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Had Jaskirat Singh Sidhu looked out his windshield fifteen seconds earlier, all would have been fine. But he didn’t have his eyes on the Saskatchewan prairie or the long road ahead. Instead, on one of his first solo trips as a truck driver, Sidhu was looking backward. He was warily checking his mirrors, monitoring the 900 bales of peat moss he’d loaded back there. He was worried about the tarps, which were flapping in the wind. His truck was travelling at least eighty-six kilometres per hour. He didn’t register the oversize stop sign, the flashing red light, or the signs warning of an intersection ahead.

It had been a long, stressful day. He’d picked up all those bales of peat and was now hauling two trailers weighing in at over 45,000 kilograms. He had some difficulty driving through these unfamiliar areas—he had gotten lost and had to pull over until he received help from a passerby. Now, not far from Nipawin and heading home, toward Calgary, Sidhu spent a few moments focusing on those tarps. He came to the intersection, and he didn’t stop.

Sixteen members of the Humboldt Broncos Junior A Hockey Club, many of them teenagers, were killed after Sidhu crashed into their bus on April 6, 2018. Thirteen others were seriously injured—some were paralyzed, others suffered brain injuries. News and photos of the scene—a bus sheared in half, metal and cargo splayed across the prairie snow—spread quickly. Communities were left waiting for updates on the victims, and people across the country set out hockey sticks on porches in support. A period of national mourning set in. Soon afterward, Canada’s courts began grappling with another aspect of the collision: How should we punish a person who makes a calamitous mistake?

On one level, the legal case against Sidhu was straightforward: he was charged with dangerous driving causing death and immediately pleaded guilty. There was no trial, and he offered no defence. Sidhu was sentenced to eight years in prison—an unprecedented length for a car accident, one he accepted without negotiation or complaint. But, on another level, this case goes beyond the usual parameters of crime and punishment. Sidhu is a permanent resident of Canada—not yet a full citizen. This means that, once his sentence is complete, immigration authorities will have the power to kick him out of the country he calls home. And, though Sidhu willingly agreed to his time in jail, deportation is a condition he is reluctant to accept.

In this country, permanent residents convicted of certain crimes are routinely deported. It’s a decision that, once made, is final. There is no jury, no tribunal, and not even access to an appeal. Some legal experts have dubbed this a form of double punishment that only noncitizens face, even a form of apartheid where the law is not equal for all. Citizens, critics argue, harm others all the time, and once justice is served, we allow them to reintegrate into society. Others say it’s only fair for those convicted of terrible crimes, like Sidhu, to be denied the privilege of living here.

Four years after the accident, Sidhu’s fate remains uncertain, and opinions—including those among the families of the victims—remain divided. Sidhu, after all, killed sixteen people. But he had not been speeding. He had not been drinking or texting or using drugs. He had no history of bad driving. What happened was an accident, and it was entirely Sidhu’s fault. The question remains: How much punishment is enough?

Two months prior to the crash, things were looking good for Sidhu: he and his fiancée, Tanvir Mann, flew from their home in Calgary to India, their birth country, to get married. It was a week full of celebrations: a henna ceremony, a ring ceremony, Punjabi dances, and a traditional marriage service at a Sikh temple.

The wedding had been a long time coming. The two met ten years earlier through a friend. They had completed degrees in India—he in commerce, she in nursing—before applying for visas to further their studies in Canada. Now Mann, adorned in jewellery and dressed in an intricately embroidered red lehenga, could finally call Sidhu her husband. “I had been dreaming of our wedding for so long,” Mann remembers. “Everybody was so happy.”

The newlyweds returned to Calgary bursting with plans for the future. Sidhu was twenty-nine, and the couple talked about buying a house, starting a family, launching their careers. “We wanted to have a dream life in Canada,” Mann says. Leading up to the wedding, she had enrolled in a dental hygiene program in Toronto, and she was due to start classes that summer. To support her financially, Sidhu decided to take a job in trucking. It was a departure from his business administration studies, but the couple felt it was a worthwhile sacrifice—trucking paid well, and workers were in demand. Plus, it was only for now, they assured themselves. “Trucking was always temporary,” Mann tells me. The two had received financial help from their family in the past, but this time, they wanted to make a go of it together. “It was our time to work hard on our own,” Mann says. “That decision changed our life.”

Sidhu’s new job started right after they returned from India. He spent two weeks training with another driver, followed by a week on his own. Then came April 6. Mann will never forget the phone call she received from Sidhu that day. “He was crying; I was crying,” she recounted through tears in a televised interview after the crash. “He told me he made a big mistake.”

