impaired canoeing

Can I Be Charged for Being Impaired While Canoeing?

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

Justice Peter West is the first judge in Canada to provide a ruling that a canoe is a “vessel” for the purposes of the criminal charges of impaired operation of a vessel causing death, operation of a vessel over 80, and the dangerous operation of a vessel.

According to the Canadian Red Cross, following 18 years of research on all deaths involving boats in Canada, more than 40% of recreational boating deaths are alcohol related.

WHAT HAPPENED?

On April 7, 2017, Thomas Rancourt (“Rancourt”), eight-years-old at the time, had gone for a canoe ride with his mother’s boyfriend, David Sillars (“Sillars”), on the Muskoka River on a cold spring day in Bracebridge, Ontario. 

The canoe capsized and Sillars was able to escape and swim to shore.  However, Rancourt continued down the river and had gone over the falls.  A search led to the discovery of Rancourt, where he was pulled from the icy water, CPR was immediately  administered and he was rushed to hospital.  He died shortly thereafter. 

Rancourt did not know how to swim and was wearing a lifejacket that was too small for him. 

Sillars was charged with impaired operation of a vessel causing death, operating a vessel with more than 80 mg of alcohol in 100 mL of blood, dangerous operation of a vessel, and criminal negligence causing death.

Sillars pleaded not guilty to all four criminal charges.  The Judge in this case has reserved his judgment.  We will provide information regarding the judgment in this case and any updates in this blog when they become available.

THE RULING THAT A CANOE IS A ‘VESSEL’ UNDER THE CRIMINAL CODE

Last fall, Justice West was asked to consider whether a canoe is included in the term “vessel” contained in the specific sections of the Criminal Code related to the case against Sillars.

The definition of vessel in section 214 of the Criminal Code of Canada does not specifically include a canoe, it merely states that a vessel “includes a machine designed to derive support in the atmosphere primarily from reactions against the earth’s surface of air expelled from the machine”. 

Justice West ruled that it was clear that as a result of growing concern that the public was not taking the regulations as set out in the Small Vessel Regulations under the Canada Shipping Act seriously that the term vessel was added to a number of offences in the Criminal Code in 1961, including the offence of dangerous operation of a vessel, impaired operation of a vessel, and operating a vessel with the blood alcohol concentration over 80 mg.  The wording was added to provoke members of the public to take the safe operation of pleasure crafts more seriously and therefore attach a criminal stigma to these offences.

Vessel was also added to these offences due to the increase in the number of pleasure crafts being used on waterways throughout Canada.

Justice West stated:

[O]perating any type of vessel on a lake or river or sea requires some level of competency and knowledge as to the proper operation of the vessel and an awareness of the rules and regulations which govern safety on the water.

The danger of harm is to the person or persons operating the canoe, or the passengers in the canoe or other persons operating small vessels in the vicinity or those coming to assist when an emergency occurs as a result of the person operating the canoe being impaired, over 80 or operating dangerously.

The fact is, like impaired drivers, the impaired operation of a pleasure craft presents a continuing danger on the waterway.  The goal is to screen operators of a vessel before there is an accident or emergency situation.  These inherent dangers of operating a ‘vessel’ on the water affect all operators of small vessels on Canada’s lakes and rivers and territorial waterways.

Justice West ruled that that the danger of harm is no different when one’s ability is impaired whether they are operating a motor boat with a five horsepower motor, a motor boat with a 150 horesepower motor, or a canoe.  Each of these acts justifies the stigma of a criminal sanction.

DRUNK BOATING IN ONTARIO

Drunk boating is equivalent to drunk driving.  Under the Criminal Code, if you are operating a boat, including a canoe, while impaired (80 mg of alcohol per 100 mg of blood), you are committing an offence under the law. 

Marine police can perform spot checks on waterways, the same as police do on our roadways.  Police can look for signs that a paddler is impaired.  The same rules that apply on land, apply on water.  In Ontario, if you are convicted of impaired operation of your boat, the consequences will extend to your privileges to drive your automobile.

If you have been charged with an impaired driving or any other driving offence, whether on land or water, please contact the experienced criminal defence lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP.  We offer a 24-hour phone service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice at all times.  Contact our office online or at 905-404-1947.