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'Trapped': Edmonton teens recall employer's abuse at remote worksite

An Edmonton business owner has been convicted of assaulting two teenage boys who worked for him on a remote construction site in Valleyview, Alta.

Kamaljit Bhalla was convicted of assault but boys say they suffer depression, flashbacks a year after abuse

Kamaljit Bhalla was convicted of assaulting two teen workers and uttering threats, and was sentenced to house arrest. (Facebook)

The two Edmonton teenage boys hugged after learning the employer charged with assaulting them nearly a year ago on a remote construction site was pleading guilty.

Kamaljit Bhalla is now under house arrest for convictions of assault and uttering threats in a plea deal reached on Feb. 8. In exchange, the Crown dropped a string of sexual-related charges plus a charge of assault with a motor vehicle.

Outside the courthouse in Valleyview, 350 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, the teens said facing their former employer was scary but worth it.

"He got what he deserved and I'm happy with the outcome," said the older boy as his friend nodded in agreement.

According to the agreed statement of facts, their ordeal began on March 18 last year.

Bhalla picked up the teens, then 15 and 17, and drove them to the worksite in Valleyview behind a motel off the main highway. Overnight accommodations were arranged by Bhalla at a nearby private home.

"On these three days at work Mr. Balla swore at, pushed and slapped [the teens]," Crown prosecutor Aisling Ryan told the Valleyview courtroom. "Due to the isolation of the worksite, the complainants did not believe that they could safely leave. During this period Mr. Bhalla threatened the safety of both [boys]."

Two Edmonton teens working in Valleyview, Alta. describe how they were assaulted by their employer. 1:42

The teens, whose names are protected under a publication ban, shook at the front of the courtroom as they read victim impact statements describing their anxiety, depression, anger and sadness.

They said they're afraid of working again and everyday interactions.

"I'm always afraid of people," the older boy, who won't graduate from high school this year because he rarely leaves his bedroom, told court.

"I have a lot of self-guilt too because I got [my friend] to work with me and he had to go through all that with me," he said. "I feel like [Bhalla] will come and hurt me or my family."

The younger teen said he blamed himself.

"This has caused me to believe that the assault that has happened to me is my fault," he said, exhaling heavily, his baby face framed by a downy moustache and goatee.

This has caused me to believe that the assault that has happened to me is my fault.- 16-year-old worker

Sitting steps away, dressed in a black blazer, Bhalla's facial expression gave no indication of what he might be feeling.

His wife sat alone in the gallery, as a family friend in the lobby next door cradled their seven-month-old daughter.

A permanent resident from India, Bhalla, who owns J & K Heating Ltd., is not fluent in English although he understood the proceedings, defence lawyer Nicole Stewart assured the court.

"But he did want me to say on his behalf that he is sorry to both of the boys," Stewart said, turning toward the back of the room as the youngest boy stared straight ahead and his friend peered at the ground.

In an interview last week with CBC News, the boys recalled their excitement when they first learned of the job opportunity through a family friend who knew Bhalla.

They had to convince their mothers, who were reluctant to let them leave Edmonton.

On the day of their departure, the oldest boy's mother said she felt better when she saw two other workers in Bhalla's red truck.

She recalled Bhalla's last words as she kissed the boys goodbye and offered them safety boots on the way out the door: "He said, 'Oh that's fine we have everything, don't worry about it. Your kids are like my kids.' "

Teens slapped, shoved

The job site was a two-storey building at the back of a hotel stretching out into a snowy, empty field in Valleyview.

It was on their first day of construction work that the teens said in an interview Bhalla began swearing and insulting them in Punjabi. By the next morning it had escalated.

They said Bhalla slapped, shoved and pulled the beard of the older boy after finding out he got locked outside.