Sidhu’s punishment began in court. In July, he was charged with sixteen counts of dangerous driving causing death and thirteen counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm. Seeking to minimize any further turmoil for the victims’ families, Sidhu decided not to mount a defence. “He’s always very sensitive that he doesn’t want to do anything to do any further harm to the families,” Michael Greene, one of Sidhu’s lawyers, says. In January 2019, he pleaded guilty to all twenty-nine charges and awaited his fate from the judge.

At the sentencing hearing later that month, ninety victim impact statements were shared. Tear-filled accounts were read aloud: stories of children lost forever; of paralysis, of brain injuries, of seizures; of the painful road to recovery, learning to walk again, talk again, brush teeth again. Stories of dealing with the lifelong emotional trauma of losing so many friends in one day. Judge Inez Cardinal listened to all of them, describing the pain detailed as “staggering.”

“Just as their response to the suffering varies, so too does their response to Mr. Sidhu,” she added in her summary of the days’ events. “Some are and will remain angry. Some have, and others might eventually, forgive him for his actions. Some never will.”

According to a video describing the proceedings from the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Sidhu sat and listened, visibly emotional at times. When it was his turn to speak, he rose, took a long pause, and told the victims he was “so, so, so, so, so sorry” about the pain. “I can’t even imagine what you are going through, what you have been through. I have taken the most valuable things of your life,” he said. “I take full responsibility for what has happened.” His defence team made limited comments, noting only a few relevant previous cases, convictions that had resulted in sentences ranging from eighteen months to four and a half years.

For Judge Cardinal, returning with a sentence was no easy feat given that there are few examples of collisions with so many fatalities. There have been other deadly traffic accidents, of course. One, involving Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe, shared some striking similarities. Moe, too, had driven through a stop sign on a rural Saskatchewan highway, back in 1997. He, too, had collided with another vehicle, killing a thirty-eight-year-old mother. Moe was given a traffic ticket for failing to come to a complete stop and driving without due care and attention.

With Sidhu’s case, a precedent was to be set. “It is clear that denunciation and deterrence play a major role in sentencing offenders whose dangerous driving results in death or bodily harm,” Judge Cardinal wrote in her March 2019 decision. Her judgment came as a shock to many: Sidhu was given eight years in prison for each count of dangerous driving causing death and five years for each count of dangerous driving causing bodily harm. They would all be served concurrently. His sentence was twice as severe as any other punishment given to someone who hadn’t been drunk or deliberately driving recklessly, according to Michael Greene, Sidhu’s immigration lawyer.

Throughout the criminal case, Sidhu did not deny any responsibility, seek a plea deal, or mount any kind of defence despite knowing the risk of a long prison sentence. “It’s extraordinary,” Greene says. “It’s extremely unusual that he did not try to plea bargain.” Greene casts doubt on whether Sidhu was actually guilty of the offence he was charged with in the first place, noting that, in 2008, a Supreme Court of Canada decision found that dangerous driving requires more than a “momentary lack of attention” and that “it is the manner in which the motor vehicle was operated that is at issue, not the consequence of the driving.”

He’ll forever be somebody whose mistake caused the deaths of sixteen people, and I think that, for him, is going to be the worst punishment.

Humza Hussain is a criminal defence lawyer with Aly Amjad Law Group, in Toronto, who has been following Sidhu’s case. He was floored by the sentencing decision. As Hussain says, many lawyers would have looked at Sidhu’s facts and advised him to mount a defence. After all, Sidhu had no criminal record, and there was clear evidence of remorse. A trial, Hussain says, could very well have resulted in Sidhu walking away free. It was clear, he says, that Sidhu “wanted this chapter to be closed for the families more than he wanted his freedom.” (Sidhu declined all interview requests for this story.)

“He’s not going to be able to ever undo what happened,” Hussain says. “He’ll forever be somebody whose mistake caused the deaths of sixteen people, and I think that, for him, is going to be the worst punishment.”

Given his remorse, Sidhu ultimately did not receive the leeway Hussain thinks he should have. “The criminal justice system is too blunt an instrument to understand and deal with tragedies in life,” he says. “It ends up causing more pain.” And, as Sidhu has discovered, the prison sentence was only the beginning of that pain.

