When Jaskirat Singh Sidhu ran a stop sign and crashed into a bus carrying a Canadian hockey team, he caused an accident that took 16 lives and left 13 more people seriously injured. A year later, the father of one of his victims reflects on the meaning of forgiveness.
Scott Thomas has told this story countless times.
How he was riding in the car with Cal Hobbs, another hockey dad, on the way to the Humboldt Broncos’ game against the Nipawin Hawks on 6 April 2018.
How Hobbs’s son Declan, the goalie for the Hawks, called his father just hours before the puck was set to drop.
How Declan, on speakerphone, said, “Don’t bother coming: the game’s cancelled. There’s been a bad bus accident,” before breaking down in tears.
How they drove to the crash site in silence, save for the blare of the ambulance sirens and the whir of helicopters overhead.
“I just got this impending feeling of doom,” Thomas told the BBC, in an interview almost a year after the accident.
Thomas’s son Evan was killed, along with 15 others, when a semi-trailer driven by Jaskirat Singh Sidhu crashed into the bus carrying the Broncos team and staff.
Thirteen others were injured, some permanently.
On Friday, Sidhu was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to 29 charges of dangerous driving, causing death and bodily harm.
He was not speeding, intoxicated or on his cellphone when he ran through a flashing stop sign at the intersection, colliding with the front half of the bus. He had been on the job one month.
The 29-year-old man grew up on a farm in India and moved to Canada in 2013, where he became a permanent resident, according to the CBC.
He could face deportation.
“I take full responsibility for what has happened,” he told the victims’ families when he pleaded guilty in January.
“It happened because of my lack of experience, and I am so, so, so, so sorry.”
During his sentencing hearing, family members described a range of feelings towards the man responsible for so many deaths.
“I despise you for taking my baby away from me,” Andrea Joseph told the court through anguished sobs. “You don’t deserve my forgiveness. You shouldn’t have been driving.”
Others offered forgiveness, including the wife of the team’s coach, who also perished.
“I want to tell you I forgive you,” Christina Haugan said. “I have been forgiven for things when I didn’t deserve it, so I will do the same.”
Despite these conflicting feelings, Thomas says the extended victims of the crash have formed their own kind of “family”, and they talk nearly every day on WhatsApp or online.
Until now, Thomas – who met Sidhu privately in January – has preferred to keep his own feelings to himself. He is concerned that if he reveals too much about what happened in their intense, brief encounter, it could persuade the judge one way or another and alienate members of the “family”.
Now that Sidhu’s sentence has been handed down, Thomas feels it is ok to open up about what he calls “the most amazing experience” of his life.
“My shirt was wet with his tears,” he says.
Although he is not religious, Thomas says he has always been spiritual. The violence of the crash and the randomness of its devastation have in some ways been a relief, answering questions he says he has long pondered about tragedies in the world.
“There’s no way God was responsible for this. There’s no way karma was kicking me in the ass for being a bad guy,” he says.
“Probably the deepest feeling I’ve had, since all of this started, is a feeling of resignation. I mean, what can you do? There’s nothing you can do about this: it just punches you in the face. I can scream and yell all I want but it’s not bringing him back.”
But when it comes to the subject of forgiveness, Thomas needs to pause.
“There’s not a goddamn thing I can do about this, so what else am I supposed to do?” he says.
“I feel horribly for Mr Sidhu, I really do. I feel horribly for everyone involved in this. So have I forgiven him? Yeah, what other option do I have? I don’t think I have another option in order to maintain my own sanity.”
The Humboldt tragedy hit close to home for many in Canada, a country where hockey is more of an identity than a pastime.
To this day, Thomas still gets letters and poems from Canadians who sympathise with his loss.
He says having so much support has been wonderful, but grieving in public is not always easy. It is almost impossible to avoid images of the crash, or to find a quiet moment amidst the frequent media requests.
“I find a lot of emptiness in my life right now. Evan’s the first thing I think about when I get up in the morning. He’s the last thing I think about at night when I go to bed,” he says.
“It’s usually the first word on my mind when I find myself driving anywhere. It’s confusing – we’re trying to find a way to celebrate his life, but it’s hard to not get hooked up on how he died, and the last few moments of his life.”
Evan began skating almost as soon as he could walk, says Thomas, who played junior hockey himself when he was in his teens, retiring from the sport in 1993.
As a child, Evan would watch his father play pickup games with friends, and practised his shooting in the basement.
By the time he was a young teen, Thomas says he knew his son had the talent to make it to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, a semi-professional hockey league.
He was never the best athlete in their hometown of Saskatoon, Thomas says fondly, but he was one of the best.
“It was pretty clear to us that Evan had an opportunity to excel in athletics, and in school too. He was just the kind of kid whom things came naturally to,” he says.
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Before Evan graduated high school, he won the school’s science award for achieving top marks.
He wanted to go to university, and had talked about becoming an astronaut or an orthopaedic surgeon. Thomas used to catch his son watching the popular medical drama Grey’s Anatomy with his mother.
Thomas didn’t see the appeal of the TV show, which is heavy on romance and melodramatics,
“I used to bug him: ‘Why the hell are you watching that?'” he recalls.
“Dad, I’m just watching it for the surgery,'” Evan explained.
‘He’s a broken man’
One thing that has kept Thomas and his wife going is their campaign for reforms in the trucking industry. The owner of the trucking company that employed Sidhu is facing several charges related to non-compliance with safety regulations.
Along with other parents of victims, the couple has drafted a petition calling on the federal government to better regulate commercial trucking. Petition E-2005 has garnered almost 5,000 signatures and they hope to introduce it to parliament.
Thomas says ultimately, he blames the trucking company and relaxed government regulations for his son’s death, more than he blames Sidhu himself.
“Have I forgiven him? Yeah, I would say I have. He’s a broken man, he did not intend this outcome, he was taken advantage of by the system that put him there.”
After their meeting, Thomas left his mobile phone number with one of Sidhu’s family members, should he ever need someone to talk to.
“I wouldn’t give you my cellphone number if I didn’t want you to use it,” he told him.
Humboldt Broncos crash: ‘I feel horribly for my son’s killer’