The lives lost to a Perimeter Highway intersection
Dana Boyer describes the night of Oct. 24, 2019 as the perfect evening. He had dinner with his wife Sue and his teenage sons Reid and Ethan on their eight-hectare property in the bush of Balmoral, Manitoba, 45 minutes northwest of Winnipeg.
That night, his boys were getting along — a rare occurrence.
Ethan, a towering young man of six foot one, came home with the ingredients to make tacos for dinner, and the family howled at a funny video Reid found on YouTube.
The next morning, Dana woke Ethan up to go to university and settled into his home office to work.
Around nine that morning: A call from Sue to Dana. She heard on the radio of a car crash on the south Perimeter Highway and was concerned Ethan might be involved.
“Sue usually has a pretty good intuition about these things,” said Dana, referring to his wife’s 25 years as a Winnipeg Police Service constable.
The extensive damage to the car made it hard to confirm if it was Ethan’s red Honda Accord.
A news article online said there were hockey sticks inside the red vehicle, and this confirmed Sue and Dana’s fears.
“Ethan never left home without his hockey sticks,” Dana said.
Dana called and texted his son. No answer.
The 19-year-old was travelling eastbound on his way to a computer science class at the University of Manitoba when his car was crushed between two 18-wheel semis.
He was killed instantly.
According to RCMP investigators, a large vehicle towing a trailer emerged across the intersection at the Brady Road Resource Management Facility (commonly known as the Brady Road Landfill) to turn westbound onto the Perimeter Highway.
The pickup truck and its trailer blocked the eastbound lanes, forcing a semi truck to slow down and stop in front of Ethan.
Ethan also slowed down, but the semi truck behind him did not, rear-ending him and throwing his Honda under the truck in front.
The months following Ethan’s death were a blur for the Boyer family, said Dana.
“It was like taking a long nap, and every day is an extension of the rest.”
The Boyer family’s three fridges were packed full of food for months from friends and family. When they decided to host a gather to celebrate Ethan’s life, more than 90 people showed up.
Dana said people often asked what they could do to help.
“If you want to do something for Ethan, tell the government to fix the damn road,” he told them.
On average, 22,990 vehicles travel the south Perimeter every day. According to the City of Winnipeg, about 700 of those vehicles enter the Brady Road Landfill per day.
This central access point to the province’s largest dump had no controlled intersection before 2020. A controlled intersection is considered to be anything from a four-way stop to a roundabout, or set of traffic lights.
Large vehicles turning left into or out of the landfill had to cross two lanes of high-speed traffic on Manitoba’s most travelled corridor.
Documents from the province say there were 74 collisions (serious and non-serious) at or near the intersection between 2012 and 2020.
In that same period there were 18 fatal collisions on the Perimeter Highway resulting in 20 deaths.
Four of the fatalities, including Ethan Boyer’s, occurred at this intersection.
Mike Siemens, a retired fire chief from the Rural Municipality of Macdonald, answered many calls to vehicle collisions on the south Perimeter in his 40 years as a first responder.
He was first on the scene the day of Ethan’s collision and acted as incident commander — the person overseeing the site. Siemens said he tried to ensure things ran as smoothly as possible while firefighters tended to Ethan’s vehicle and RCMP took care of diverting traffic.
“I’ve seen so many accidents there,” said the 59-year-old. “This was one of the more serious ones for sure.”
The province originally built the Perimeter Highway in 1955 to route farm equipment around the city.
At the time, Winnipeg’s population was roughly 400,000. Today, that number’s increased to approximately 775,000, with a resulting increase in road traffic.
“The volume of traffic [on the Perimeter] has exceeded the roadway,” said Siemens.
Not long after Ethan’s death, Siemens wrote a letter to the provincial government urging it to close off that specific intersection because of what he saw as countless safety risks.
The retired firefighter is no stranger to discussions around this intersection.
Ethan wasn’t the first teen to die in a collision there.
New Fatality, Old Problem
On Apr. 21, 2011, Cody Rempel and Jordan Polanski headed to Brady Road to pick up some firewood.
The 18-year-olds went to school at Sanford Collegiate, and according to friends, could be seen goofing around in the hallways on any given day.
As their old white and grey Ford pick-up truck headed east on the Perimeter, Cody rode shotgun and Jordan was behind the wheel.
The boys waited to turn left off the Perimeter and onto Brady Road going north. Their view was blocked by a garbage truck waiting to turn left from the other side of the highway into the Brady Landfill. As they turned left, the teens were struck and killed by an 18-wheel semi travelling in the far westbound lane.
RCMP officers deemed the collision an accident.
