Unprecedented outpouring of grief at sentencing for truck driver in Humboldt Broncos bus crash


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.

At the rural Saskatchewan intersection of Highway 35 and Highway 335, 16 green crosses stand emblazoned with the names of the people killed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash on April 6, 2018.
At the rural Saskatchewan intersection of Highway 35 and Highway 335, 16 green crosses stand emblazoned with the names of the people killed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash on April 6, 2018.  (Claire Theobald / StarMetro Edmonton)

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.

The rural Saskatchewan intersection where truck driver Jaskirat Singh Sidu ran a stop sign and collided with the Humboldt Broncos team bus on April 6, 2018, as seen on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.
The rural Saskatchewan intersection where truck driver Jaskirat Singh Sidu ran a stop sign and collided with the Humboldt Broncos team bus on April 6, 2018, as seen on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.  (Claire Theobald/StarMetro Edmonton)

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.

Court has heard Jaskirat Singh Sidhu blew through a stop sign and into the path of the junior hockey team's bus in rural Saskatchewan last April.
Court has heard Jaskirat Singh Sidhu blew through a stop sign and into the path of the junior hockey team’s bus in rural Saskatchewan last April.  (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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


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Son of man killed in Leduc workplace accident shares grief: ‘Things they don’t tell you when your parent dies’


There are few things more difficult, both emotionally and practically, than dealing with the death of a parent. But a young Edmonton man is sharing his grief and frustration in a series of raw, honest tweets.

Daryn Bondarchuk was one of the men killed in a workplace accident at Millennium Cryogenic Technologies, an industrial company in the Leduc Business Park on Nov. 15.

READ MORE: ‘Tight-knit community’ of Leduc reeling after 3 die in workplace incident

The 52-year-old was a father of three. His son Cody described him as a handyman.

“He was just very much a fixer with a lot of different things,” Cody told Global News on Thursday. “He had little bits of knowledge in all kinds of industries. We never bought bookshelves for our rooms when we were kids –electrical work, woodworking, plumbing — anything else that we needed to do.

“I think that shows who he was, above everything else. [He] was someone who said, ‘If you had a skill, it’s your responsibility to help others with it.’”

Cody said his dad worked at Millennium Cryogenic Technologies for about two years, after a long friendship with the company’s owner, Russell MacKay. He said he believes his dad worked on machinery at the shop.

Cody said he received a call from an RCMP officer one week ago, explaining that his dad had died.

“It’s just been such a strange blur,” he said. “All the cliches that people say when someone passes — I always just rolled my eyes at them, but now, I really believe them.

“Even though it sounds corny — it is very shocking. You don’t know if it’s real. You just feel kind of trapped in time.”

The last time he saw his father, Daryn was dropping off some food.

“He would always bring over food, at least one a month. He’d call me up and say, ‘Hey I have smoked cheese or ribs or something.’”

Not knowing what happened to his father has been frustrating at times, according to Cody, but he says he knows his dad took safety seriously.

“He was someone who always payed a lot of attention to safety standards, so that’s really what makes me feel a bit more confident that it was just such a fluke. It couldn’t have happened any other way,” he said.

“He’s a very careful person.”

View photos of Daryn Bondarchuk in the gallery below:

The day after his father’s death, Cody took to Twitter, sharing his heartwrenching thoughts and experiences: the sheer physical exhaustion of mourning, the frustration of trying to get practical matters in order and the unexpected little things that prompt a fresh wave of grief.

READ MORE: Building up resilience to grief helps prepare for life’s losses, says author

As of Thursday morning, the essay stretched across 37 tweets, whose text is listed below.

Things They Don’t Tell You When Your Parent Dies Suddenly, a Thread:

1. A lot of the first few days is just a lot of driving. To different family members’ houses, to an airport, to the house you’re going to have to start cleaning out.

2. Grief and sadness is physically and mentally EXHAUSTING. I would give anything for just a few hours of not having to feel it to get a break and prepare for the next wave of grief.

3. You have to relive the moment you found out every time you phone someone else to tell them, even if it’s your parent’s landlord, insurance broker, etc.

4. I’m just so sad.

5. You don’t realize you’re hungry until it’s hours past the time you normally eat and you’re suddenly starving, but even then, you buy food and can’t finish it.

6. You see a photo of your dad from when he was your current age and he’s holding you as a baby and you realize how you really thought there was a lot more time to build new memories and have new adventures.

7. You alternate between feeling guilty that you’re just sitting around and feeling guilty that you’re doing things and not sitting around.

