MELFORT—Chris Joseph has seen the seasons change from summer to fall and now, to frigid mid-winter, at a memorial set up for his son and 15 others killed at the intersection in April when a semitruck ran through a stop sign and collided with the Humboldt Broncos team bus.
Something about the stillness of winter adds to its solemnity.
The cluster of crosses sits by the side of the rural Saskatchewan intersection of Highway 35 and Highway 335, itself in the middle of four corners of open Canadian prairie, flat and featureless except for a small stand of trees.
Joseph, a former NHL player, has come to find a moment’s peace in the place where nine months earlier his son, Jaxon Joseph, was left lying lifeless in the snow. He points out the ways in which the memorial has grown each time he has visited: first came 16 simple white crosses, then 16 green hockey stick crosses were driven into the ground, and draped with Humboldt Broncos jerseys.
The green and yellow ribbons — the team’s colours — photographs and various trinkets, a cowboy hat, some plastic beaded necklaces, accumulated over time.
“The day you took my son Jaxon from me was the worst day of my life and will remain that way forever,” he said, recalling the horrors he and his family suffered when his son died in the crash.
“I never thought in my life I would be kissing my dead son’s eyelids, nose, cheeks and lips over and over again, as I knew it would be the last time I would feel my son’s skin under my lips. If I could have, I would have stayed with him, beside him until the moment his dead body couldn’t stand the warmth,” said Jaxon’s mother, Andrea Joseph, sobbing as she recalled desperately rubbing her son’s legs and holding him close, hoping her warmth would breathe new life into his still body.
Family and friends of the 16 people killed and 13 people injured spent three days recounting the trauma of the crash and the suffering they continue to endure because of truck driver Jaskirat Singh Sidhu.
There were too many people to fit inside the local Melfort, Sask., courthouse, so 200 plastic chairs were set up in the Kerry Vickar Centre’s gymnasium to accommodate the weeklong hearing.
Both the Crown and defence involved in Sidhu’s sentencing said it was one of the most difficult and emotional hearings they had ever been a part of, with around 80 victim impact statements read aloud or filed privately with the court.
“Mr. Sidhu’s crime had wide-ranging and devastating consequences for the families and friends of everyone who was in the bus crash,” said Crown prosecutor Thomas Healey.
“My hockey stick remains outside of my door,” said defence lawyer Glen Luther.
Sidhu pleaded guilty to 16 charges of dangerous driving causing death and 13 charges of dangerous driving causing injury, taking full responsibility for causing the crash.
Rising from his seat to address the families Thursday, Sidhu turned to face them, heaving a heavy sigh before delivering an apology. “I cannot imagine what you are going through or what you have been through,” said Sidhu. “I have taken the most valuable things in your life.”
After he spoke, Sidhu sat back in his chair and cried.
But those who came to hear Sidhu offer an explanation left empty-handed.
“I can’t tell people what happened, he simply doesn’t know,” said defence lawyer Mark Brayford in his sentencing submissions.
Sidhu said he didn’t even know he had been in a crash until he crawled out the door of the overturned cab of his truck and heard the victims screaming.
According to the RCMP’s forensic collision reconstruction report, on April 6, the semi was hauling two trailers loaded with peat moss when it blew through a stop sign at the intersection of Highway 35 and Highway 335, near Armley, Sask., at around 5 p.m., just as the Humboldt Broncos team bus was approaching the intersection.
Sidhu drove past four signs and signals that should have warned him of the upcoming intersection that lined the highway nearly half a kilometre before the crash site.
“This wasn’t a rolling stop, this was more like a rocket,” said Healey.
The bus driver slammed on the brakes, skidding 24 metres, but it was too late. The bus hit the semi at nearly 100 km/h.
There was no way the bus could have avoided the crash.
The damage was catastrophic.
The bus was ripped into three pieces, the front third of the bus and the entire roof were torn from the twisted frame, the condition of the front of the bus described coldly as “nonsurvivable.”
Tanya LaBelle said images of the “dread-filled scene” replay vividly in their minds.
“The faces, the voices, the sounds, the vehicles, ambulances, helicopters,” Tanya, Xavier LaBelle’s mother, recalled through tears. “The panic, the agony, the horror.”
“Nothing can prepare a parent for the heart-wrenching carnage that was before me,” said his father, Paul LaBelle, who ran desperately down the highway toward the crash site before being stopped by an RCMP officer.
Families were redirected to local hospitals, hoping their child’s name would be on the list.
The mass of casualties overwhelmed the local hospital and funeral home.
In the confusion, the LaBelles were told their son hadn’t survived the crash while standing only 50 feet away from where their son lay screaming in anguish in a hospital bed.
When they were called to the funeral home with other families to identify their loved one among the dead, the LaBelles weren’t sure if it was grief preventing them from recognizing their son from the only bodies left unaccounted for.
Two days later, they would receive the call the other families had longed to hear — there had been a mistake, their son, Xavier was alive.
But any joy the LaBelles felt at learning their son was one of 13 survivors was tempered by the realization that another family, Parker Tobin’s — who had sat vigil at Xavier LaBelle’s bedside for two days believing he was their son — had inherited their loss.
Xavier LaBelle had survived the crash. Parker Tobin had not.
It was difficult for Parker Tobin’s father, Edward Tobin, to put his family’s loss into words.
“At times, the grief is overwhelming and you’re not sure how you are going to make it through the day,” he said. “The grief is often triggered by things you wouldn’t expect, like seeing young kids play at the local park. Those simple things that bring back his childhood memories. You smile for a moment as you remember a happier time, then collapse as you realize there will be no more memories.”
