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Friday, October 22, 2021

Jaskirat Sidhu, the ‘Humboldt Driver,’ speaks out

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BOWDEN INSTITUTION, ALTA. — His name is Jaskirat Sidhu. Most people know him only as “The Humboldt Driver.”

The 32-year-old wears a blue pullover as he is led into a small room and sits down in front of the camera. He pulls off his facemask and takes a deep breath before beginning his first ever television interview. The guard that led him to his seat and the metal bars on the windows offer the only clues that the interview is conducted from inside a prison.

Over the course of an hour and a half, Sidhu answers most questions with an apology first: “I am so sorry for the pain I have caused because it was my mistake. And that pain I regret every day… seeing them every day in my dreams… losing their kids, losing their life partner, losing their brother and sister. And that happened because of me.”

On April 6, 2018, Sidhu was tasked with transporting a giant load of peat moss on tandem trailers, across Saskatchewan on unfamiliar rural roads. He had challenges from the beginning. First, his trailers got stuck in the snow and he needed to find a tow. Then his tarps came loose and he feared losing his load, and finally, at 5 p.m. while he was checking his rear view mirror to see if his ties were solid, he missed a stop sign. A chartered bus, carrying the Humboldt Broncos hockey club, was approaching the intersection and couldn’t stop in time. The two vehicles collided, killing 16 people and injuring 13 others on the bus. Canada plunged into mourning.

After weeks of investigating, the RCMP charged Sidhu with 16 counts of dangerous driving causing death and 13 counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm. He pleaded guilty to every single charge. He didn’t offer a defence. He didn’t try to plea bargain.

“My parents taught me if you ever do something wrong, accept it. And taking [the Humboldt families] through a lengthy process was definitely going to hurt them more, not less.”

Sidhu comes from a middle-class farming family in India. He immigrated to Canada in 2014 with a degree in commerce. His then girlfriend Tanvir Mann arrived in this country the previous year after completing a nursing degree in India.

Jaskirat Sidhu graduation

Sitting in her small apartment in Calgary, Mann said they were living the Canadian dream: “We were building our future slowly. He was working in a liquor store and I was working at Tim Hortons part time. We were trying to save some money for higher education.”

Just three months before the horrifying collision, Mann and Jaskirat became husband and wife in a fairy-tale wedding back in India.

They didn’t take a honeymoon, and returned to Canada where Mann had been accepted into a dental hygienist program in Toronto. Sidhu picked up a second job to support Mann going back to school. A friend suggested trucking and Sidhu completed a one-week training course. He then drove supervised for two weeks. When Sidhu got behind the wheel on that April day in 2018, it was one of his first solo long-haul jobs.

“Sometimes I sit and I hear the kids crying, the children crying, and I see all of the devastated pictures in my mind. And people are rushing, the firefighters, all of the first responders. Those things, they’re still with me.”

His wife never liked the fact he was driving big rigs. With tears streaming down her face she relives the phone call that changed her life: “He’s in a very bad accident. The word ‘bad,’ it broke me. I just knew that my life turned upside down right at that moment. He was crying, I was crying. He told me that there is a big loss. And he told me that he made a big mistake.”

Jaskirat Sidhu and Tanvir Mann

Sidhu was sentenced to eight years in prison. Until just recently, he has been in medium security, but in August was transferred to minimum security at the Bowden Institution, 100 kilometres north of Calgary.

While Sidhu didn’t mount a defence at his criminal trial, he is fighting now. This time, for the right to stay in Canada.

“There is no point running away from things. I can try to make things better. Definitely I owe this country.”

Sidhu is not a Canadian citizen. He is a permanent resident. Under immigration rules, anyone convicted of a crime that carries a sentence greater than six months is subject to deportation.

Calgary immigration lawyer Michael Green is representing Sidhu. In an interview with W5 he said, “There’s so much tragedy to go around. There’s tragedy above all for the victims’ families and the survivors. But there’s also another tragedy, and that’s Jaskirat and his wife Tanvir.”

In January 2021, Green submitted a 415-page binder outlining why Sidhu should not be deported, citing his extreme level of remorse, lack of criminal history, low risk to reoffend and the fact neither drugs, alcohol nor excessive speed were a factor in the collision. Hundreds of letters of public support have also been included in the file. Among them, letters from three Humboldt families, including the parents of Evan Thomas, who died in the crash.

Evan Thomas

Scott and Laurie Thomas have not only forgiven Sidhu, they are actively working to keep him in Canada.

“We sent some letters to his lawyer saying our family doesn’t think that he needs to be deported. That doesn’t need to be the necessary conclusion to how this all ends.”

Their anger is not directed at the man who caused their son’s death, but at the industry that put him behind the wheel. A W5 investigation reveals an ongoing and a potentially deadly lack of oversight of truck driver training schools, three years after the tragedy.

Scott Thomas sees a day when he and Sidhu are standing on a stage together demanding action.

“If Mr. Sidhu’s in Canada and there’s an opportunity… for us both to speak together about what happened and how we can make a better place out of this, I think there’s an opportunity for Canada to be better for sure, much more so than sending them home.”

Scott and Laurie Thomas

The odds are not in Sidhu’s favour. Some Humboldt families have spoken out in support of his deportation. And the onus is on lawyer Michael Green to convince one Canadian Border Services Agency enforcement officer that he should be allowed to stay.

“This has got to be one of the most difficult cases a CBSA officer could ever have, because it’s not clear cut. Normally, you’ve got a really serious offence. It’s easy for them to say ‘bye-bye.’ In this case… you’ve got a crime of inadvertence, you’ve got somebody with an unblemished record who is well established in Canada, has a bright future. There’s another factor too, which is his wife. They had this dream together. While he’s pretty broken, he’s not just fighting for himself, he’s asking for a second chance for his wife too.”

Once the CBSA officer makes a ruling it is sent to the immigration minister’s delegate, who has the ultimate decision on deportation. Green says in rare cases the immigration minister can intervene. Since 2001, Canada has removed more than 20,000 people for “serious criminality.”

If Sidhu is deported, Mann said she will return to India as well.

“We definitely want to live in Canada because Canada is our home now. But if he’s not here, I wouldn’t be able to live here. I will have to follow him back.”

Placing his hand to his heart, Jaskirat Sidhu said: “I’m not the person who did this purposely or intentionally. I know people have lost their lives and I don’t want to hide. All I can do is stand in front of them and hold my hands and say, sorry.”

A decision on whether Sidhu will be allowed to remain in Canada is expected imminently.

W5’s investigation of the trucking industry, “The Humboldt Driver” airs Saturday night at 7 p.m. on CTV.

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