8. Your eyes are sore from crying but you still can’t stop. You want to sleep but can’t fall asleep.

9. You get some downtime to process things on your own but just spiral into memories and what-ifs and loneliness.

10. Nothing you had planned for the weekend happens or matters.

11. He doesn’t have Facebook because he’s your dad, so you start to worry that you won’t have any recent photos of him. But then you get access to his phone and computer and find photos you’ve never seen, where he looks so happy and alive.

Daryn Bondarchuk was one of the men killed in a workplace accident at Millennium Cryogenic Technologies, an industrial company in the Leduc Business Park on Nov. 15. (Supplied by family)

12. You then realize that he, and everyone else in the world, never plans for someone to root through their phone without them there.

13. Everyone in the family just wanders around like zombies from place to place and no one else minds. You constantly police your own behaviour and emotional displays for the first few hours and then you completely let go and don’t care about how anyone sees you.

14. You start to hear about everyone who was better off for knowing your dad. All the people he coached, worked with, helped out, and showed kindness to.

15. And then you realize that to you he was Dad, but he had other names: brother, uncle, son, partner, friend. And the community that is grieving gets a bit bigger.

16. You see your Christmas tree from the corner of your eye and remember that you’re only six weeks until Christmas and it’s going to be such a bad one.

17. Even in the saddest moments of looking through photos, you still can’t help but think about how much he looked like Mac DeMarco when he was younger, and it’s kind of weird.

Daryn Bondarchuk was one of the men killed in a workplace accident at Millennium Cryogenic Technologies, an industrial company in the Leduc Business Park on Nov. 15. (Supplied by family)

18. You hear from people you haven’t talked to in years, and almost feel bad that THEY are wishing YOU condolences because they also knew my dad and have their own right to feel grief too.

19. You scroll to your most recent non-death post from yesterday and are shocked at how far away it seems. Time moves so slowly.

20. You start looking into paperwork for death certificates and bank accounts and get immediately frustrated, put it to the side until you’re ready for the headache it will bring.

21. You realize that because he died at work, you also have to deal with WCB, which just feels like extra punishment.

22. Every cliche you hear about sudden deaths comes true. You always think you have more time. You question that last encounter, those calls you chose to miss, what you wanted to say that you never can now.

23. You stand at Arrivals in the airport with everyone waiting for a family member and when he gets in you feel a bit more unified as a family but there is still something missing that will never come back.

24. Even though it’s past 2 a.m., you’ll still be a while from being able to sleep, and it won’t be for more than a few hours.

25. You start to catch yourself unconsciously using past tense to refer to him, and it makes you sad that your brain understood so quickly that he isn’t coming back.

26. Trying to figure out the code to their safe is really, really frustrating.

27. You meet friends of friends of your parent, people you haven’t seen since you were a baby (it at all), and they show you so much love and kindness and tell you how much you look like them.

28. You spend an evening with your siblings and their partners and for the first time in two days you start talking about things other than your parent’s death. Video games, friends, current events, etc. You start to feel the massive hole in your heart stitch up just a little bit.

29. I don’t know how long this lasts for, but the last two days have felt like that episode of BoJack Horseman that’s completely underwater. It’s surreal.

30. You feel guilty taking food from your parent’s fridge home to eat even though you know that’s an irrational feeling because it needs to be cleaned out somehow and why throw it out?

31. It’s the first business day after, so you are able to start filing paperwork. Some staff are very patient and understanding that you don’t know which documents to ask for, but many are not.

32. You pick up his truck to drive back into the city, and you didn’t realize how viscerally the smell of his clothes and stuff in the truck would hit you.

33. Paperwork is exhausting. Bureaucracy is exhausting. I feel like I worked two eight-hour shifts today.

34. You spent the last five days constantly phoning different people at all hours so when you finally check up on your phone plan use, you see more than $60 in overage charges because you didn’t even think about how not having unlimited calls would matter this week.

35. You text Telus to change your plan to unlimited, accidentally tell the employee that your dad passed away because that’s how you’ve started every interaction with a company this week and it’s habit, and now you feel deeply embarrassed. The employee is very nice about it.

36. You finish the fruit you grabbed from his fridge. You throw the tupperware in the sink and make a mental note to wash it so you can return it to Dad. Then you remember. Then you cry.

37. You’re getting dressed in the morning to see him one last time before he is cremated, but you’re scared because you don’t know if you’ll be able to let him go.

Cody said he’s going to remember his dad for his belief in hard work.