While Siemens wasn’t present at Cody’s collision, he says many first responders on the scene that day were Rempel’s classmates, friends, and community members.
“It’s a different kind of call when you know the person. It makes everything harder,” he said.
Cody Rempel was Mike Siemens’ neighbour in Oak Bluff, a town 10 minutes west of the crash site. His son was the same age as Cody. The boys grew up arguing about whose dad was tougher and parked themselves on the street in front of the Rempel’s house, where they played street hockey until the sunlight left the summer sky.
After the collision, Siemens led a memorial service of vehicles to the site where mourners staked crosses crafted by Cody and Jordan’s best friends. Students, parents, and community members gathered to remember the teenagers, who were on the cusp of graduating high school.
Weeks later, another accident put a vehicle in the ditch, destroying the crosses. Siemens decided not to put up more crosses for family and friends to visit.
It was a tough call, he said, but the intersection was just too dangerous.
Over the past decade, governments have engaged with community members and first responders from the municipality regarding changes to the south Perimeter.
“There were a few meetings we were invited to, but not quite enough,” said Siemens. “I think (first responders) should be more involved.”
Ron Schuler, the province’s infrastructure minister, said public engagement around the South Perimeter Highway is ongoing through the province’s EngageMB website.
The province developed what is called the South Perimeter Highway Safety Plan in 2018. It included changes like closing off median openings at uncontrolled intersections.
Shortly after, the government released a design study for the south Perimeter with suggestions on how to engineer the roadways.
The minister said the government had plans for Brady Road construction and allocated the money, but unfortunately, it was too late in Ethan’s case.
“[Ethan] is faultless and blameless,” said Schuler. “That intersection should have never been allowed.”
The province’s long-term plan is to close off every uncontrolled intersection on the Perimeter Highway, said Schuler.
Manitoba advocates for road safety are skeptical.
Terry Shaw, director of the Manitoba Trucking Association, has been lobbying for changes to Manitoba’s roadways and the Perimeter Highway for 10 years.
“We’ve seen some work done, and we support the work being done and the strategy to fix that stretch of highway,” Shaw said. “But we have some questions about how the province is implementing it.”
Progress on the Perimeter’s infrastructure is not moving fast enough, Shaw said.
The Manitoba Trucking Association represents 300 companies in Manitoba. It advocates on behalf of their members, with a primary focus on safety.
“Everyone walks away from those incidents changed, and that’s why we need to do everything we can to minimize them,” Shaw said.
10 Years of Carnage
When Cody Rempel died, he was two weeks away from attending a Major League Baseball camp at what is now called Shaw Park. He was one of two Manitobans selected to attend.
His mother Joanne remembers him as a gentle giant with a kind heart, known as the ‘bug guy’ in town when he was little. She vividly remembers him crawling through culverts in the ditches of Oak Bluff and walking through the door with his pockets full of bugs.
In his adolescence, Cody could be found strutting around in his brown cowboy boots. He had them on when he died.
There isn’t a day that goes by where Joanne doesn’t think of him — even after 10 years, she said.
“Life takes on a different flavour. There’s a big piece of your heart that’s got a callus on it.”
Joanne recounts emails and conversations with government months and years after the accident, imploring them to do what they could to close off the intersection.
She claims she didn’t receive responses to e-mails, and conversations that did happen around the intersection or Cody’s death were insincere or non-existent.
“You will find people in politics don’t want to deal with emotional people,” she said.
Schuler said he could not comment on behalf of the former government’s lack of responses, but getting too involved with families isn’t proper governmental practice.
“We try not to personalize all of it,” said Schuler. “We make public policy on good data.”
Joanne says over the years, money and the inconvenience was a consistent excuse from government when it came to fixing the intersection.
“What value do you put on a life?” she said. “Rerouting traffic for three minutes? Bummer.”
Schuler says closing off a busy intersection improperly can have devastating ramifications.
“The thing with infrastructure is there’s no quick fix. If we don’t engineer it properly, it can go very wrong,” Schuler said.
After Ethan’s death, the provincial government reduced the intersection speed limit to 80 km/h from 100.
Speed reduction was not enough for the Boyer family and their friends. They called, petitioned, and advocated the government to close the intersection.
“[Right after the collision] We had a serious conversation in our office and worked overtime to answer all the emails about changing the intersection,” said Schuler. “That was a grim week.”
The Boyers, Rempels, and many others’ wishes came true on Aug. 5, 2020, when the province opened Ethan Boyer Way — a service road rerouting traffic from the Brady landfill to a controlled intersection at Waverley Street and the Perimeter.
The left-hand turn seen in both Ethan and Cody’s collisions is no longer an option.