Humboldt Broncos assistant coach Chris Beaudry was called by the coroner to help identify the bodies, some disfigured beyond recognition.
Staff wouldn’t have time to stop working on the corpses while he viewed them, the coroner warned. Beaudry didn’t want to do it, but it was the only way he could help.
As he moved from gurney to gurney trying to recognize the faces of the young men he had once coached behind their injuries, flashes of recognition were chased with memories of who they were in life.
The sounds of bones being set, the zipping of body bags, skin being sewn, still haunt him.
“In my dreams, I would relive the funeral home scene over and over for months. I would wake up in cold sweats and couldn’t go back to sleep. The PTSD triggers were as bad as the nightmares,” Beaudry said.
Nine months later and they are still suffering.
“All of us families grieve every day, we will for the rest of our lives,” said Scott Thomas, father of Evan Thomas, who died in the crash.
The loved ones of those killed spoke of their unending grief, and family and friends of survivors spoke of their struggle to find a new normal as the futures they had planned now look drastically different. Dreams dashed, bodies broken, hope lost.
At every brief intermission, those gathered in the gallery would offer each other support.
Warm hugs, dry tissues, handshakes and knowing smiles are the physical manifestations of the bond formed between these families who know each other’s pain all too well.
“The crash has forever tied us together,” said Bernadine Boulet, mother of Logan Boulet, 21, who died from his injuries after the collision.
After three days of heart-wrenching testimony, lawyers entered into their sentencing submissions trying to offer guidance to Justice Inez Cardinal in a case of dangerous driving unprecedented in its harm.
“We haven’t seen a case like this in Canada,” said Healey.
The maximum sentence available for Sidhu’s dangerous driving causing death charges is 14 years behind bars for each offence, and dangerous driving causing injury comes with a maximum sentence of 10 years.
While Sidhu pleaded guilty and has demonstrated genuine remorse, Healey argued that as a professional truck driver, Sidhu had been trained and should have been held to a higher standard of road safety.
“This wasn’t just an accident, this was a crime,” said Healey, recommending a sentence of 10 years in prison.
There were four signs leading up to the intersection that Sidhu, for reasons unknown, was completely oblivious to, Healey said. The intersection itself is marked with an oversized stop sign and a flashing light.
“How does someone miss all of those signs?” Healey said, emphasizing the egregiousness of Sidhu’s carelessness.
Sidhu’s defence argued that while the consequences of his actions were grave, they were a result of simple negligence and not deliberate recklessness, “barely over the line” between a tragic oversight and a criminal act, Luther said.
While they did not make their own suggestion for the length of a suitable sentence, Brayford said that many of those who described the pain and anguish caused to them by the crash also called for mercy in Sidhu’s sentencing.
“We’re not as simplistic as an eye for an eye,” said Brayford.
“I don’t hate you. When I look at you, I see a young man not much older than our son, Mark,” said Marilyn Cross, mother of Mark Cross, who did not survive the collision. “I grieve for the guilt you must carry for the rest of your days.”
Paul Jefferson, who was a billet father to both Parker Tobin, who died, and Tyler Smith, who survived, said his faith called him to forgive.
“His life should not be ruined by this mistake, that would make him the 30th victim of this tragedy,” he said.
Other families called for a harsher punishment to deter unscrupulous truck drivers and transport companies from making the same mistakes.
“We need to fight for these boys, the 29 people who were on that bus. As a mom, when you can’t help your child, and you can’t protect them and hold them, the only way I can help is by fighting and sticking up for what is right. This country needs to crack down, we need to have stricter rules and stricter laws,” said Andrea Joseph, calling for Sidhu to serve the maximum sentence.
Judge Cardinal said it would take time for her to review all of the materials and victim impact statements before making her decision, and adjourned Sidhu’s sentencing until March 22.
Jennifer Quaid, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said the recommended sentence is “very harsh” and she suspects the actual sentence to be lower, in part because Sidhu pleaded guilty and expressed sincere remorse.
“I’m not sure that we can actually make him suffer more than he’s suffering now,” she said.
“He has done everything the criminal justice system wants an offender to do. He has recognized his responsibility, he has apologized, he has not tried to put up a fight.”
However, because there is no precedent for a case like this, Quaid said it is ultimately “anyone’s guess” what the judge will decide.
“We don’t have any template to follow for this particular kind of case, and I hope we never have another one.”
While conflicted over Sidhu’s jail term, those gathered agreed that no sentence would ever bring back that which has been lost.
What these families and survivors want more than anything is change.
Celeste Leray-Leicht, mother of deceased Jacob Leicht, spoke to media after the third day of proceedings holding Beaudry’s baby girl in her arms.
Her name is Lilly Brons Beaudry, named in honour of Dayna Brons, the Humboldt Broncos team trainer who died in the crash.
“I would like to give a message of hope and a message of change. I hope all the ministers of transportation across Canada are listening, and I hope you are talking,” she said, as Lilly tugged at the edge of her blanket.
“I hope you commit to Lilly and to everyone in Canada, across the nation, to make changes that make sense in every province and every territory,” said Leray-Leicht.
Lyle Brons, father of Dayna Brons, called for the trucking and charter bus industries to be federally regulated, and Leray-Leicht wanted to see training standards strengthened, anything to ensure no one else has to endure their suffering.
With files from Kevin Maimann
Claire Theobald is an Edmonton-based reporter who covers crime and the courts. Follow her on Twitter: @clairetheobald