Determining 'appropriate' sentence for semi driver in Humboldt Broncos crash is an impossible task for courts

The man facing 29 charges stemming from the Humboldt Broncos bus crash pleaded guilty but his sentence won't be known until Friday. 

Jaskirat Singh Sidhu pleaded guilty to 29 charges, in crash that killed 16 and injured 13

Jaskirat Singh Sidhu has pleaded guilty to 16 counts of dangerous driving causing death and 13 counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm. (The Canadian Press)

A version of this analysis piece was originally published on Jan. 9, 2019. 

The man facing 29 charges stemming from the Humboldt Broncos bus crash pleaded guilty in January, but his sentence won't be known until Friday. 

What sentence should he receive?

Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, who was working for a Calgary-based trucking company at the time, pleaded guilty to 16 counts of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death and 13 counts of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing bodily harm.

According to an agreed statement of facts, Sidhu was solely responsible for the crash.

During a sentencing hearing earlier this year, Crown prosecutor Thomas Healey asked for a 10-year sentence for Sidhu with a further 10-year driving prohibition afterwards. Defence lawyer Mark Brayford did not offer a concrete number of years he believed Sidhu should serve, but noted some past dangerous driving causing death cases were the sentencing range ran from two to four years.

Judge Inez Cardinal has reserved her sentencing decision, which will ultimately determine his fate, until March 22 at 10 a.m.

System ill-equipped

Canadian courts are ill-equipped to respond to some tragedies. This is clearly one such case.

In criminal law, many cases deal with people who set out with a true criminal intention to cause harm to another. 

Other cases feature an accused who did not intend to cause harm, with charges based on an assessment of negligence or failure to take adequate care. Sidhu's 29 charges fall into this category.

Judge Inez Cardinal is faced the unenviable task of determining the "fit and appropriate" sentencing for Sidhu. 

No matter the sentence, two things are certain: nothing can be proportionate to the unimaginable loss experienced by the victims, their families and friends, and no punishment can be nearly as great as the guilt Sidhu will bear for the rest of his life.

It is common for sentencing in serious matters like this to be adjourned for the parties to formulate their positions and for victim impact statements to be obtained.

According to the Saskatchewan Justice website, victim impact statements provide "an opportunity for victims of crime to tell the court how a crime has affected them emotionally, physically and financially." They are not opportunities to criticize the offender, make assertions as to the facts of the offence, or make recommendations as to the severity of punishment.

Expect the court to seriously consider the number of lost and injured victims, but don't expect Cardinal to attempt to actually redress the victims for their unimaginable losses. For anyone to suggest she could provide such compensation would be downplaying the impact the event has had on so many people, especially the 29 immediate victims. 

Expect her to consider:

  • His guilty plea, which – given the likely volume of disclosure – would be considered early and significant.
  • His reported co-operation with the RCMP roadside.
  • His reported continued contact with law enforcement as the crash was being investigated.
  • His immigration status and the consequence of this event on this status, if any.
  • His prior driving history.
  • The type of vehicle he was operating.
  • His status and experience as a "professional driver."
  • If there was evidence of excessive speed or aggressive driving.
  • If there was evidence of intoxication by alcohol or drugs.
  • If there was evidence of intentional violations of Transport Canada regulations.

The Humboldt Broncos team and community has received support from around the world, something they say has helped them survive this tragedy. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Other cases to be considered

Cardinal will undoubtedly consider previous cases, even if no case is truly like this one. 

One potential example is the 2017 Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench case of Normand Lavoie, who was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to dangerous driving causing the deaths of three high school students in a May 2015 highway construction zone crash. Lavoie drove through a construction zone without slowing down and struck a stopped vehicle, killing the three teenage occupants and seriously injuring a flag person. 

In considering the case, Justice Mona Dovell found the accused was a professional driver and was capable of exercising greater skill while driving. Furthermore, the accident occurring in a construction zone was considered an aggravating factor. 

"We keep getting situations in which individuals are convicted of dangerous driving within those construction zones. This must stop," Dovell wrote in her decision. 

"Not only truck drivers driving huge heavy death machines but all drivers of all vehicles driving in construction zones must follow the law and reduce their speed and drive attentively."

Lavoie received a five-year driving prohibition.

Public sentiment won't be significant factor

Public opinion about the correct penalty is not a factor that a sentencing judge can typically consider. Even if it was, this case sparked a variety of responses from the public, including some signs of the compassionate society in which we live. 

In the immediate aftermath of the crash it was reported that more than 130,000 Canadians took to the internet to share their support for the then-anonymous driver of the semi, later identified as Sidhu.

Victims and family members have also contributed their own sentiments toward Sidhu, demonstrating awe-inspiring personal resilience and compassion for the accused.

The widow of beloved Humboldt Broncos coach Darcy Haugan gave a victim impact statement at the sentencing hearing in Melfort, Sask.

"I forgive you," said Christina Haugan in court. "The injustice and sadness is still there, but I've been forgiven for things I have done. If you ever want to know more about Darcy, come ask me."

Survivor Ryan Straschnitzki, who was permanently disabled, was quoted as saying, "His intention wasn't to go out and hurt us that day, but that mistake is obviously going to change his life and changed all our lives."

Whatever happens on Friday, Sidhu's life and the lives of the 29 victims, their families, and the greater community have already been irreversibly changed. Sidhu's sentence will not have any real impact on that fact.

Our system just isn't equipped to do that.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ


Brian Pfefferle is a Saskatoon criminal lawyer and sessional instructor at the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan.