
In the first conference call at 11:50 p.m., officials from the Ministry of Transportation omitted that information, despite drivers being stranded for hours at that point.
The second phone call took place at 1:40 a.m., and nobody from the Ministry of Transportation was on the call.
At 4:30 a.m. the Sureté du Quebec, aware of the stranded drivers, called on the Montreal fire department for help evacuating people from the highway.
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre called the lack of co-ordination unacceptable, stressing the importance of getting to the bottom of what transpired.
"It's not about a pissing match. It's about looking for answers, because this is a winter town," said Coderre.
Public Safety Minister Martin Coiteux said he has many questions about how the Highway 13 situation was handled by the Surete du Quebec. He said an internal investigation is underway.