Mahan Singh remembers feeling terrified he would lose control on an icy highway and kill someone.
His new employer had sent the 26-year-old rookie driver out to navigate a semi-trailer through treacherous mountain passes. “There was no training,” says Mr. Singh, who had been in Canada as a visitor for just a few months when he got his first job here under a temporary work permit. “I was scared. I didn’t have any idea it would be like this.”
Mr. Singh, who comes from Amritsar, in northwestern India, had never experienced ice or snow. He’d never considered being a truck driver, either, but Canadian immigration consultants told him that getting experience in trucking could help him qualify for permanent residency. So, a year ago, he got a licence and found a company to work for in Surrey, B.C.
Mr. Singh says he had to give $10,000 in cash to GLT Transportation just to get hired, then put up with perilous working conditions for weeks on end. “I had two minor accidents in the first four months,” he says. “In my six-month driving period, I only was in Surrey eight to 10 days. Always, we sleep on the road.”
He has since found a better employer, but he is still appalled that a country like Canada allows reckless trucking companies to send nervous, unprepared newcomers like him out on the highway. “Everything is supposed to be by the rules in Canada,” he says, “but then, when I start work, I find out there are no rules.”
A Globe and Mail investigation has discovered that young foreign nationals like Mr. Singh are routinely steered into trucking by some immigration consultants, in collaboration with particular trucking firms. Both take cash payoffs from recruits in exchange for jobs – even though that practice is illegal.
That has spawned an entrenched, lucrative and dangerous immigration scheme, centred in Surrey, that is exploiting newcomers and putting lives at risk across the country.
In audio recordings obtained by The Globe, consultants told one international student a trucking job costs $35,000 to $55,000 – an astonishing sum for aspiring immigrants, who often borrow the money to pay the fee.
The novice drivers are often unable to decipher Canadian road signs or handle their trucks properly before being sent out on the roads. That inexperience has led to crashes and near misses, according to documented cases, as well as interviews with two dozen sources, including truck drivers, dispatchers, tow operators and industry representatives.
The dangerous scheme has been allowed to flourish partly because there is no systemic integration between provincial regulators for the trucking industry and those overseeing the immigration system at the federal level.
The Globe investigation has revealed that immigration authorities let trucking companies hire newcomers through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, even when the carriers have a proven history of multiple-injury accidents, serious safety violations or exploitative labour practices. (The federal authorities’ mandate is to look primarily at whether a company tried to hire local drivers before resorting to foreign workers, not to delve into carriers’ safety records, which are held by the provinces.)
The Globe also found marginal operators were granted permits to hire many more foreign drivers than they had trucks, raising questions about whether they actually needed the labour. Several people in the industry say small companies can profit more from cash paid by recruits than they do from hauling loads. Many of those businesses operate out of private homes, sometimes under more than one name. Often they have just one truck, according to government records.
This is just the type of employer that Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, who came to Canada as a student, was working for when he drove his truck through a rural stop sign last year, smashing into a bus and killing 16 hockey players from Humboldt, Sask.
Mr. Sidhu’s employer had just two trucks, and the company had committed multiple safety infractions before it put him on the road with what Mr. Sidhu’s lawyer called a “complete absence of prior driving skill.”
The rookie trucker failed to secure his load of peat moss properly and was nervously checking tarps in his rear view mirror when he missed signs warning him to stop ahead. The horrific consequences continue to reverberate through dozens of families. Mr. Sidhu, meanwhile, is serving an eight-year prison sentence, after which he will be deported to India.
Gypsy Hunking has been watching big rigs barrel through her northern Manitoba town all her life. Now, she calls them “killing machines.”
Two years ago, Ms. Hunking’s daughter, Carley, and Carley’s 17-year-old boyfriend, Dorian Roulette, both died instantly when a new trucker on a temporary work permit drove his loaded flatbed through a red light at full speed and broadsided their car. “She always called when she got home. And that night, I didn’t get a call,” Ms. Hunking says. “At 12:30, the police knocked on our door.”
The truck driver, Gurjant Singh, had arrived in Ontario from India as an international student, but wound up getting a trucking licence and moving west for work. He was 23 and had been driving for a year at the time of the crash.
He’d been sent on a long haul from B.C. to Ontario, where he picked up 27 tonnes of steel pipe. On his way back, near Portage la Prairie, court records show Mr. Singh failed to heed warning lights telling him the light was turning red at the highway intersection ahead. By the time he tried to stop, he couldn’t, because the massive load of steel behind him kept pushing the truck forward – a rookie mistake, says Ms. Hunking, who comes from a family of truck drivers. “My cousin said that before he could even handle that amount of weight, he had to be driving for three years,” she says.
Mr. Singh walked away with a $3,000 fine for careless driving and a one-year licence suspension.