When he is eventually released, Sidhu will be subject to deportation under Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. This is a fate unique to noncitizens, many of whom have spent years building lives in Canada. Sidhu has been convicted of what immigration law defines as an act of “serious criminality,” and he now faces the prospect of being forced to leave the country in which he has lived, worked, and studied for nearly a decade. The day of his removal may be coming soon: Sidhu has been eligible for parole since November 2021, and a hearing is scheduled for this summer.

Today, if a permanent resident is either sentenced to a prison term of at least six months or convicted of a crime where the maximum sentence is ten years or more, their ability to remain in Canada is automatically at risk. Since 2017, more than 2,000 permanent residents have been issued deportation orders based on “serious criminality,” and the bar for deportation can be remarkably low.

A person can pass either of these thresholds for any number of crimes, whether major or petty, including impaired driving, melting a coin, joyriding, nudity, and dining and dashing. But, once the conviction is made, the bureaucratic machinery takes its course: a Canada Border Services Agency officer will ask the individual for submissions outlining why they should be able to stay in Canada. There is no open court or tribunal to hear the case.

Ultimately, a single CBSA officer, along with a supervisor, decides a person’s fate. According to the federal government’s manual on the subject, that officer is tasked with considering “all relevant factors” of a case, including the length of time the person has been in Canada, whether they have family ties to the country, how established they are, whether they had a prior criminal record, evidence of their remorse, and so on. However, as the manual explains, the officer’s discretion is limited. The context of the conviction is “beyond the reach” of the officer, according to the manual, and “it is not the function of the officer to engage in a humanitarian and compassionate analysis.” In other words, the primary factor is always the same: whether the threshold of “serious criminality” had been met. Following a CBSA decision, the case progresses to a brief hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board, in which, again, the only factor considered is whether the person has been convicted of a serious crime. After this, a deportation order follows. The person can then be removed from Canada at any time. There is no access to appeal.

Critics argue that deportations of this type disproportionately affect people of colour. The advocacy group Solidarity Across Borders calls them “a targeted assault on migrant communities” and links the practice to racial profiling. This was something Souheil Benslimane felt acutely as a young Arab teenager. At sixteen, Benslimane moved with their parents—a doctor and a pharmacist—from Morocco to Gatineau, Quebec. As Benslimane describes it, the family quickly faced racism and Islamophobia, and Benslimane started getting in trouble with the law. The first arrest was at a high school party where, along with friends, they were shooting a pellet gun—“[the kind] you buy at a Walmart,” Benslimane recalls. Later, they were arrested for possessing and selling drugs and for owning a gun.

It wasn’t long before Benslimane was charged and sentenced to prison. Only afterward did they learn that deportation was a possibility. The hearing came as a shock—a “kangaroo court,” as Benslimane describes it. “I was brought forward in front of the commissioner of [the Immigration and Refugee Board.] The hearing takes like five minutes. Not even. Two minutes.” In those two minutes, a new reality took hold. Benslimane, now thirty-two, faces a removal order that can be enforced at any moment. It is, they say, a state of “permanent limbo.”

Sidhu is now experiencing this limbo as well. Greene, his immigration lawyer, argues that Sidhu presents no risk to the public and no chance of reoffending. He will never drive a transport truck again, and his sentence also carries a ten-year prohibition on all driving. In addition, Sidhu has received a flood of support from Canadians who think he should be able to stay. These factors, Greene believes, are compelling enough to hold out some hope that Sidhu’s case might be different.

Scott and Laurie Thomas lost their son, eighteen-year-old Evan, in the crash. They do not believe Sidhu should be punished any further for his crime, and they opted to write a letter in support of his bid to stay in Canada, as did family members of two other victims, to be included in the more than 650-page package submitted by Sidhu’s lawyer to the CBSA. “Deportation of Mr. Sidhu back to India only serves to cause more suffering to him, his wife, and his family,” they wrote. “It is clear to us that Jaskirat is indeed a broken and suffering soul. There has been enough suffering for everyone involved in this tragedy. We do not need any more.”

When I call Scott Thomas, he tells me that he’s always believed “empathy is a very valuable thing” and that he doesn’t think Sidhu’s crime warrants deportation. “My understanding is that the whole deportation thing is meant for violent crimes. And Mr. Sidhu’s crime wasn’t violent in nature. . . . He didn’t set out to hurt anybody,” he says. “There was no malicious intent there.” As Thomas explains, he doesn’t think Sidhu should be deported solely because his sentence meets some “magic threshold.”

