Tragedy in Bathurst

By TONY SEED*

HALIFAX (31 January 2008) – SOME teams wear black armbands. Some players wear their teammate’s number on their shoe. Just before tip-off that Sunday afternoon, John Prince, generally a man of few words, stepped into the circle, briefly explained a tragedy that had just occurred the night before in Bathurst, New Brunswick, and asked for a moment’s silence.

It was the first of six games, the 13th of January 2007, in our masters’ basketball league, and each paused a moment in memory of the seven young athletes, members of the Bathurst High School Phantams basketball team, and their coach’s wife who had been slain in the early morning on 12 January on a snow-covered Highway 8 – among the worst roads of the winter.

Their van, carrying 10 students and two teachers, had crashed moments from home, killing their coach’s wife and elementary mathematics and music school teacher, 51-year-old Beth Lord, five 17-year-olds – Javier Acevedo, Codey Branch, Nathan Cleland, Justin Cormier, Daniel Hains – a 16-year-old, Nickolas Quinn, and 15-year-old Nicholas Kelly. The coach, Wayne Lord, and his daughter survived the accident, along with two of the players on the team. Their van reportedly struck a shoulder and then skidded into the path of an oncoming tracker trailer.

That was how many of us heard such tragic news. Having met and known some young players and their parents from that region at the Justin Coward Memorial Tournament in Cole Harbour just last March, the tragedy of all those killed was shocking, indeed.

But the most shocking thing was the wall-to-wall media coverage blaming the model of the 15-passenger rented van Mr Lord was driving that night and the decision of the provincial government to temporarily suspend use of such vans, or the “road conditions,” or the weather, or all three. Quite conveniently, the media forgot to mention the social conditions in which this tragedy occurred.

The media found the outpouring of heart-rendering sympathy for the youth and families in this pulp and paper town of about 13,000 people in northern New Brunswick “staggering” (Globe and Mail). Some 10,000 attended the wake to pay their respects and over 5,000 their funeral at the community arena: the Globe and Mail said, “It was one of the largest funerals in the history of Atlantic Canada.” Over five thousand people attended the memorial service held in the civic arena of this small industrial city. Now, the reports focused on the reaction of schoolmates, the availability of grief counsellors and the lucky ones who survived.

The media torrent weighed down on us all. We really didn’t know what to think. Is there nothing we can learn from such a tragedy? By the following Sunday our discussion had turned to other questions, when I brought it up again. I was thinking: what had motivated the coach and his team to set out that night from Moncton for a four-hour drive in such deplorable conditions? In fact, any van, be it 15-passenger or 18- or whatever, is difficult enough to drive if you are not trained. There is also the factor of excess weight, 12 people plus all their gear. When you jerk the wheel in a tall van, it does not react the same as it would in a car which, without experience and/or training, can be deadly. But once you’ve fish tailed on black ice, however skillfully, only to encounter an 80,000 lb, 18-wheeler in your path, the question of the level of training of the driver seems immaterial. In fact, one of my team-mates pointed out there there were three fatal accidents in the following week in the Maritimes, all involving 18-wheelers. So are truck drivers, who are forced to drive extraordinarily long shifts by the big transport companies, to blame?

The coach, a well-respected teacher, must take responsibility for his decision to risk the roads that night. It is one thing to risk your own life but he was also entrusted with the care and well-being of all these youth. But what pressures had forced him to make that ill-fated decision to head out that night? The accident occurred at the end of an 18- or 19-hour day. Here is a man who is a teacher, a volunteer coach, a family man, and also forced to be the chauffeur. He had taught all day Friday, prepared for a game, collected and drove the entire team with his wife to Moncton (a more than two-hour drive at the best of times), coached the warm-up and an entire game, and then had to immediately turn around and drive back. The weather conditions in Moncton weren’t as severe as northern New Brunswick. It was a particularly nasty period of extreme icy and cold weather in the Maritimes, and the stretch he was to drive late that night is no bowl of cherries. The crash occurred after midnight.

I began thinking about what possibilities this society provides the youth and what care for their upkeep and future lies at its centre. What was the coach’s alternative? To hole up in a motel or hotel overnight in Moncton, ride out the weather, and set off the next day? Could his school even afford such an expensive option?