The boys described being hit, punched, pushed to the ground, insulted and mocked over the next three days. They weren't given safety boots or gloves, they said.
"I'm always afraid of people," said the older boy, who rarely leaves his bedroom. (CBC/Trevor Wilson)

They also accuse Bhalla of hitting the younger boy's leg with his truck, knocking him to the ground — a charge that was dropped in the plea deal.

"I had to lift him up," said his friend. "He was in a lot a lot of pain and everyone was just laughing."

The teens said they blamed themselves and didn't want to call their parents. Instead, they searched for bus information but were unable to find a quick escape route out of Valleyview.

"There was no way to get home," said the older teen, who recalled feeling "trapped."

Their parents wouldn't find out what happened until days later. The mother of the older teen, who is now 18, said she realized something was wrong after her son got upset when she called Bhalla for their paycheques.

She remembered the boys crying as she coaxed the story out of them. That was before assessing the bruising on her son's back and the black and purple bruises that covered the leg of the youngest teen, leaving him on crutches for several weeks, they say.

'At your mercy'

But the mother said she's most concerned about the inner wounds that transformed her son from a happy, active high school kid to the boy cloistered in his bedroom hiding from the world — no longer interested in ice hockey, the gym, fashion or girls.  

"They're not like the same kids who laughed all the time," she said. "They have dreams. They never talk about their dreams anymore."

In the Valleyview courtroom, provincial court Judge Jasmine Sihra agreed to the lawyers' joint call for a sentence of 15 months of house arrest, with conditions including counselling and a ban on hiring anyone under the age of 18.

She acknowledged Bhalla benefited society by employing others but said the ages of the victims, plus their relationship to Bhalla, "intensifies the power imbalance."

Bhalla's impact on the boys —  which still lingers — was demonstrated by their victim impact statements and their demeanour as they read them, said Sihra.

She also noted the job site was in a remote location that prevented the boys from seeking help or leaving.

"So they were at your mercy," Sihra told Bhalla.

Dodged 'immigration bullet'

Had the conviction come a few months earlier, it would have put Bhalla's permanent residency in jeopardy, said Calgary immigration lawyer Raj Sharma. According to immigration legislation, a person can be inadmissible to Canada if their conviction results in six months or more in jail.

But last October, the Supreme Court ruled that conditional sentences don't count as time served in jail for the purposes of seeking a deportation order.

"He dodged the immigration bullet," said Sharma of Bhalla. "A smart defence lawyer paired up with a smart immigration lawyer will always try to craft a sentencing arrangement or a plea arrangement that will either preserve an appeal or in this case not even result in removal proceedings."

Mark Cherrington with legal aid, who advocated on behalf of the teens, praised their "resilience and bravery."

But he said their experience is reflective of the exploitation of working youth that he sees happening on a regular basis.

"I think it's a lesson to all Canadians that we need to be wary of these situations and make sure that our children are safe and that they're well-educated," he said.
Youth advocate Mark Cherrington said youth need to be educated about their rights at work. (CBC/Trevor Wilson)

Cherrington commended the province, Crown and police for the level of support provided to the teens. He said he hopes that the Workers' Compensation Board, which rejected the boys' claims, will reconsider, saying they're still unemployable because of work-related injuries.

Workers' Compensation Board spokesperson Ben Dille said the board does not comment on specific cases. In general, said Dille, a successful claim requires "a clear diagnosis from a medical professional" of a "physical or psychological condition to treat." Workers with new evidence can reopen a claim at any time, he added.

According the provincial labour ministry, in the past three years there were two complaints against Bhalla's company related to wages, which have since been resolved.

The teens expressed hope that other youths in abusive work situations will feel empowered to speak up after hearing their story, especially knowing it led to consequences for Bhalla, who won't be able to hire young people again.

"I feel good about that," said the 18-year-old. "It shouldn't happen to anyone."

Contact Andrea with story ideas at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Andrea Huncar

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Andrea Huncar is an award-winning journalist based in Edmonton. She has also reported from Saskatchewan, Toronto and East Africa.