“He always cared about the effort you put in, more than the output. He would always look at the comments in a report card more than the grade itself… That’s something that I thought about a lot in the last week. Again, it’s really corny but if you always just try your best — then results will come. Knowing that you gave it your all is something I think he wanted to pass down and that I want to live by now.”

–With files from Global News’ Sarah Kraus

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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Growing ‘ecological grief’ is the mental health cost of climate change


Monika Willner had only five minutes to pack her family’s pets and precious items, before fleeing the wildfire that raged in their backyard.

The fire still haunts her two months later.

« I suffer from bad dreams and nightmares, waking up at night, screaming, seeing the fire, » she said.

Though her family escaped safely, and their rental home was untouched by flame, the fire that swept through their uninsured property near Burns Lake, B.C., on Aug. 9, 2018 exacted a heavy price.

They lost a $25,000 car her son was restoring, beekeeping equipment, and her husband’s carpentry tools. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

« Honestly, the physical loss wasn’t as bad as the effects on your mental health, » Willner said.

« I still can’t go back there, » she said about the house where her husband still lives. « I moved out of the place. »

Monika Willner and her family lost thousands of dollars worth of property when wildfires swept through their backyard in Burns Lake, B.C. (Submitted by Monika Willner)

As Canadians cope with more catastrophic weather events, and the long-term effects of climate change gradually intensify, mental health experts say more Canadians will be afflicted by a psychological phenomenon known as « ecological grief. »

« It’s the grief that’s felt in relation to either experienced or anticipated ecological loss, whether it’s due to acute environmental issues or long, chronic, creeping changes, » said Ashlee Cunsolo, director of the Labrador Institute at Memorial University.

« We [need to] consider climate policy within the framework of ecological grief, and within the framework of mental health and all of these other losses that are often hidden and hard to account for. »

Understanding eco-grief

Consolo became acutely aware of ecological grief in 2008 while she was part of a team that interviewed 100 people in Ringolet, N.L., during a study of the effects of global warming in the Arctic.

Instead of a singular event like flood or drought, the Inuit have faced the realities of climate change slowly over time.

Researcher Ashlee Consolo studied the psychological effects of climate change in Labrador. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

As they explained how melting sea ice had hurt their ability to hunt, Consolo says everyone interviewed spoke of the impact the changing climate was having on their mental health, with increased anxiety, sadness, anger, grief and loss.

« One of the elders said, ‘We are people of the sea ice and if there’s no more sea ice, how do we be people of the sea ice?' » Consolo recalled.

« That’s such a profound existential question, and it’s a question resonating around the world as things shift. »

The emotional and psychic toll of ecological grief (also termed « solastagia » by philosopher Glenn Albrecht) is an expanding field of inquiry among both climate scientists and mental health professionals.

There is real grief for the loss not only of possessions, but the changing landscape that people are experiencing.– Katie Hayes

The research suggests climate-related ecological losses trigger grief experiences in multiple ways, including people grieving for lost landscapes, ecosystems, species, or places that carry personal or collective meaning.

« Ecological grief can include a vast spectrum, whether it’s specific things like eco-anxiety related to our environment, or PTSD after experiencing an extreme weather event, » said Katie Hayes, a PhD candidate at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

Distancing climate change

Hayes is studying mental health in High River, Alta., in the wake of the devastating flood in 2013 that claimed the lives of three people, forced the town’s evacuation, and caused billions of dollars in damage.

« The emotional impacts that [the flooding] still has on residents five years later demonstrates there is real grief for the loss, not only of possessions, but the changing landscape that people are experiencing, » she said.

Wildfires destroyed a $25,000 car Willner’s son was restoring and the family’s beekeeping equipment. (Submitted by Monika Willner)

In High River, Hayes found that many residents separate the flood from climate change, instead describing it as a freak weather event.

« There’s this real wanting to distance from that because they’ve experienced just such an intense hazard, » she said.

« They don’t want to know it can happen again.«

Hayes suggests there’s often an infusion of mental health resources to a community in the immediate aftermath of a weather disaster, but that long-term mental health care will be needed to address ongoing ecological grief.

« The triggers and timings for when you can experience eco-grief or loss or post-traumatic stress disorder, it doesn’t end after two years, » she said.

Willner has nightmares since fire ravaged her backyard last summer. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

After the wildfire in Burns Lake, B.C. this summer, Monika Willner says it didn’t occur to her to seek counselling and she’s still struggling with trauma.