Youth cherish sport. But their aspirations to participate are frustrated by society. Ninety per cent of all school youth do not participate in any sport. Can someone tell us why the youth must constantly beg to raise funds to participate in youth and school sport? Can someone tell us why the youth, their families and their teachers and coaches must organize this canning drive or that just to pay for uniforms for their teams, the registration fee and the costs to travel to such tournaments. Travelling to out-of-town and out-of-province tournaments is very important for youth and for amateur sport. The youth become acquainted with Canada, meet youth from other regions and backgrounds, make lifelong friends and have an excellent opportunity to raise their skill and competitive level. Parents are appalled at the high cost of gear. The costs of a weekend tournament, even for basketball which is far cheaper than hockey, are also going through the roof. The link between physical activity and education and health is irrefutable and the rising obesity of youth a national shame, yet even the phys-ed programs in schools are or have been eliminated or sharply reduced.

Yet even posing this as a question, or pointing a finger at the society, seems to be forbidden. “It was the bottom line,” a team-mate replied to my question about the coach’s decision.

That’s it. But does it go no farther than that?, I asked. In every community people are told, “there’s no money,” though there seems to be no lack of it to send young men and women to the killing fields of Afghanistan, an extraordinary proportion of whom hail from Atlantic Canada and Quebec. There has to be something deeply wrong within the society to bring forth these tragedies, yet there is no-one who wants to say what it is. No journalist, for instance, asked what were the resources available for the high school youth. I found just one single report by a journalist which provided information on the demands being placed on volunteer coaches by “cash-strapped schools”:

“High-school sports coaches across the country are struggling to cope with growing responsibilities and greater demands from cash-strapped schools that are forcing many to juggle the roles of teacher, coach, fundraiser and chauffeur.
“…new questions are emerging about the increasing level of pressure being placed on high-school sports coaches across Canada.
“’I think more and more as the years have gone by, we continually expect more and more from our teacher-coaches,’ said Sue Keenan, executive director of B.C. School Sports.
“’Not only does [a coach] have to prep the team, coach the team, but [he] also has to drive the team?’ asked Raynard Marchand, general manager of programs at the Canada Safety Council. ‘At some point we’re talking about superhuman here,’ he said. …

“’You can’t control how tired or not tired a teacher-coach is,’ Ms. Keenan said.

Rules for out-of-town school trips can vary between provinces and school boards.

“For instance, federal transportation rules restrict drivers from operating a commercial vehicle after working 14 hours in a day, a policy that New Brunswick’s Department of Education has adopted for transportation to off-site school activities.

“But School District 15, which includes Bathurst High School, doesn’t have a specific policy limiting the maximum number of hours teachers can work and still drive. The same is true at schools in other provinces.”*

Flowers are placed at scene of fatal accident on Route 11 outside Bathurst, New Brunswick

What must have triggered the series of events that led to the tragedy for these human beings just five minutes outside Bathurst? The answer to this question has to be found not in the make of the passenger van, the road conditions or the weather, but in the social conditions in which all these human beings were living, the society you and I live in.

Who will question the society? Will the Prime Minister who is apparently fond of sport, playing shinny hockey with his young son before the TV cameras during the Christmas holidays and looking forward to hosting the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver? Is the Prime Minister prepared to deliberate on the society, the level of spending for social programs such as education and amateur sport, and the conditions of all the youth so that such tragedies do not occur? Will the grief counsellors? Tragedies occur everyday, at work, in homes, on the highways. This is not the first nor the last group of youth travelling to a sports tournament in Canada to encounter such a tragic fate. But no one points a finger at the society. The really tragic thing is that such tragedies will continue.

Should not that same tremendous energy that families and kids and school groups and coaches devote in their all-sided voluntary efforts to make youth sports possible, despite the lack of societal resources, be redirected? Should not we expend more of that care and thought and initiative in organising peers and communities to ensure the necessary social resources are provided as a matter of right? Education is a right that needs to be provided with a guarantee, and youth sport is very much part of a rounded education and upbringing in the broadest sense. That to me is the lesson of the tragedy in Bathurst.

Our most heartfelt condolences to the families of the youth of Bathurst.

With Curtis Coward, Tony Seed is co-author, The Kids’ Baseball Book (1994) and president of the Nova Scotia Cricket Association.

Endnote

*Carly Weeks, “Expectations high for teacher-coach-chauffeurs,” Globe and Mail, 15 January 2008

Expressions of Condolences

May be posted on the Bathurst High School website at http://bathursthigh.nbed.nb.ca

Source: Shunpiking Online Volume 5, Number 1

http://www.shunpiking.com/ol0501/0501-SR-TS-tragedy.htm

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