Dana, Sue, Reid — alongside Ron Schuler and other government officials — gathered to memorialize Ethan and commemorate the road’s opening.
At the ceremony, Schuler said the government response to this intersection was long overdue.
Dana says he’s satisfied with the functionality of the roadway named after his son.
“They moved fast. I’ll give them that,” he said. “It’s quite something what they’ve done.”
Joanne is happy for the Boyer family but said it’s too late for her to celebrate.
“It was bittersweet,” she said. “I think what upsets me is [the government] acts like they’ve done this great thing now.”
The government did not contact the Rempel family regarding the opening of Ethan Boyer Way, which adds to Joanne feeling disheartened.
“Not even a letter saying ‘FYI,'” she said. “They know our kids were killed there.”
Schuler said he didn’t know about the collision that claimed the lives of Cody Rempel and Jordan Polanski.
“I don’t know what I don’t know,” said Schuler. “I wasn’t in government.”
The Manitoba NDP held power the year of Cody and Jordan’s collision. Four years later, The Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba won a majority government, and Ron Schuler was appointed infrastructure minister in August 2017.
No one person in government is to blame, said Joanne.
“I think the killer is that it took statistics to get there,” she said. “And, when your kid is a statistic…I don’t feel rewarded by the name change of a road.”
“[Ethan] died because of stupidity… pure and simple… a piss-poor design on a highway that should have been changed before he was born.”
The Boyer family is working with the RCMP in attempt to lay charges against the driver of the vehicle two rear ended Ethan. The leading RCMP investigator on the case has sent evidence to the Crown for review. No further details could be discussed due to legal confidentialities.
Poor Design an Added Risk
Const. Houman Shoaii sits in his police cruiser on the Perimeter Highway near St. Mary’s Road. It’s January, and his car shakes with every passing vehicle. The temperature is hovering around 0 C, and snow blows across the icy roadway. He’s clocking vehicles speeding over 125 km/h despite the conditions.
The 43-year-old RCMP officer has worked in the Central Traffic Unit for three years. It’s his job to patrol the Perimeter.
Shoaii took over the Boyer investigation from a colleague who transferred to another city. He submitted the documents from the investigation to the Manitoba Prosecution Service.
“[The Perimeter Highway] is terrifying,” he said. “There’s hundreds of close calls per day.”
He agrees with those who criticize the roadways in Manitoba, and the government’s complacency to fix the design. But, regarding the construction of Ethan Boyer Way, Shoaii said he was “shocked” at how fast the province acted.
Shoaii encounters dangers like alcohol, distracted driving, and speed on the roadways every day. Poor infrastructure, he said, is an unnecessary added cause for injury or death.
“If you have a properly laid out road and you have drunk drivers, it gives the other people a chance to save their lives.”
He says rush hour is the worst time of day on the Perimeter because of the amount of traffic.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “I can’t be everywhere all the time.”
When the provincial government announced its plans to alter the south Perimeter, Schuler said the design study would act as a blueprint and vision statement for the next 20–30 years.
Terry Shaw from the Manitoba Trucking Association says fixing the roadways plays a role in safety but believes there are faster and more effective options.
“Regulation and oversight are, in my opinion, probably more important,” he says. “It can be done immediately, and implementation takes a couple years, not a couple decades.”
Shaw said oversight of commercial vehicle operators should include better practices to ensure drivers aren’t fatigued.
Currently, Manitoba’s minimum requirement for truck drivers to log hours is with a pen and paper. Shaw said these standards are out of date and unsafe.
“It’s 2021, for God’s sake.”
Living with Loss
As the 10th anniversary of her son’s death approaches in April, Joanne reflects differently now than she did in 2011.
“I can’t be angry anymore,” she said. “I think now I can get over his death and really concentrate on his life.”
Dana uses the same approach to keep Ethan’s memory alive.
The 58-year-old chuckled as he described his son’s demeanour.
“He didn’t have a mean bone in his body,” he said. “He had a kind heart and an old soul.”
Ethan would have turned 21 this February, and the Boyer family said his memory lives on in many ways.
Before his death, Ethan begged Dana to get a cat. Dana told him no, because they already had enough animals.
Days after Ethan died, Sue was in the backyard when a stray black kitten came out of their shed. She scooped it up and took it over to the window to show Dana. “It’s Ethan!” she yelled.
Salty the cat is now a permanent member of the family, named after Ethan’s online gaming tag.
“I think it’s Ethan reincarnated,” said Dana.
Just like Joanne, Dana says his son’s spirit is with him every day.
“Ethan’s face is the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see at night.”
Behind the Headline:
Disclaimer: The author has a close relationship with the Rempel, Polanski, and Boyer families.