Christie Blatchford: Humboldt sentencing judge did as good as possible with a case full of despair
Sentencing is as much art as science or math, driven by the very particular facts of each case and only roughly guided by what has gone before in other courtrooms.
Saskatchewan Provincial Court Judge Inez Cardinal got the mix if not right, then close, which is as good as it gets for human beings.
Friday in Melfort, she sentenced Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, who almost a year ago barrelled his big semi-tractor through a stop sign and was T-boned by the Humboldt Broncos hockey team bus, to eight years in prison.
The rest is horrific history: Sixteen people, the young players so full of promise and the adults by all accounts good people with their own rich lives, were killed; 13 others were injured, some catastrophically; Sidhu, an immigrant from India who came to Canada in 2013 with his own promise and undoubtedly with his own dreams, immediately faced up with grace and grit to what he had done and pleaded guilty to all charges.
On every imaginable level, it is a story of despair.
Day turned to night for the lost, the wounded, the survivors and all those who live in that wonderful small town in the emptiness of the golden Prairie.
In towns like Humboldt, population about 6,000, six degrees of separation — the theory which holds that the chains of human acquaintance are such that we are all just six introductions away from any other person on the planet — doesn’t apply.
Everyone knows just about everyone. Just about everyone knew those kids or that coach or the young man on the radio or the girl trainer or the bus driver or the billet parents, and that’s on top of the way a Canadian town holds close the players of its beloved junior team.
(I grew up in a hockey town too, in north-western Quebec, and it was then more than three times the size of Humboldt, and I knew damned near every face, and certainly every hockey player’s.)
The judge said that the fact that Sidhu’s mistake directly cost 16 lives and life-altering injuries to 13 others and that he pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity were, respectively, the most aggravating and mitigating factors in the case. It’s the old bad news/good news line: He caused all that death and destruction; he took responsibility for it from virtually from the moment it happened.
As Judge Cardinal said, “After the collision, he (Sidhu) climbed up and out of the side of the overturned semi and heard the horrible sound of children crying, which continues to haunt him. Gradually he realized that he had gone through the intersection and caused the collision.”
He co-operated with police. He was released on conditions after his arrest, and complied with them fully. He expressed in open court his profound and deep remorse. He addressed the families directly, and apologized.
I know how rare that is in court, and how much rarer it is that it is genuine. It is also rare in the world writ large, as a reader of mine, Alan Coates, wrote me after Sidhu pleaded guilty.
“Tell me the last time you heard this stark acceptance of responsibility from anyone in this nation?”
The families of the dead and injured were equally magnificent. Some publicly forgave Sidhu. Some are angry. Others said they can never manage forgiveness.
The summer before the accident, Sidhu took a short training course and got a commercial truck driver licence. In mid-March last year, he began driving for a small company in Calgary. He drove with another driver for the first two weeks, then was on his own.
Clearly, he had not enough time or experience under his belt to be driving in unfamiliar territory on his own.
He’d not been to the area before. He got lost and stuck. Someone helped. About 10 minutes before the intersection, he noticed the wind was getting under a tarp covering his load and it was flapping; he pulled over, fixed it and started on his way again.
But now he was distracted. Now he was focused on the tarps and his trailers. He spent more time looking in his two side mirrors, checking on the trailers behind him, than he did looking forward; there’s probably not a driver among us who has not done something like this. Sidhu saw the signs warning of the coming stop, but they didn’t register.
Old court reporters like me often, during a sentencing hearing, look at one another and mouth the words to an old Cher song, If I Could Turn Back Time. It’s such a common refrain among those who are convicted of criminal behaviour that we have grown accustomed to mocking it.
Not this time.
The judge, those ruined people, Sidhu: They all got it if not quite right, then as close as any of us ever gets.
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