Nine months and two days after their sons were killed in the worst tragedy in Canadian sports history, Chris Joseph and Celeste Leray-Leicht learned that the man who was driving the truck that slammed into the Humboldt Broncos’ bus last April had pled guilty to 16 counts of operation of a motor vehicle causing death and 13 counts of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing bodily harm.
That will spare the families of reliving the horrors of the crash all over again and for that, they are grateful. But grief, particularly on this enormous a level, is not a linear path. Everyone deals with it in a personal way and on his or her terms and timeline. There is compassion for Jaskirat Singh Sidhu to be sure, but there are still questions and the need to ensure that something like this never happens again.
Leray-Leicht, a vice-principal at a Catholic school in Humboldt, lost her 19-year-old son Jacob in the crash. She said she and her family were, “relieved by (Sidhu’s) words and that he pleaded guilty and was seemingly apologetic.” She also said her family’s position has been to choose to forgive Sidhu for what happened. “And we might have to forgive over and over and over again,” she said. “But his mistake isn’t ours to own. We have a lot of energy and I think we’re going to direct that to changing the trucking industry and pushing for higher standards. It was a mistake and it’s done and harboring ill feelings toward the man doesn’t help me in any way. It’s a mental game from here and in order to survive it, we’ve got to play it well.”
Former NHLer Chris Joseph, whose 20-year-old son Jaxon was also killed in the crash, said he struggled with his feelings when he heard the news and the day was more emotional than he thought it would be. “I was a little unsure how to feel,” Joseph said. “Part of me got very angry when I saw Mr. Sidhu and there was a part of me that had respect for him for doing what he did and not dragging it out. I’m still very cautious to use the word forgiveness. I don’t know if my wife and I are there yet. Respect, maybe. We don’t think he was a bad person or had any malicious intention, but we also know he should never have been behind that wheel because he was not trained properly.”
Regardless of where they are in their journey, the families are united in their desire for change on a number of levels. They want all buses to not only have seatbelts, but a mechanism whereby the driver can detect if someone is not wearing his or her belt. It’s important to note that the Broncos bus was equipped with seatbelts, but there was no mandate they had to be worn and, as Joseph pointed out, there is not the same expectation on buses as there is on cars. It’s a cultural shift that is going to take a while to take hold. “Possibly the seatbelts might not have saved the first six rows,” Joseph said. “But I believe that where my son was sitting, a seatbelt would have made a difference because my son was sitting four rows from the back. At the end of the day, if seatbelts had saved one outcome, we would be grateful for that.”
They also want tighter restrictions on the trucking industry and more diligence when it comes to training and licensing companies. They certainly want drivers to be more prepared. It has been reported that the trip Sidhu was making that day was his first as a driver and his first in that type of vehicle. As a firefighter in Edmonton, Joseph drives a fire truck and said he is held to a higher standard than most drivers and it should be the same for commercial truckers. “We can’t have incompetence,” Joseph said. “Incompetence costs lives. And that has never been more evident than it was with the Humboldt Broncos.”
There have been five days set aside in late January for sentencing, largely because there will be so many victim impact statements to hear. Saskatoon-based criminal defense lawyer Brian Pfefferle said Judge Inez Cardinal will face some vexing decisions on a sentence for Sidhu, given that he has shown remorse and has chosen to accept the punishment the justice system sees fit. It appears the maximum Sidhu could receive is 14 years in prison. The maximum sentence for each count that involved death is 14 years and the maximum sentence for each count that involved injury is 10 years, but the ‘totality principal’ means the court would typically apply concurrent sentences, meaning they would all be served at the same time.
“I think the range is anywhere from as low as two years…I’d be surprised if he gets any less than three, but I’d be very surprised if he gets more than six,” Pfefferle said. “In the eyes of the general public, 14 is the maximum, so maybe he gets the maximum or he gets 12. I’d be shocked if he gets that, but I’m also prepared to say I have no clue.”
Joseph would like to see the maximum sentence, not to create more pain for Sidhu, but to create an environment for change. He said he can understand how people might think that given Sidhu’s willingness to accept responsibility and save the families the pain of a trial is commendable, but that might not go far enough. “On the flip side to that is will that create change?” Joseph said. “You want to make a big splash to go for the maximum to create change. Is it fair? Probably not. But it’s not fair that we had to lose our children, either.”