Indo-Canadian community mourns five students who died in Ontario crash

By Morgan Lowrie

Members of Canada’s Indian community were in mourning on Monday after five students died in a collision between a van and a tractor-trailer on Ontario’s Highway 401 on the weekend.

Harpreet Singh, Jaspinder Singh, Karanpal Singh, Mohit Chouhan and Pawan Kumar, all students from India between the ages of 21 and 24, were pronounced dead at the scene of Saturday’s crash. Police said they all studied in the Montreal or Greater Toronto areas.

A spokesman from Canada College, a Montreal school that caters to international students, said at least three of those who died and one of two injured survivors studied at the school.

John David Couturier said the school administration is devastated by the loss and is scrambling to support students and arrange to send the victims’ bodies back to India.

“We’re all a state of shock,” he said. “I can only imagine the families in India, they’re so far away, and now there’s two students in the hospital that don’t have their families here.”

Couturier said most of the victims associated with the school had been studying business administration. He did not name the students, saying the school would provide more information once it was sure families in India had been contacted. He said police were still working to confirm whether a fourth fatality had also been a student of Canada College.

The passenger van with eight people aboard was travelling west on Highway 401 Saturday morning when there was a collision with a tractor-trailer at around 3:45 a.m. near Quinte West, Ont., Ontario Provincial Police said.

OPP spokeswoman Maggie Pickett said Monday that police believe the van was stopped by the side of the highway when the crash occurred. The investigation into the crash is continuing, and no charges have been laid.

One passenger who had exited the van as well as the tractor-trailer driver were uninjured, Pickett said, while two of the van’s occupants were taken to hospital in serious condition.

It’s unclear where the students were heading, but Couturier said it’s common for Canada College students to travel frequently between Quebec and Ontario because the week’s classes are condensed over two or three days.

He said about 70 per cent of the school’s 2,500 students are from India, and they tend to form close bonds as they work their way toward graduating and obtaining permanent residence.

“Many of them are from Montreal, some of them are from Belleville, Brampton, Ontario,” he said. “And so they’ll come for the weekend classes and stay at a friend’s house or whatever. It’s really a community, you know?”

Dr. Shivendra Dwivedi, who heads an organization called Canada India Global Forum, said the community is shaken by the loss.

“We’re very sad with this tragedy, and we feel very, very bad for the families and the students that lost their lives,” he said. “It’s a horrible tragedy, and I think the community is grieving.”

Dwivedi said his group was mobilizing resources to provide grief counselling for the victims’ friends in Canada.

While he didn’t know the victims personally, he said many Indian students who come to Canada to attend private colleges in the hopes of gaining permanent residency are young and far from their support systems.

“They’re doing it because they want a chance to come to Canada – really hard-working, very dedicated students trying to make a better life for them- selves,” he said.

He said his group is also working with officials in Toronto and Ottawa to ensure the wishes of the families in India are carried out.

Couturier said Canada College has offered to repatriate the bodies to India and pay the cost of its students’ funerals.