Deporting Jaskirat Sidhu would be vengeful, not just

By me, originally published in the National Post:

Sometime this spring or summer, the Canada Border Services Agency will decide whether to refer Jaskirat Sidhu to an immigration hearing that would result in his automatic deportation, with no right of appeal. Sidhu drove the tractor trailer that collided in 2018 with a bus carrying the Humboldt junior hockey team, killing 16 and injuring 13.

Sidhu received an eight-year sentence for dangerous driving — far and away the longest prison term ever imposed in Canada for a dangerous driving conviction that didn’t involve alcohol, drugs or purposeful misbehaviour.

He and his wife would like to remain in Canada. Should we punish him further by sending him back to India?

Until the crash, Sidhu had a spotless record. Despite shockingly inadequate training, he was legally licensed to drive one of the most challenging rigs on Canadian highways, a tractor-trailer with an added pup trailer. He was not drunk, speeding or texting when the collision occurred. After only a week of instruction and two weeks of solo driving, he became distracted by a flapping tarp on his pup trailer and missed a stop sign at an intersection so poorly designed that it had already killed six people.

aFrom the moment of the crash, Sidhu was overwhelmed with remorse over his mistake. He co-operated with police at the scene. He directed his lawyers to plead guilty to all charges at the earliest opportunity, in order to spare family members the trauma of a trial.

Many actors played a role in this catastrophe: among them the company owner who put Sidhu behind the wheel of such a complex truck, highway officials who failed to fix the deadly intersection, and legislators who failed to tighten slack licensing requirements. But Sidhu insisted on shouldering all the blame.

Provincial Court Judge Inez Cardinal, a former prosecutor, failed to distinguish between the low level of Sidhu’s offence and the horrific scale of its consequences. After immersing herself in four days of gut-wrenching victim impact testimony, she rendered a decision based less on facts and law than on grief-porn.

By contrast, according to a brief Sidhu’s Calgary lawyer, Michael Greene, filed with CBSA, a Saskatchewan driver who had previously dodged charges of drunk driving and fleeing the scene of a crash, drove through a stop sign in 1997, killing a 39-year-old woman and injuring her young son before fleeing the scene without rendering assistance. He was not charged with leaving the scene, but received a traffic ticket for driving without due care and paid a small fine. That driver, Scott Moe, is now premier of Saskatchewan.

A higher court might well have reduced Cardinal’s shamefully harsh sentence, but Sidhu directed his lawyers not to appeal.

“Contrary to almost all of the many people I have acted for, (Sidhu’s) remorse and empathy for the victims was foremost, and his concern for his personal consequences was secondary,” wrote Mark Brayford, the defence lawyer at Sidhu’s sentencing hearing. “As a criminal barrister for 40 years, I can tell you that this type of selflessness is unusual. Throughout the proceedings, his instructions were to attempt to minimize the collateral grief to the families that necessarily flowed from the criminal proceedings.”

At Prince Albert Penitentiary, Sidhu’s case management team cited his exemplary behaviour and “significant level of remorse and victim empathy” in recommending his transfer to a minimum-security facility. The warden, fearful of upsetting family members, vetoed the move.

This may happen again. Even if cold facts persuade the front-line officer to recommend that Sidhu be allowed to stay in Canada, timorous bureaucrats with moistened fingers to the winds of public opinion may overrule him. Canada’s criminal justice system isn’t supposed to be an instrument of personal revenge, but too often in the age of victim impact statements, that’s how it operates.

It’s far from clear that Canadians want Sidhu deported. When I criticized Cardinal’s vengeful sentence in these pages in 2019, I received more than 300 emails supporting him. The handful who disagreed focused on Sidhu’s South Asian origins.

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Several relatives of the crash victims share my view. In a letter opposing his deportation, Scott and Laurie Thomas, parents of 18-year-old Evan Thomas, who died in the crash, wrote:

“Deportation of Mr. Sidhu back to India only serves to cause more suffering to him, his wife, and his family. We have exchanged several emails with Mr. Sidhu and his wife Tanvir, and 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.”

Christina Haugan, widow of Broncos’ head coach Darcy Haugan, who died in the accident, likewise wrote in opposition to his 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…. I believe in forgiveness and I believe in second chances. 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.”

These gracious pleas for forgiveness honour Canada’s commitment to moderation, fair-mindedness and the chance for redemption. So how has justice, in this case, turned into a runaway freight, barrelling down a track toward vengeance? Why must we seek the most vindictive common denominator in administering punishment?

Deporting Sidhu — an obviously decent, honourable man, whose actions were never malicious despite their terrible consequences — won’t make Canada a better country. Sidhu is better off in Canada, and Canada is a better country with him here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the process by which CBSA and the Immigration Division will decide whether to deport Jaskirit Sidhu.