Criminal Negligence

Canoes are “Vessels” Under the Criminal Code

Written on behalf of Barrison Law
canoe on a lake representing

The Ontario Court of Appeal has recognized canoes as “vessels” under the Criminal Code by upholding a recent lower court decision. The case that prompted this analysis, R v. Sillars, dealt with an individual operating a canoe under the influence and in a negligent manner. This led to the canoe capsizing, causing the death of an 8-year-old boy who was also aboard.

A canoe ride ends in the loss of a child

In 2017, the appellant, David Sillars, was at a cottage on the Muskoka River with friends. Sillars took his girlfriend’s 8-year-old son, Thomas, canoeing on the river. It was a cold day, and the water was turbulent, with a strong current. The Court described the boy as not knowing how to canoe and being “an inexperienced swimmer.” Sillars, on the other hand, was an experienced canoeist.

The pair canoed towards High Falls to remove a piece of debris stuck against a warning barrier, indicating that the falls were dangerous. Upon doing so, the canoe capsized, and Thomas went over the falls. Police found Thomas in the area of the river past the falls and pronounced him dead. Sillars managed to swim to shore and was brought to a nearby hospital due to hypothermia.

Upon medical examination, police determined that Sillars had a blood alcohol content of 128 mg in 100 mg of blood. He was arrested for “impaired operation of a vessel and operating a vessel with over 80 mg of alcohol in his body.” He was then charged and convicted of impaired operation of a vessel causing death and criminal negligence causing death and received a six-year prison sentence.

What is the definition of a “vessel”?

As the Criminal Code does not include a clear-cut definition of “vessel,” the trial judge analyzed how the word was intended to be understood.

The trial judge interpreted “vessel” as incorporating all types of watercraft, regardless of how they are propelled. The trial judge found the term to be analogous to “boat.” The trial judge then provided multiple reasons for determining that canoes count as vessels:

  1. Words such as “motorized” were not used to qualify the term “vessel” in the Criminal Code, meaning that Parliament did not intend to limit the definition to motorized vessels.
  2. The bill that added “vessel” to the Criminal Code highlighted concerns about the “impaired operation of pleasure craft vessels.”
  3. A draft of Bill-C-46 attempted to remove fully non-motorized vessels from the definition of “vessel”, but this was eliminated “after submissions by the Canadian Safe Boating Council indicating that many deaths occurred in cases involving alcohol and unpowered vessels.”
  4. Other statutes confirmed the interpretation.

The trial judge also confirmed that it was constitutional for police to screen a person operating any type of watercraft for impairment in the same manner in which drivers are screened.

Accused appeals the decision that a canoe is a “vessel” under the Criminal Code

Sillars appealed the decision to the Ontario Court of Appeal. He argued that a canoe is not a vessel. He offered five main reasons for this argument:

  1. The size of the canoe prevents it from falling under the definition of a “vessel,” based on the dictionary definition of the word.
  2. Criminal liability exists for the operation of “licensed, modern forms of transportation” that can lead to “catastrophic consequences.”
  3. Driving offences regulate licenced forms of transportation, and licencing is not required for a canoe.
  4. Multiple people can control the speed and direction of a canoe, meaning that regulation is not possible.
  5. A canoe is more similar to a bicycle than other modes of transportation because it uses muscle power rather than motorization.

The Ontario Court of Appeal applies a wide interpretation of “vessel”

The Ontario Court of Appeal analyzed the definition of the word “vessel” in the Criminal Code. The Court found that the wording suggests the need for a broad interpretation and found that a canoe is muscle-powered and does not require a licence does not exclude it from the definition. The Court also noted that dictionary definitions support this interpretation since most of them did not discuss the size restrictions of a vessel, and many use “boat” as a synonym for “vessel.”

Furthermore, the court highlighted the dangers associated with the operation of a canoe, stating:

“Unlicensed conveyances, non-muscular-powered vessels and sailboats pose a risk of injury and death just as licensed and motor-powered conveyances do. The risks are not restricted to vessels that are required to be licensed.”

Vessels that do not require a licence still require careful operation

The Court’s decision has reduced ambiguity around the term “vessel,” clearly indicating that a lack of motorization or licensing requirements does not exclude a type of vessel from the Criminal Code. Most importantly, the case highlights the importance of taking all of the necessary safety precautions when operating vessels, regardless of their method of propulsion. Negligent operation of any vessel, including a canoe, can result in injury or death and therefore must be taken just as seriously as negligent, dangerous, or impaired driving.

Barrison Law in Oshawa Provides Reliable Advice on Impaired Operation Offences

At Barrison Law, our knowledgeable criminal defence lawyers advocate for clients in a wide range of offences, including impaired driving charges. We help clients at all stages of the criminal justice process, including at the time of arrest, bail hearings, trial, and probation breaches. We proudly serve all of Durham Region and the surrounding communities and accept cases on private retain and Legal Aid. To schedule a confidential consultation or access our 24-hour phone service, call 905-404-1947 or reach out online.