A Mountie who died in a vehicle accident during the first surge of unauthorized border crossings in Quebec may have fell asleep at the wheel from fatigue due to a heavy workload, a coroner has found.
Constable Richer Dubuc did not touch the brakes on his Chevy Tahoe patrol vehicle before he drove at 112 kilometres an hour into the back of a slow-moving tractor on a rural highway near Roxham Road south of Montreal last March.
But the coroner, Krystyna Pecko, said she and the pathologist who conducted an autopsy were unable to confirm whether sleep, distraction or medical incapacity was the cause of Constable Dubuc's inattention.
The 42-year-old father of four suffered from an undiagnosed heart condition that could have incapacitated him suddenly, the coroner noted. He was still breathing in the immediate aftermath of the accident, she added, but his heart and major vessels were badly damaged by the impact. Investigators found he was not using his mobile phone and he had no drugs or alcohol in his system.
Constable Dubuc's widow, Gracielle Daoust, said she hopes her husband's death will bring attention to overwork on the force and staffing shortages. She said her husband worked a massive amount of overtime during the migrant crisis and in other recent assignments. She urged him to refuse some of the extra time but he was always eager to help, she said.
"He was getting called in all the time. I would urge him to say no, to tell them he was tired, but he would go anyway," Ms. Daoust said in an interview. "They were definitely short of people. It won't bring him back now, but I hope they've changed things because fatigue was definitely part of what was going on."
Constable Serge Bilodeau, president of the Quebec Mounted Police Members' Association, said the force has been shorthanded in the province for years. Staffing levels are around 800 members today, down from 1200 in 2004, he said.
He said after the accident the RCMP ordered officers coming from cities such asDrummondville and Trois-Rivières to "sleep in place" in a local hotel between shifts. Many had been commuting home.
"It wouldn't have changed anything for Richer Dubuc who lived in the area, but it showed they were aware fatigue could have been a concern," Constable Bilodeau said. "They knew they had possibly lost one to falling asleep at the wheel and they weren't going to let it happen again. It was the responsible thing to do."
Dozens of reinforcements were sent to the region from across Canada later in the spring.
An RCMP spokesman said the force could not comment on the coroner's report, adding only that they have adjusted staffing levels at the border on a weekly basis.
Constable Dubuc was part of a small team of RCMP officers based in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu who patrolled the border and were handling the early days of a surge of asylum seekers who were walking across the border.
On March 5, one day before Constable Dubuc died, Ms. Daoust said he worked a long and busy night shift where he helped rescue a border crosser who fell into a stream and almost died of hypothermia and diabetic shock. Constable Dubuc was also a trained paramedic. "The man was in really bad shape and Richer was one of the emergency responders," Ms. Daoust said.
Constable Dubuc's colleague, Constable Bernard Vandal, received a citation from the Quebec Police Association on Nov. 15 for initiating the rescue. Constable Vandal said he shared the recognition with Constable Dubuc and others who helped that night.
After his shift, Constable Dubuc slept off and on during the day with the aid of a machine to correct sleep apnea that had he had recently started using to improve his rest. Ms. Daoust said he expressed no complaints before he departed for his next overnight shift at about 5 p.m. on March 6. At 5:34 p.m. he received a call for assistance and set out from the detachment office toward Roxham Road about 45 minutes away.
At 6:15 p.m. he came upon the tractor travelling slowly, and while it was dark, the tractor had enough lights to meet legal requirements. However, not all of the lights on the tractor worked.
"There were no signs of braking or evasive manoeuvres before the accident," Dr. Pecko wrote in her report released in December.
When the truck hit the tractor, the farmer was ejected onto the hood of the truck. He sustained "moderate" injuries. The Tahoe rolled another 39 metres before striking a tree.
At 112 km/h, the Mountie was travelling above the 90 km/h speed limit. He was not wearing a seat belt, a practice frowned on by the RCMP but common among some police who find it awkward to buckle up with their body armour and belt that holds their pistol, handcuffs and other tools.
Emergency services extracted Constable Dubuc from his vehicle at 6:39 p.m. He was pronounced dead in hospital at 7:44 p.m.