« There’s always the thought in the back of your head, ‘What can happen next?' » she said. « Seeing lightning, or every little thing which was normal previously, right now it’s a danger and it scares the heck out of you. »

While Willner remains displaced from her home, she’s encouraged by her community banding together to prepare for the next forest fire catastrophe.

« We know it will get drier because of climate change. What do you do? You just prepare yourself and try to to be safe. »


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On top of grief and shame, families of victims frustrated with stigma of opioid use


For a time, Daryl Owen Sen had it all.

The Calgary man had a great job as market manager with Mac’s, the convenience store chain, and was loved by his colleagues. He owned two condos. His passport was inked with stamps from dozens of countries. And he had a big, loving family in the city.

« Daryl was one of the nicest guys in the world, » his brother-in-law and close friend Jeremy Campbell said.

« He was one of the smartest guys I ever met. His heart was open to everybody and everything. That’s why I guess we got along so well. »

But Sen also struggled with substance abuse. For many years, alcohol was his drug of choice.

Daryl Owen Sen was 39 when he died of an overdose last year. (Supplied)

« It started changing him a little bit, not right off the bat, » Sen’s younger sister Becky Campbell recalled.

The addiction became progressively worse, Campbell said, and « when alcohol wasn’t a strong enough high, that’s when drugs got introduced. »

Sen was in a treatment program in Calgary for alcohol addiction when someone introduced him to fentanyl, the synthetic painkiller and illicit drug at the heart of the opioid crisis.

Fentanyl is 100 times stronger than morphine. It can be smoked, injected, snorted or swallowed in pill form.

« Someone offered him some for free, » said his best friend, Marie Hermanson. « He was hooked right away. »

Eventually, she said, Sen was using carfentanil, too — an even more potent analogue of fentanyl that’s used to tranquilize elephants and rhinos.

Becky Campbell remembers how angry she felt when she found out her brother was using fentanyl.

« When he told me, I got mad at him, » she said. « I was like, ‘What are you doing, are you trying to kill yourself? It’s like you’re attempting suicide every time you take it.’ I guess he felt like, with everything else he’d done with his body, he maybe thought he was immune to it. »

Jeremy Campbell remembers talking to his brother-in-law again and again, suggesting he curb the habit.

« As things got worse and worse, we’d have that conversation again and I’d say, ‘Man, you need to stop all of it, because I don’t want to tell my children you’re dead.’ He’d say no, it’ll never happen. And we actually started to believe that as a family, because he’d pulled through some really crazy times. It seemed like he had nine lives. »

In 2017, 569 people in Alberta died of accidental fentanyl poisoning. That’s more than 80 per cent of all the accidental opioid poisonings in the province.

Sen was one of them. Late one Thursday afternoon in early March 2017, he was watching a basketball game at a Calgary rec centre when he collapsed on a bench. Less than 12 hours later, Sen was dead. He was 39 years old.

« He didn’t want to die. I know that. He did not want to die, » Becky Campbell said. « This was not a choice for him. It was bigger than he was. Unfortunately, he couldn’t stop. »

The fallout for Sen’s family isn’t just the fact they’ve lost a man they love dearly in traumatic, sudden circumstances. It’s the fact they now have to contend with all the judgment and misunderstanding surrounding opioid addiction.

Misconceptions, judgment

Becky Campbell doesn’t tell just anyone how her brother died.

« To be honest, I watch the crowd and I watch the audience, » she said. « There’s some times where, I don’t know why, I feel ashamed, I feel embarrassed, but not for myself, for him, and I don’t want to embarrass him. That’s what’s hard. I don’t want people to think bad of him. I don’t want the last outcome of Daryl to be that he was this addict, because there was so much more to him than that. »

Jeremy Campbell said his own perspectives on addiction have dramatically shifted.

« I used to think it was a certain group of people, » he said. « Knowing Daryl, I have a different outlook when I’m driving through the streets of Calgary. I see a guy on the street, on the corner. Maybe I had a different outlook on him before. »

What runs through Campbell’s mind now is, « That’s somebody’s uncle, that’s somebody’s dad, that’s somebody’s brother. He’s probably a good guy and he’s caught up in this addiction world. »

Daryl Sen’s father, Surhit, said his son was a generous, lovable and kind man who called him twice a day to see how he was doing. Surhit Sen doesn’t tell people what happened to Daryl.

« I keep it secret, » said Sen. « I didn’t even mention it to my friends, or anybody. Feeling shame. It’s a bad thing, people taking the drugs, you know? »

« I keep it to myself. I feel good this way. At least I didn’t tell anybody. I was so proud about him. »

Many of those who’ve lost loved ones say the judgment hurts almost as much as the grief.

