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Former truck driver Jaskirat Singh Sidhu walks into the Kerry Vickar Centre for his sentencing in Melfort, Sask., March 22, 2019.Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press

In 1903, during a robust and racist conversation about immigration in the House of Commons, Matthew Kendal Richardson, an English-born Liberal-Conservative MP, made an enlightened point about defining the character of the nation. Amid parliamentary chatter about sifting out the “desirables” from the “undesirables,” Mr. Richardson chimed in to say: “Our country has great resources and possibilities, but its progress and influence in the future will depend not so much on the numbers as on the character of the population.”

“It is the individual qualities of our people which will tell in the formation of our character as a nation,” he said.

We should not be so naive as to believe that the “character” to which Mr. Richardson referred was about anything other than skin colour and country of origin. But if we suspend belief for a moment and take his words at face value, they assert a powerful notion about how we as citizens conceive of what it means to be Canadian: that the character of those who live here will define the character of the country itself.

To the extent that they actually do define Canada’s character is another matter, but today, we can rattle off by rote many of the key virtues that we like to think make good Canadians: kindness, tolerance and acceptance; we are hard-working, public-minded and usually deferential. We accept responsibility for our actions, and try to live peacefully with others.

Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, who is responsible for one of the worst mass-casualty events on a Canadian highway in recent history, is a Canadian by these descriptors. And yet, he could be deported as soon as he is released from prison.

The degree of lifelong suffering he instantly inflicted on no small number of Saskatchewan families the moment he blew through a stop sign on Apr. 6, 2018, is not in dispute. His actions took the lives of 16 players and staff on the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team, and he injured 13 others, leaving some with permanent disabilities. Mr. Sidhu was undertrained and distracted, and had he been more mindful of the load he was carrying as he barrelled down the highway at around 100 km/h, he might have spared families the enduring anguish of losing a child, a sibling or spouse.

But this horrific mistake remains one for which Mr. Sidhu has never shirked responsibility. He wasn’t intoxicated; he didn’t flee the scene. He pleaded guilty to all 29 charges against him (without asking for a plea deal) to spare Humboldt families the trauma of a trial. He received an eight-year sentence, the longest in Canadian history for a fatal dangerous-driving collision, and chose not to appeal the sentence. But because Mr. Sidhu is not a Canadian citizen – he is a permanent resident – and has received a prison sentence longer than six months, he risks deportation to his native India after he has served his time. He told Maclean’s back in the summer that he wants to stay in Canada, primarily for his wife. “If I do get deported, my wife would come with me – and I’ve already caused her so much pain,” he said, “so she’d have to go through more.” A decision is expected some time in the new year.

There are practical arguments both for and against forcing Mr. Sidhu to leave the country. Some of the affected families understandably want him deported and have expressed anxiety about being retraumatized by seeing or hearing about him in their communities. The federal government also reserves the right to deport permanent residents convicted of serious crimes for a reason: citizenship is not a guarantee, and those who violate the laws of the country are not owed a place within it.

But in Mr. Sidhu’s case, deportation seems inordinately punitive, and even somewhat arbitrary. A Canadian citizen who makes the decision to drive drunk and ends up killing someone may regain his freedom in just a couple of years, whereas Mr. Sidhu could serve his time and then be punished again with deportation, even though he is of extremely low risk to reoffend. What’s more, this was not a malicious, deliberate act, but a fatal consequence of the frailty of the human condition. All of us have probably made an error on the road at one time or another; it is our tremendous good fortune that most of the time, the worst we end up with is a dented bumper and a few demerit points.

Not all of us, however, would’ve chosen to accept responsibility so completely and without reservation, as Mr. Sidhu has: to plead guilty without a deal, to receive a prolonged prison sentence without appeal, to resist the urge to blame others – his employer, driving training standards, the economic pressures on permanent residents – and to instead accept that, ultimately, he was the one behind the wheel. The qualities that Mr. Sidhu has exhibited in taking ownership of his actions are those that we extol as what it means to be Canadian. And as Mr. Richardson said more than a century ago, it is the individual qualities of our people which will tell in the formation of our character as a nation.

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