Ms. Hunking wanted to take legal action against his employer, for putting a junior driver on the road with that enormous freight. But she says no lawyer would take the case because Manitoba’s no-fault insurance system doesn’t permit civil lawsuits over vehicle collisions. “Why couldn’t I sue the company for hiring somebody who didn’t know what they were doing?” she asks. “It’s like they are above the law.”
Besides, Ms. Hunking didn’t even know which B.C. carrier Mr. Singh was working for, because no one would tell her. The RCMP denied The Globe and Mail’s request for the name of the driver’s employer. B.C.’s transportation department said it would not release the company’s name because the truck’s licence plate has expired. When pressed again on the name and on whether there was a post-crash investigation into that carrier, media relations person Danielle Pope gave no answer.
People who come to Canada as students, as Mr. Singh did, can work for any employer as long as they abide by the rules of their student or postgraduate work permits. Others receive permits under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and are restricted to working for one employer. In that scenario, the trucking companies must get approval from Ottawa to hire them.
Once in their jobs, newcomers can earn credits in the immigration system that can eventually help them obtain permanent residency under provincial programs.
Chahit Sharma is typical of drivers who get their start in Canada working for questionable trucking companies. He arrived in Ontario as an international student, but moved west when he heard there were jobs in B.C. that could help him qualify him for immigration. In 2013, Mr. Sharma says he paid a B.C. consultant $5,000 for his first trucking position, then gave $5,000 to a trucking firm for a second job. “There are so many people behind this game,” he says. “Being a temporary foreign worker is a nightmare in Canada.”
Mr. Sharma says it took him five years of non-stop work, being underpaid by abusive employers, before he received permanent residency. “Those were some of the worst days of my life. I was pushed beyond my limits,” he says. “The way employers treat people on work permits, it is just ridiculous.”
B.C. nominated 711 truck drivers for permanent residency from 2016 through 2018. Ontario just began allowing truckers to submit applications for such nominations this summer. But that province has higher standards than B.C. in one key area. Two years ago, it brought in mandatory training for anyone applying for a truck driver’s licence. The Prairie provinces did the same after the Humboldt tragedy.
B.C. is the outlier. It is still consulting with industry on the parameters of any new rules.
In the meantime, 96 B.C. trucking companies received a green light from Ottawa last year to hire between four and 20 temporary foreign workers each as drivers. That represents 43 per cent of the 1,579 authorizations handed out nationwide. By contrast, just four Ontario carriers received approvals.
The Globe compiled data on the B.C. firms from hundreds of court files and other public records. Nearly one-third are either marginal operators or have had significant safety problems, or both. Since 2016, those 29 companies have received approval to hire 291 foreign drivers.
Startlingly, three of those companies don’t even hold a safety certificate – the legal requirement to operate transport trucks. Yet, Employment and Social Development Canada gave them approvals to hire foreign drivers.
Collectively, the 29 companies have been sued by 57 people claiming they were injured in B.C. collisions involving their trucks over the past decade, some quite seriously. U.S. department of transportation records show their trucks were involved in another 67 accidents in that country in recent years.
Truck drivers named in the B.C. cases, including some company owners, have fines for at least 146 violations, including speeding, running red lights, falsifying drive-time logs and other serious infractions. Some have criminal records.
Gulzar Transport Inc., based in Delta, B.C., is an operator whose dubious public record could have raised red flags with immigration authorities.
Between 2016 and 2018, Gulzar received federal approval to hire 20 foreign workers – even after it broke the law by underpaying drivers and ended up compensating 37 employees in 2016 for a total of $121,517.
Its trucks have been involved in 13 recent collisions where people whose vehicles were hit claimed injuries and blamed Gulzar’s drivers. Four injury accidents were reported to Worksafe BC; another accident happened in the United States.
According to industry representatives, Gulzar’s record is not the norm. By contrast, Triton Transport, a similar-sized B.C. company, called a “top fleet” employer by Trucking HR Canada, was sued for one accident, in the same time frame.
“Many of our members make sure their driver profiles are extremely clean,” says B.C. Trucking Association president Dave Earle, whose group has been pushing the government for years to get rid of the unsafe operators. “A small cohort of companies is really having a big impact on the rest, because they are not abiding by the rules and regulations.”
He estimates that carriers hiring temporary foreign workers make up less than 10 per cent of all “for hire” carriers in the province.
Of the 29 carriers The Globe analyzed, half received permits to hire more foreign workers than they have trucks. Most are small outfits, run out of homes. Half a dozen have more than one company name associated with the same address.
Several sources told The Globe that racking up violations, then changing names and corporate directors, is typical of some small operators, whether or not they hire foreign workers.
Adesh Deol Trucking is one glaring example. The Alberta trucking company employed Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, the driver responsible for the Humboldt tragedy.
