A journalist and author recounts how two warrior-moms drove the search for the truth behind the Boys in Red tragedy
If the news media had done its job and shouldered its responsibility in the wake of the 2008 Bathurst High School tragedy—in which seven members of New Brunswick’s Bathurst High School basketball team and their coach’s wife died when their school van collided with a tractor-trailer on a snowy highway—there would have been no book for me to write when I set out to tell the incredible story of Ana Acevedo and Isabelle Hains.
That’s because those women would never have needed to transform themselves from ordinary, small-town mothers into two of Canada’s most outspoken political activists.
Their long campaign to find the truth about the crash that killed their sons Javier and Daniel and six other people is detailed in my 2013 book Driven: How the Bathurst Tragedy Ignited a Crusade for Change (Goose Lane Editions). [Editor’s note: You’ll find a review of Richard Foot’s Driven here]
At the heart of the story is a disturbing question: why were two grieving parents, with no experience with or fondness for public activism, compelled to turn their lives upside down by asking questions, launching petitions, holding news conferences and lobbying governments following their sons’ deaths?
I was among the journalists from across Atlantic Canada who descended on Bathurst, NB, to cover the tragedy and the mass funeral for the seven boys. We wrote our stories about sorrow and heartache, and then drifted away, assuming there was nothing more to say about what appeared to be a random, unavoidable highway collision. That was the conventional wisdom floating around town. It’s what the mayor and school officials—even many of the grief-stricken parents—were saying.
But the conventional wisdom was wrong, and reporters like me were too quick to buy into it. Accident investigators later found that the school van was mechanically faulty and unsafe to drive, that it lacked winter tires, and that driver fatigue was a possible factor. Ana and Isabelle had by then also uncovered Education Act guidelines that said their boys should not have been driving home late at night in the midst of a snowstorm.
For five years these warrior-moms, as I call them, fought a sometimes lonely campaign for accountability, and for changes to the way children are transported to extra-curricular events. They had many successes and have raised national awareness about this issue.
Courage and perseverance
Yet many in Bathurst still believe the crash was a freak accident, including some of the other parents who lost boys, whom I interviewed for the book. In fact, the hostility Ana and Isabelle encountered in their own community as they tried to uncover the truth of the tragedy remains today. I felt it as I researched the book—many people at the centre of the tragedy declined to talk to me, or expressed deep skepticism about what the two mothers had done. It was nerve-wracking, to say the least, cracking open this hornets’ nest and writing the tale of two women who were supported by many New Brunswickers, but scorned by many others.
The prevailing view after the tragedy, at least among school and town officials, was that people should grieve for a bit, and then move on; there was no need for hard questions about why it happened and what could be learned from the deaths of seven boys—an understandable sentiment in any small, insular town full of hurting families.
Less understandable is why news reporters were so willing to accept this view. Fortunately, for the sake of the truth, two mothers had the courage and perseverance to think otherwise.