Katherine Pederson and Matthew Faulds lost their daughter Angelina to fentanyl in 2017. (CBC)

« The stigma is so thick, » said Katherine Pederson, whose teenage daughter Angelina died of accidental fentanyl poisoning at a Calgary Stampede party in 2017. She was only 16 years old.

« The thing about this crisis is, it doesn’t discriminate. It will take out whoever. »

That’s why Pederson and her husband, Matthew Faulds, prefer to say « fentanyl poisoning » instead of « fentanyl overdose, » because the latter implies some sort of intent.

Angelina (Lina) Pederson was 16 when she died after taking fentanyl at a Calgary Stampede party. (Supplied)

Faulds doesn’t shy away from using the « F word » when he tells people how his daughter died.

« They give me this look, and I go, ‘Think a kid’s going to take a pill at a party? You remember ecstasy? It’s not ecstasy anymore. It’s whatever they cooked up — with fentanyl. Guarantee it. »

He doesn’t deny Angelina had a drug problem, but said she didn’t want to overdose.

« Did she mean to get high? Absolutely. But the days of innocent drug use are gone. You don’t get second chance. »

Teresa Wiebe’s son, Nick Leinweber, died of carfentanil poisoning in October 2017. Nick was 25.

For several years, he had struggled with a meth addiction, but Wiebe said he was not known to ever use opioids. She was shocked to find out how he’d died.

« When we got the [toxicology] report and I saw that it was carfentanil, it made it seem almost to me like murder. I know it’s not, I know whoever is concocting this stuff, putting it together, has no experience, is not a chemist, is not a pharmacist, is not a doctor. They don’t know what they’re doing, they’re trying to make money. That’s what they’re trying to do. They don’t know how deadly this is. »

‘Hierarachy of stigma’

It will be a year this month since Leinweber died, and for Wiebe, what makes the grief doubly challenging is what she calls « the hierarchy of stigma » around addiction.

« It’s OK for everyone to smoke weed, » she said, especially once cannabis becomes legal in Canada. Cocaine is seen as a drug for the wealthy, like doctors and lawyers. But once you get to meth, you’re « getting down into the wrong side of the tracks, » Wiebe said, and opioids like heroin or carfentanil are « probably the worst. »

« People didn’t want to know that [Nick] would be using heroin, that would be a step down from meth. It’s like a caste system for addiction. »

Yvonne Clark lost her son Connor to fentanyl poisoning in 2013, before most people had even heard of fentanyl. Connor was 21 years old, earning $100,000 a year as a power engineer with an oil and gas company, and drove a Porsche. He tried to get clean, then took a fentanyl tablet over Thanksgiving weekend, and never woke up.

Yvonne Clark’s son Connor died of fentanyl poisoning in 2013, when he was 21. (CBC)

For the past four years, Clark has been speaking to kids and parents in Calgary schools about the risks of popping pills at parties. She wants people to shed the notion it can’t happen to them. Dealing with the misconceptions was difficult in the early days following her son’s death, but it didn’t take long before she decided she had to act.

« I just woke one day and I realized that such an innocent, beautiful person can vanish. Just vanish in the blink of an eye, » she said. « Over a tiny little pill. I just figured the stigma was doing nothing. If you’re going to stay behind a door and not speak out, nothing’s going to be solved. »

With fentanyl deaths continuing to rise in just a few short years, she said, « Someone has to speak. »

Pederson also refuses to keep quiet. She thumbs her nose at shame.

Matthew Faulds shows tattoos that he got in memory of his daughter Lina, who died of fentanyl poisoning in 2017. (CBC)

« I want to talk about [Lina] all the time. I’m not ashamed of her addiction. Well, the addiction, I could kick its ass, but [Lina], no. There’s so many people and they’re hurting. They’re hurting and they’re in despair. I look at people and want to tell them, hug them: ‘People love you.' »

Wiebe worries about others. It’s the reason she wants people to hear her son’s story.

« I just panic about it, » she said. « I hear about it all the time. Friends who have kids who are starting to dabble and stuff like that. It’s like, ‘Oh man. Here, I want to give you a picture of my dead son to show your kid.’ Like, pictures with him with all the equipment on his face.

« The worst pictures are a week later, when we went to say goodbye, because by that time, his face is all blotchy and he just came out of a freezer, and he’s freezing cold when you put your lips on his forehead. Frozen, frozen, frozen. »


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