Friday, January 12, 2018

10th Anniversary of Boys in Red January 12, 2018: Isabelle Hains’ Tireless Activism in Wake of Son’s Death Changed the Face of Student Transportation Safety in Canada

By Melynda Jarratt

The last time Isabelle Hains saw her son Daniel alive was on the morning of Friday, January 11, 2008, when she dropped him off at Bathurst High School.
It was the first week of classes after Christmas holidays and Daniel’s last semester before graduation in June. On the short drive to school, mother and son talked about his upcoming 18th birthday party and of his plans to postpone university for a year to travel overseas.

But Isabelle was concerned about an Environment Canada winter storm alert for later in the day. Daniel and his fellow players on the BHS Phantoms basketball team had an away game that evening in Moncton and it was a long drive back at night. The boys would travel in a 15-passenger van driven by their coach, Wayne Lord.

"Don't worry Mom" said Daniel "if the weather is bad, we'll spend the night in Moncton."

With a hug and a goodbye kiss, Daniel disappeared into the school.

Eight minutes after midnight, while on the return trip from Moncton, the High School's 15-passenger van collided with a semi-tractor trailer. Seven of the basketball players and the coach's wife were killed. Nothing would ever be the same for the victims' families, the City of Bathurst or the province of New Brunswick.

Within weeks of her son's death, Isabelle started asking questions about why the basketball team was on the road that night. In her search for answers, Isabelle was transformed from a self-described "ordinary" mother into one of Canada's leading transportation safety advocates, turning her personal grief into a national student transportation safety campaign.

Immediately after the tragedy 15-passenger vans were banned in New Brunswick for student transportation. Later Quebec, PEI, and Newfoundland also banned the vehicles and a patchwork quilt of prohibitions emerged across Canada. But as Isabelle soon found out, the same vans were already banned in Nova Scotia since 1994 after a similar tragedy involving a school hockey team.

Isabelle was also shocked to discover that the NB Department of Education already had a student transportation policy in place with guidelines to protect students. The guideline states that groups travelling out of town should be prepared to stay overnight if weather or road conditions present a hazard.

“The problem,” says Isabelle, “Is that the policies, regulations, rules and guidelines were not being enforced by school officials or anyone else.”

She and another mother started a website,, demanding that the province order a Coroners Inquest into the tragedy. After months of relentless lobbying the Inquest was held in May 2009. The inquest resulted in 24 recommendations to improve student transportation including one which stated that 15-passenger vans should be banned for student use across Canada.

After the Inquest, Isabelle thought it was all over: what she found out was that the work had just begun.

In October 2009 Isabelle discovered the Multi-Function Activity Bus (MFAB) being used by BHS was outfitted with all season tires in the front and winter tires on the back. The MFAB had been donated by local busineses in the wake of the tragedy to replace the now banned 15-passenger vans. Its bright red colour with the Phantoms logo was becoming a familiar sight around town.

Isabelle contacted leading tire experts in Canada and the United States. They agreed the BHS bus should have winter tires all around.

“It seemed a no-brainer to us,” says Isabelle, “But when we challenged the provincial government to change the tires they refused.”

In February 2010, she and two other mothers travelled to Continental Tires’ research facility in Michigan to prove the importance of all winter tires on MFABs. The same day, Transport Canada released similar test results advising that winter tires were recommended on these type of buses, forcing the NB Departments of Education and Transportation to act upon this proof.

In May 2010, Isabelle and the Van Angels group journeyed to Ottawa to witness the introduction of Bill C-522 by Acadie-Bathurst MP, Yvon Godin. By now the group had grown to include other safety advocates from unions representing school bus drivers across Canada. The Bill would have made it a criminal offense to use 15-passenger vans for student transport in Canada. Although the Bill was never passed, one month later Transport Canada announced a safety review of 15-passenger vans for student transport and tasked the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (CCMTA) with developing a national approach.

This set the stage for a fall 2010 CCMTA annual meeting in Halifax with Transport Canada and the provincial and territorial Ministers of Transportation. At the same time, Isabelle's Van Angels had aligned themselves with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) which firmly believed that the Multi-Function School Activity Bus (MFSAB), built to school bus standards, would be an acceptable alternate vehicle for extra-curricular student transport.

At the Halifax meeting, the group was adamant that crash-worthiness testing be included in the safety review. They also requested the recognition of a MFSAB as a sub-category of a school bus in the Canadian motor vehicle classification system.

Two years later, in the crash-worthiness testing, the official Safety Review showed that passengers in a MFSAB had a greater chance of survival than those in a 15-passenger van. This was a significant victory for Isabelle and the Van Angels.

That same year, the book DRIVEN by Richard Foot revealed the harsh and surprising truth behind the Boys In Red tragedy and the Van Angels’ determination for justice and accountability.

“DRIVEN is an important book that tells a side of the story not covered in the media,” said Isabelle.

Then in 2013 the CCMTA released 'Safety Guidelines for the Use of 15-Passenger Vans'. The pamphlet clearly stated that these vans handle differently than other passenger vehicles when fully loaded with people and or luggage or equipment. It also advised drivers to slow down on wet or icy roads as the vans do not respond well to abrupt steering manoeuvres.

“The guidelines confirm how dangerous 15-passenger vans are,” says Isabelle, asking, "Why would anyone put their precious children in these death traps?”

In 2015, after nearly five years of behind the scenes lobbying and consultation with federal transportation officials, a new and distinct definition called the MFSAB was added to the vehicle classification system under the Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

Isabelle explains: "The MFSAB was a huge accomplishment. It means that school boards looking for a safe vehicle to transport students to extra-curricular activities have an alternative to 15-passenger vans. The MFSABs are built to the same high motor vehicle safety standards as the yellow school bus and we are hopeful that they will become the most logical and best choice for student transportation in Canada.”

In the closing days of 2017, the City of Bathurst passed a resolution that an official day of mourning would be forever recognized on January 12 in honour of The Boys in Red.

Every year on that day, flags will be flown at half mast in remembrance of the seven members of the Bathurst High School Phantoms basketball team and the coaches wife.

"For such a long time, I felt Daniel and his teammates had been forgotten,” says Isabelle. “It took a new mayor and new administration to make a promise that our boys will always be remembered."

On the tenth anniversary of the Boys in Red tragedy, Isabelle Hains and her Van Angels group can take some solace knowing that their tireless efforts brought national attention and positive changes to student transportation safety in Canada.

“At the beginning, all I wanted to know was why my son Daniel and six other boys died,” said Isabelle. “When we got the Inquest and discovered the extent of the educational system’s failures to protect our children, I knew we had no choice but to force changes so that no other parent would have to go through what we did.”

"If I had known then what I know now, I would never have let my son get in that van that day,” says Isabelle. “I lost my son and I’ll never get him back, but Daniel, Javier, Nathan, Justin, Codey, Nickolas, Nikki and Beth Lord did not die in vain. Their names will forever be connected to student transportation safety in Canada.”