Christina Haugan, who lost her husband, Darcy Haugan, the Broncos’ head coach, also opposed Sidhu’s deportation. “I believe it would be extremely unfortunate to now not allow a man who made a mistake and owned up to it and accepted his consequences the opportunity to continue his life here in Canada. I spent every day of the trial watching a man cry and be utterly devastated by the results of a mistake he made,” she wrote in her submission letter. “A man who took the harshest sentence for a crime of this nature without appealing or defending himself in an attempt to ease even a small amount of pain for those he hurt is someone I believe deserves a second chance.”

But not all victims’ families feel the same way, and many have expressed not wanting to be reminded of their loss by the possibility of encountering Sidhu one day in the future. “If he were truly remorseful and he really cared about our family, I believe he would accept the deportation and allow us to pick up the pieces and move on with our lives,” Chris Joseph, who lost his son in the crash, told Hockey News. “But him trying to stay in country is putting himself ahead of the 29 families,” he said. “I can see why because Canada is a really nice place to live. But it is selfish.”

In March, Sidhu’s case was recommended for deportation by the CBSA. Mann, now his wife of four years, received the decision first, and she was the one to break the news to her husband. He phones her three times each day from the Bowden Institution, a prison in Alberta. It was a devastating call.

As Greene explains, Sidhu has few options left. He is now attempting to challenge the CBSA decision in federal court, though he’s entered a Catch-22: he can bring forward a challenge only if he collects evidence that the removal decision was unreasonable or lacked procedural fairness, but the reasoning behind the decision to recommend Sidhu for deportation can be accessed only by the court. If the challenge fails, there remains just one last-ditch option: to reapply for permanent residence based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Both these strategies face long odds.

According to Greene, mounting a case to stay in Canada has not been an easy choice for Sidhu. “He’s conflicted about it,” he says. As Greene explains, Sidhu is acutely aware that, every time his name is in the news, it can cause further pain to the families of victims, something he does not want.

Sidhu, Mann tells me, has always sought to minimize harm. His attempt to stay in Canada, she says, is now his way of trying to minimize the harm done to her. “The only reason he was requesting to stay was for me,” she says. “When I think about deportation, I feel like I am being kicked out of my home. . . . They’re not just deciding his future—they’re deciding my future as well.” Mann is now a citizen of Canada. Her brothers live here, as do her aunts and uncles. Her parents are moving to the country later this year to be closer to the family. Sidhu also has family in Canada, though his parents and brother still live in Punjab. “I don’t have anybody in India,” Mann says.

The couple, now both in their early thirties, still thinks about the future. They’d like to buy that house in Calgary. Mann would still like to be a dental hygienist. They both want a family. “If everything was normal, I’m sure I would be a mother by now,” she says. But all that is on hold. If her husband is deported, she will go with him. “How can I even think of living in Canada if he’s not here?” she asks. “I can’t have this dream alone.” Sidhu, she says, suffers from PTSD and has nightmares about the crash. She worries about his mental health. “I know how much he needs me,” she says. “I cannot imagine him being alone in India, struggling for his life and mental health.”

What makes cases like Sidhu’s so frustrating for advocates is that these tough-on-crime deportation policies are a relatively new phenomenon. For decades, permanent residents could appeal deportation orders to an independent tribunal that would consider not only the crime but, crucially, “all the circumstances of the case.” It was only in the 1990s that this safeguard started being chipped away. First the minister responsible for immigration was given discretion to deny an appeal if a person posed an extraordinary risk to the public, then appeals were denied to those who received sentences greater than two years. In 2013, Stephen Harper’s government passed the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act, restricting appeals to those sentenced to less than six months.

All of these changes have been argued on the basis of public safety. Speaking in Parliament, then immigration minister Jason Kenney described the right to appeal as a “loophole” that would result in “foreigner[s] . . . walking our streets, posing a risk to other Canadians.” All in all, he said in Parliament, immigrating to Canada is a “privilege,” and with the privilege comes the onus to not commit a serious crime.

Many legal experts have not been convinced. “To deport [a permanent resident] to their country of birth is sometimes a particularly harsh recourse and may have little to do with making Canada a safer country,” Peter Carver, a retired law professor who worked in immigration, tells me in an email. He’s not alone. “I don’t think it protects the public in any way, and I’m also not convinced this has ever been the case,” says David Moffette, an associate professor in the criminology department at the University of Ottawa. “It’s part of a tough-on-immigration, tough-on-crime type of discourse that is disconnected from the question of dangerousness.”

