New Brunswick

Mother of 2 children who died in crash pushes for change in car seat rules

Eran Pelletier has a hard time remembering things since a major car crash five years ago. But there's one thing she won't forget — the sound of her son taking his last breath.

2 of Eran Pelletier's children, Hailie and Trent, along with her sister-in-law Christine died in 2013 crash

Eran Pelletier's son Owen, left, holds a photo of his younger sister Hailie, who died in a 2013 car crash. Next to him is his sister Elizabeth and brother Oliver, holding a photo of Trent, who also died in the crash. (Photo: Facebook)

Eran Pelletier has a hard time remembering things since a major car crash five years ago. But there's one thing she won't forget — the sound of her son taking his last breath.

It didn't sink in until she returned home from Alberta to Grand Falls, N.B., almost three weeks later. There, she had to bury two of her children and her sister-in-law at the same time.

"It was the hardest moment of my life," said the 30-year-old.  

"My kids aren't coming back. What am I going to do? How am I going to move forward from this?"

Her children Hailie and Trent Michaud and sister-in-law Christine Michaud died in a car crash on Highway 44 on their way from Slave Lake to Edmonton on March 20, 2013, the day after Pelletier's birthday.

Pelletier and her eldest son, Owen, were the only survivors of the crash.

The people she loved most

Hailie was four days shy of her fifth birthday and Trent was 17 months old. Today, they would be 10 and six.

"I think about them everyday, it's not something that goes away," said Pelletier, a Grand Falls native who now lives in Fredericton.

"These were my children, they were living, breathing people that I loved."

Pelletier had moved to Slave Lake for a better life for her and her family and to find work. 

The crash happened just outside the town of Westlock, about 90 kilometres north of Edmonton.

They were heading to the capital city so Pelletier could get a new bank card and Hailie could get a glimpse inside the "big" West Edmonton Mall.

My sister-in-law was like, 'Hold on I'm going to take the ditch.' Those were her last words.- Eran   Pelletier , crash victim

That day, there was a snowstorm but the two women felt the roads safe enough to make the trip. 

But they took it slow.

Pelletier said their car was hit head-on by the driver of a white Dodge Ram, who was speeding and trying to pass the transport truck and pickup truck in front of him.

"My sister-in-law was like, 'Hold on, I'm going to take the ditch,'" Pelletier said. "Those were her last words."

Pelletier said she knew immediately that Christine was dead, the way her hand fell from the steering wheel. At the same time, she could hear Owen screaming.

"It was like bloody-murder screaming," she said.

How they died

The car crash happened March 20, 2013, when they family was on its way to Edmonton from Slave Lake. (Photo: Submitted)

At the time of the crash, Hailie was sitting in a no-back booster seat behind Christine, the driver. Trent was in the middle seat in a forward-facing five-point harness seat, and Owen was sitting behind the passenger's seat in a no-back booster seat.

Trent died from internal spinal decapitation. Pelletier said his spine was severed because he was sitting in a forward-facing car seat. Although he was the correct weight for the seat, she argues that children's bone structures only start to solidify after the age of two. 

Hailie suffered multiple injuries to her internal organs as she slid under the driver's seat. Pelletier believes her daughter would have stood a better chance in a five-point harness car seat.

Although Owen survived, he suffered a broken arm, collapsed lungs and a ruptured spleen. He, too, would have fared better in a five-point car seat, Pelletier said.

Fighting for change

Today, Pelletier struggles with post-traumatic disorder and mental illness, but she continues to move forward and honour the memory of her family.

While studying for a university degree, the mother of five is fighting for change in regulations governing car seats.

She said there should be rules that require children to stay in rear-facing car seats until they are at least two years old and 22 pounds.

In New Brunswick, the Department of Public Safety website says children can switch from rear-facing to forward-facing car seats at only one year old and a weight of 22 pounds.

Alexandra Davis, a spokesperson for the Justice and Public Safety Department, said provincial laws have to comply with federal standards, "which say that any child weighing less than 10 kilograms (22 pounds) must be secured in a rear-facing restraint system."

She said in an email that Transport Canada changed its standards, the changes would apply in New Brunswick. 

Pierre Manoni, a spokesperson for Transport Canada, said something slightly different. He said the department does recommend that children be kept in rear-racing restraint systems for as long as possible, but the rules about maximum weight and age are up to the provinces. 

Eran Pelletier and her three children Owen, Elizabeth and Oliver. (Photo: Submitted)

Pelletier has created the Justice for Hailie, Trent and Christine Foundation to promote car-seat safety across New Brunswick and the rest of Canada. She also hopes to obtain a law degree and help others dealing with similar tragedies.

"I know I have to work one province at a time, so if I can get New Brunswick on board this change I'm pretty sure it could go nationwide."

Part of her campaign includes plans to show Transportation Minister Bill Fraser and MLAs exactly what happened to her family through gruesome photos of the crash. 

A message of hope

Owen and Oliver visit the graves of the three crash victims in Grand Falls. (Photo: Facebook)

"They need to see what I went through and see what my children went through," Pelletier said.

"They knew we buried three people at the same time but seeing those photos made people realize, 'Oh my goodness this is serious … this is why she's the way she is.'"

The New Maryland Fire Department will be hosting a car seat clinic between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday, where car-seat technicians will help people install the seats properly. On Saturday night, a fundraiser to kick off the foundation will take place at Dooly's Pub on Prospect Street at 7 p.m.

CBC News has asked the province for an interview about car seat legislation and whether change is possible.

"I'm going to push until I'm blue in the face," Pelletier said. "It's why I survived."

With files from Information Morning Fredericton