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Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI) has suspended the semi driving instructor who’s been one of the Crown corporation’s harshest critics since the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.
Reg Lewis’ one-month suspension took effect Christmas Eve.
According to SGI documents, Lewis breached the Crown corporation’s code of conduct with his use of profanity and “instructional style.”
Lewis said the suspension forced him to cancel the training courses for more than a dozen students in a province already dealing with a massive driver shortage. Lewis estimates it will cost his small business more than $40,000 as his two trucks and fellow instructor sit idle.
The veteran Swift Current instructor notes there were no safety or competence issues. He says he’s being singled out and SGI is simply trying to silence its critics.
“I think SGI is trying to tell me that I should keep my mouth shut — that I shouldn’t be speaking up, that we’re in charge and you’d better damn well better do it our way or you’re going to lose your driving school,” Lewis said in an interview this week.
SGI said Lewis is mistaken.
“To claim that a suspension was motivated by anything else would be unequivocally false,” an SGI official said in an email Thursday.
Lewis said he was deeply affected by the April 6 crash between the Humboldt Broncos and a semi which left 16 people dead and 13 injured.
Lewis has dedicated his life to teaching truck safety since his own parents were killed in a collision with a semi more than 20 years ago. Following the crash, Lewis spoke publicly about the need for mandatory semi driver training.
At the time, Ontario was the only province that required semi drivers to take any training courses. In most provinces, passing a road and written exam allows drivers to take any sized truck in any conditions onto any road in Canada.
Shortly after the Broncos crash, Lewis blasted SGI and the Saskatchewan government for the lack of training. Fellow instructors, drivers, academics and Broncos’ family members agreed.
Saskatchewan and Alberta have since announced training will become mandatory this spring. Other provinces and the federal government are also considering it.
The driver of the semi in the Broncos crash pleaded guilty this week to 29 counts of dangerous driving. His sentencing hearing takes place later this month.
Lewis supplied his suspension letter and roughly 30 other pages of SGI correspondence at the request of CBC News.
Some of the incidents cited by SGI date back to 2014. In one, Lewis yelled and “berated” a student who drove the semi over a curb as he rounded a corner.
When questioned at that time, Lewis supplied SGI with video evidence. SGI said the video “demonstrated multiple missed opportunities for instruction and the use of profanity.”
Another SGI document stated a student experienced the worst anxiety of his life this November after Lewis yelled at him to “Put the <expletive> clutch to the floor and put the <expletive> truck in gear.”
Some students said Lewis was overly negative. A dispute also arose when one student wanted to stop halfway through and asked for a refund to their prepaid, non-refundable fees.
In an email Thursday to CBC News, SGI officials said the Crown only issues suspensions after taking all other steps to address “serious and repeated concerns.” They noted Lewis had previously been put on probation, some of which predates his public criticism of SGI.
SGI said instructors can appeal suspensions to the Highway Traffic Board. Lewis did appeal unsuccessfully this month. Lewis said the broad definitions in the SGI code of conduct make a reversal nearly impossible.
Lewis said these and other allegations are a “joke.” He admitted to using the “f-word” for emphasis, but said it’s common language in trucking and many other industries.
“We’re all adults here. Sometimes, it happens,” he said.
As for yelling, Lewis said it’s necessary when someone drives on a sidewalk or requires immediate correction.
He said many students believe their payment entitles them to their licence and complain when he demands a higher skill level.
Lewis said there have never been issues with the quality of the training or his safety record. Other SGI officials praise his competence.
“I am pleased to report there were no substantive issues identified,” an SGI official wrote following a 2016 ride-along evaluation.
In June, another SGI evaluator asked Lewis to adjust his instructional style but told him, “Your dedication and passion for traffic safety is evident.”
Lewis will be back in business Jan. 24, but said the suspension could scare others who want to speak out on road safety issues.
“A long time ago I decided I don’t care who I upset,” he said. “Either you’re here to learn how to drive a truck or you’re not.”