After the accident, Adesh Deol was fined $5,000 for multiple violations and shut down by the province. But the company’s owner, Sukhmander Singh, promptly switched to driving for another company, located at the same house (owned by a woman he’d also bought a truck with – likely a spouse or relative). Six months later, that carrier’s certificate was revoked.
The Globe discovered yet another company, Gurnimrat Transport Ltd., with one of the same directors, now operating out of that same address. It has no safety certificate or vehicles registered with authorities (at least not under that name).
The Globe’s investigation found yet another alarming trend particular to smaller operators. Sources say these carriers routinely dispatch drivers in teams of two or three, so they can drive around the clock, especially during times when highway inspection stations are closed.
GLT Transportation – the company Mahan Singh worked for – is one such firm, according to Mr. Singh. It has received federal approval to hire 12 foreign workers since 2016, despite having no safety certificate for a decade. In 2006, a GLT-owned truck was seized at the Canada-U.S. border with $1.7-million worth of cocaine in the back. The driver, who was on his way to GLT’s yard in Surrey, was acquitted of trafficking after a B.C. judge ruled he was unaware of the drugs.
Court records show that GLT’s owner, Lakhwinder Singh, caused a crash years later while driving a company truck, even though GLT had no permit to operate. The woman whose vehicle he hit claimed multiple injuries, and Mr. Singh admitted he was negligent. Records obtained by The Globe show GLT now has its drivers operate trucks leased to another firm also owned by Mr. Singh and certified under the newer company’s name.
Lakhwinder Singh hired Mahan Singh late last year. After two deliveries with a team partner, says Mahan Singh, the owner’s son, Jay Samra, sent him out on his own, despite the fact that he didn’t yet know how to chain up the truck’s tires to give it traction on icy hills. Mahan Singh says Mr. Samra told him not to worry – there were plenty of truckers on the highway who could help.
Mahan Singh says his boss also falsified the electronic driver log to make it look like he was under the legal limit for hours on the road, even when he wasn’t. He provided The Globe with text messages showing those changes. He also filed a complaint to the government, claiming GLT owes him $10,000 in back pay.
The Globe approached Mr. Samra at the company’s office to ask for an interview, but he declined. Messages sent to the company received no response.
In the meantime, other truckers and tow operators who work on B.C. roads tell The Globe they’ve been watching and worrying about all of this for some time.
Trevor Bauder is an operator for Clover Towing, one of B.C.’s largest heavy tow companies. He spent 14 years rescuing trucks and drivers on roads and mountain highways. “I spent more time helping drivers putting chains on than I did pulling vehicles out of the ditch,” Mr. Bauder says.
He says he felt badly for new drivers like Mr. Singh, who work for “next to nothing” on hazardous roads, with “no idea” how to handle the trucks properly. “The root of the problem is the companies,” he says. “Whoever owns these companies should know better than to stick somebody in a truck and hope for the best.”
Mr. Bauder says drivers with little experience caused most of the crashes he attended, often because they were “riding their brakes” too hard, which can cause them to fail. He says they would also sail past brake-check areas, not knowing they were supposed to stop.
“A lot of them didn’t really see the dangers,” he says. “That was probably the worst thing out on those highways: they didn’t know what they were doing.”
Mr. Bauder was often first on the scene of an accident, asking for paperwork. At one accident, where the rig had lost its brakes and hit a mountain, “one of the drivers didn’t even have their [regular] Class 5 licence,” he says. “He was still a learner.”
In many conversations with newcomers, he has found they are driving trucks only because they want to be Canadian citizens. “That is why a lot of them won’t have a licence – because they don’t want to be a truck driver,” says Mr. Bauder.
Some truckers The Globe interviewed, including Chahit Sharma, say that the moment they obtained permanent-residency status, they quit their jobs. “Before that, it was more like slavery, just to get our PR,” Mr. Sharma says.
Parag Barbar is a permanent resident who says he drove for an Ontario company last year that hired international students. Those students then applied for immigration through Quebec’s nominee program.
“[The employer] would make them do trips against their will,” he says. Teams were dispatched to drive overnight, he adds, and there were “quite a lot” of near misses – including one time when he was in the passenger seat.
“I don’t like driving at night, so the co-driver was driving,” says Mr. Barbar. “I woke up and sat with him, but he wouldn’t listen to me. He was falling asleep, and I slapped him hard.”
Underpaying foreign drivers is another big issue. In 2017, a Surrey company called Harlens Trucking pleaded guilty to underpaying 29 temporary foreign workers by $350,000 after calculating their pay per mile, instead of per hour. The company argued it was common practice in the industry.
Indeed, others say new recruits earn between nine and 25 cents per mile (which is how pay is calculated), less than half what Canadian truckers earn.