The idea that permanent residents face this extra layer of punitive measures is at the heart of opposition to the current rules. “Deportation is not supposed to be punishment,” Greene says. But, for many, that’s exactly what it’s become. Moffette, writing in the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons alongside co-author Benslimane, argues that the practice is akin to exile, “one of the oldest and harshest forms of punishment in history.”

In our interview, Moffette goes even further, arguing that Canada is engaging in a form of apartheid by setting out different rules for certain groups. “It’s particularly stark when you think about permanent residents who are in the country and who live here,” he says. These residents have jobs. They are integral parts of their communities. “They are no different from citizens, really, apart from some documentation,” Moffette says. Though their immigration status is called “permanent,” in reality, it can be a sort of long audition for citizenship, one with conditions and pitfalls that many may not even know about.

For Greene, the Harper government’s commitment to tougher legislation was not a shock. But the lack of initiative taken by Justin Trudeau’s government to reverse some of these changes has been an unpleasant surprise. “It’s been a tremendous disappointment that [the right of appeal] hasn’t been on Trudeau’s agenda,” he says. “He’s done nothing with the arbitrariness that was introduced into the immigration system.”

Change does not appear to be forthcoming. Aidan Strickland, press secretary for the minister of immigration, refugees, and citizenship, said by email that the Immigration and Refugee Board “provides fair and efficient justice,” noting that “it would be premature to speculate on any policy or legislative changes.” The current rules, he added, are “in place to ensure the health,
safety, and well-being of all Canadians.”

This issue has not escaped the attention of all lawmakers. Senator Ratna Omidvar, who is active on migration issues, noted in an emailed statement that she has made many requests to the minister responsible for immigration to address the issue. “Deportation for permanent residents who are convicted on grounds of ‘serious criminality’ is a kind of double indemnity, which does not apply to Canadian citizens even when the crime is the same,” she wrote. “As such it is inherently unjust.”

The rearview mirror of a vehicle shows the wing of a plane flying over a city at nighttime.

Now that Sidhu’s case has been recommended for deportation, both his and Mann’s futures appear bleak. “At some point, I had a little hope that maybe things would work out for us,” Mann tells me. But, now, she’s more confused and worried than ever. “I know by law he’s a criminal, but as a person he’s not,” she says. Mann still wants to believe in another chance for her husband, and she hopes Canadians will find a way to rally behind him—something some of the victims’ families have indeed done. “I know for a fact that Canada believes in second chances,” she says. “Canada believes in mercy.”

Back in January 2019, Scott Thomas met with Sidhu privately in Melfort, Saskatchewan, as the sentencing hearing was underway. He witnessed the guilt Sidhu feels first-hand. “It started out with just wanting to meet the man and find out more about why and what happened,” Thomas tells me. It turned into a moment of forgiveness. “The meeting that we had in Melfort was definitely life changing,” he says. “It just kind of really ripped my heart out and ripped his heart out too.”

For Thomas, this was about continuing part of Evan’s legacy. “We’ve always talked to our kids about forgiveness and fairness and trying to walk a mile in other people’s shoes,” he says. “It’s our opinion that Evan would have been very empathetic to the situation and certainly wouldn’t have wanted to see Mr. Sidhu’s life ruined.” Thomas is hopeful that, one day, when Sidhu is released, the two might sit on a stage together to share their stories and their ideas for making Canada a safer and better place. Deportation, he says, isn’t a fair outcome and won’t help stop this from happening again. “[Canadian citizens] become truck drivers and blow stop signs,” he adds. “They’re not going to get deported.”

Thomas says that, when they met, Sidhu got down on one knee and cried. The two hugged. “He’s a broken man, and he’s going to wear this for the rest of his life,” Thomas says. “It was a meeting of two broken men.” In Sidhu, Thomas saw a person for whom punishment was self-inflicted: prison time and deportation were additional layers that couldn’t come close to the guilt and regret he was already living with. Thomas believes that “Evan wouldn’t have thought [deportation] would have been a necessary conclusion to all this. . . . It just seems like piling on at this point.”

“In the end, the prison sentence and deportation will be the least of it,” Thomas says. “He’s going to be thinking about that day for the rest of his life.” 

Sharon J. Riley
Sharon J. Riley is an Alberta-based investigative journalist with The Narwhal. Her work has also appeared in Maisonneuve, Harper's, and Alberta Views.
Anson Chan
Anson Chan is an illustrator based in Markham, Ontario. His work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, Narratively, and Medium.