Would-be Canadian's celebratory trip turns tragic after Alberta crash

CALGARY AND EDMONTON — The Globe and Mail

(Cst.D.Gulak,C.E.T./RCMP/Cst.D.Gulak,C.E.T./RCMP)

It’s a quirk of immigration law, but it was a milestone in Josephine Tamondong’s Canadian dream – the Edmonton hotel worker would take a brief trip outside the country, turn around and re-enter under her new status as a permanent resident.

It was an occasion. She and four friends, all Filipinos living in Edmonton as temporary foreign workers, piled into a small rented SUV Sunday night for a trip to the U.S. border, about 600 kilometres south. Driver Anthony Castillon’s friends urged him not to risk the trip in snowy weather, but they all wanted to join Ms. Tamondong. The journey was one they each hoped to take one day.

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“It was a celebratory trip,” said Julie Kallal, vice-president with the Council of Edmonton Filipino Associations. “It was like a big rainbow with a pot of gold at the end. Imagine it as their families’ futures.”

Just before midnight, however, the hopes of Ms. Tamondong’s four friends were ended when their vehicle was struck head-on by another SUV, a Range Rover whose 29-year-old driver police allege was impaired by alcohol but refused a breathalyzer test. The SUV had been travelling north in the southbound lanes of the divided highway, police say. Both vehicles were crushed.

Mr. Castillon, 35, and passengers Joey Mangonon, 35, and Josefina Velarde, 52, died in the crash. All were co-workers of Ms. Tamondong, 28, at the Coast Edmonton Plaza hotel. A fourth person – a 39-year-old woman who worked at a local cleaning agency – also died, but The Globe and Mail is declining to identify her because her family in the Philippines hasn’t yet been notified.

Ms. Tamondong was left with broken legs and other injuries, friends say, but doesn’t remember much about the crash. She’s in stable condition, recovering in an Edmonton hospital. The driver of the Range Rover was treated for minor injuries.

On the heels of an Ontario crash last month that killed 10 migrant workers, and another four years ago in Alberta that killed four Filipino workers, Sunday’s collision left Edmonton co-workers and friend stunned – and families in the Philippines grieving.

“When one dies, it’s a tragedy. But when four die at one time, it is horrific,” said Esmeralda Agbulos, the Philippine honorary consul in Edmonton.

The four dead had come to Canada from their native Philippines under the temporary foreign worker program. No country sends more such workers to Alberta or Canada than the Philippines. Last year, the province had roughly 58,000 of Canada’s 191,000 temporary foreign workers.

“They want to come and work hard here and become law-abiding citizens,” said Jun Angeles, past president of the Council of Edmonton Filipino Associations. “They want to prove to themselves that they are worthy to become permanent residents here.”

All of the people killed in the crash were sending money back home to their families, friends said. Mr. Mangonon was a father of four who hoped to bring his wife and children to Canada, while Ms. Agbulos said two of the other crash victims each had one child.

“The sad part is those people who are depending on them in the Philippines for their support, of course they’ll be devastated by this tragic incident,” Mr. Angeles said.

Mr. Castillon had been a beloved member of the Word International Ministries in Edmonton for two years. He was sending money back to the Philippines for his nieces’ and nephews’ education.

“He is like our family,” said Malou Gelacio, whose husband is the pastor at the church. “My 11-year-old, he cannot accept this. He said, ‘He will come back, Mommy. He will come back.’ He cannot understand why we didn’t bring him to the hospital.”

Mr. Castillon never wanted to disappoint anyone – including Ms. Tamondong. “Everybody in the house was trying to stop him because of the weather,” Ms. Gelacio said. “Anthony cannot say no to anyone.… He said, ‘Okay, let’s go.’”

The border trips are a reality of Canada’s immigration system. Typically, the quickest way to lock in one’s new status is to do what Edmonton immigration lawyer Wendy Danson calls a “flagpole trip” – cross the border, get turned away by American border guards and re-enter Canada under new documents.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada should instead just quickly process the applications locally, Ms. Danson said. “It annoys me, especially in the winter. That’s exactly what’s happening – you’re risking people driving six hours down to [the border]” said Ms. Danson, a partner at McCuaig Desrochers LLP.

Funeral plans are being finalized, with remains set to be returned to the Philippines. A trust fund is also being opened for Ms. Tamondong and the families of the four dead.

Tyler James Stevens, 29, of Cochrane, Alta., faces 14 charges, including four counts of impaired driving causing death.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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