Some employers also make foreign recruits pay kickbacks, sources say, by telling them they must cover company expenses. The Globe found several small-claims cases against drivers for damage to vehicles, which is one way carriers avoid making insurance claims.
Mahan Singh says he was fired by GLT Transportation after he and his driving partner refused their employer’s demand to pay $10,000 each for load damage caused by problems with the truck’s equipment. His employer had already taken $2,000 from him, he says, on top of the $10,000 fee he paid when he was hired.
He provided The Globe with text messages he said were from his boss, asking for his banking PIN. Records show money withdrawn from a Canadian ATM while Mr. Singh was on the road in the United States.
Mr. Singh and others stress that the exploitation starts with the immigration consultants, however, who give trucking firms a whole other source of revenue. “Sometimes the employers don’t need the employees," he says, “but they are selling jobs anyway.”
Before he found his B.C. job, Mr. Singh says he met with a dozen consultants in the Greater Toronto Area who told him they could get him into trucking out West or in the Maritimes. The price was $40,000, Mr. Singh says, split with the employers. “I did not give a single penny to those consultants, because they are just like thieves,” he says.
Another man from India provided The Globe with recordings (on the condition he not be identified) of meetings he had this year with immigration consultants in Surrey. One was licensed consultant Davinder Chohan, he says, who advised him, in the Punjabi recording, to “arrange for 50,000 to 55,000” for a trucking job. Ms. Chohan didn’t answer requests for comment.
At another firm, Orbit Immigration, a man quoted prices ranging from $35,000 to $40,000, suggesting that if the job seeker tried to find work on his own, it would “take a long time to come.”
Orbit’s only consultant is Sharandeep Singh Mann. At the time of the meeting, his licence had been suspended over allegations he charged money for jobs. Through his lawyer, Mr. Mann declined a request for an interview.
Immigration consultants are gatekeepers for hundreds of trucking jobs in Canada. On the advice of drivers, The Globe examined how many of the 96 B.C. carriers approved to hire foreign workers last year advertised jobs using a generic email address like Gmail. Drivers say that usually indicates that it’s a consultant vetting applications from foreign nationals on behalf of the trucking firm, with an eye to charging placement fees.
More than half the ads posted on government-hosted job sites, from 42 of the 96 companies, had generic e-mail addresses. Some listed the fax number of an immigration consultant’s office. In total, they were seeking 426 truck drivers.
Local drivers have learned not to apply through those ads, because they are only looking for foreign applicants. “Some people even go to the trucking company for their application, and they say, ‘We don’t need drivers,’ ” says Pawanjit Khandal, who has been a trucker in B.C. for 20 years and is now looking to get out because his pay has shrunk 10 per cent in four years. “Canadian drivers are the ones paying for it,” he says. “It is a side business [for carriers] to hire foreign workers and get the money from them. They work many more hours for the same or less pay.”
Now that Ontario is allowing truckers to be nominated for permanent residency, there are some reputable companies that are keen to hire more foreign drivers, according to their industry association. But without better rules and enforcement, they also fear this will lead to the same problems The Globe found in B.C.
“We do not want a funnel to the bottom,” says Ontario Trucking Association president Stephen Laskowski. “The bottom part of our industry creates the vast majority of unsafe truck operations.”
His association wants Ontario to restrict permanent residency applications to foreign workers hired by carriers with proven safety records. It’s also asking Ottawa to set national criteria all companies must meet before they can open for business – standards that would be enforced by the provinces through uniform audits. “It is way too easy to get into trucking,” says Mr. Laskowski. “The reason these bad actors are here in the first place is, it’s too easy to get in.”
Shawna Benoit is one of many victims who want governments to clamp down.
Seven years ago, a co-owner of SSB Trucking – a B.C. carrier approved to hire six foreign workers last year – rolled backward into her vehicle as she sat behind him, waiting to turn left at an intersection. Her eight-year-old son was beside her. “I thought we were going to get crushed, and my son was screaming,” she says. The driver, Sukhminder Bhuller, took off, but she caught up and flagged him down.
“He bent over and looked at me and said, ‘No witnesses, no proof.’ ”
The insurance case settled in her favour, she says, because a witness did show up. Mr. Bhuller’s record shows he has racked up six violations since then, including going through a stop sign and driving an unsafe vehicle.
Messages left by The Globe for Mr. Bhuller at SSB Trucking received no response. The company has an “unsatisfactory” rating from the B.C. government, because of serious safety deficiencies. It is still in business, however, because the province has yet to audit its operations.
As for Ms. Benoit, she says she is still afraid of trucks. “Shut down the companies that are doing illegal, shady work,” she says. “I couldn’t do anything. I will never forget that.”
With data analysis by Andrew Saikali
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