Family Violence & Abuse

Canoe Tragedy at Cottage Leads to Conviction for Impaired Driving

maroon cannoes on a dock still water mountains
Written by Russell Alexander / (905) 655-6335

We are well into the long days of summer, which can be the season for family outings to the beach, European vacations, and lazy days at the cottage.

But not every well-intentioned summer adventure ends with good memories.

The recent criminal law decision in R. v. Sillars described an idyllic-sounding Muskoka canoe trip gone bad, culminating in the tragic death of an 8-year old boy.   The accused David Sillars – who was dating the boy’s mother – becomes the first person in Canada to be convicted of impaired driving charges while paddling a canoe.  He now faces a potential maximum sentence of life imprisonment (though it is likely that he will receive a sentence ranging between two and 10 years).

The events of the fateful day in April 2017 started unremarkably:  The 37-year-old Sillars had been at a friend’s cottage on the Muskoka River with his girlfriend and her 8-year old son, Thomas.  Although he had been drinking and consumed marijuana earlier in the day, with his mother’s permission he decided to take Thomas canoeing. The outing turned to tragedy when they paddled toward a barrier that blocked them from the 50-foot rocky-bottomed waterfall.  Sillars was trying to reach a blue barrel that had been wedged near the barrier. Thomas stood up in the canoe to help, and the canoe tipped over. Sillars was able to clamor to the shore, but what was described as the “extremely fast-flowing” current carried Thomas toward the waterfall, and ultimately to his regrettable death.

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In addition to addressing culpability for the death of Thomas – who considered Sillars to be a father figure – the case also offered the court an unprecedented opportunity to consider several legal issues:  1) the meaning of “vessels” that is found in the Criminal Code, and as it relates to impaired driving offences specifically; and 2) whether paddling a canoe can fall within the definition of impaired “driving”.  The case also represented the first time that charges had been prosecuted in connection with a person operating a canoe after consuming alcohol and marijuana.

On the legal definitions, the court ruled that canoes do count as vessels, and that being impaired – whether by alcohol or drugs — while paddling in a canoe can give rise to criminal liability.  In this case, Sillars had admitted to drinking two alcohol coolers before setting out, but the breathalyzer results showed he was over the legal limit of 80mg per 100 mL of blood.  Additional blood tests also showed the presence of cannabis.

Additionally, the Crown was successful in persuading the court that the evidence, when viewed cumulatively as a whole, proved beyond a reasonable doubt that:

… David Sillars’ decision to canoe towards a yellow warning barrier, in the existing water conditions on April 7, 2017, with an eight year old boy, to retrieve a blue barrel from a yellow warning barrier a short distance before High Falls, was a “marked and substantial” departure from the conduct of a reasonable prudent person in the circumstances and that it showed a wanton and reckless disregard for the life and safety of Thomas Rancourt.

The court also found that Sillars’ consumption of alcohol and marijuana impaired his ability to quickly react when the canoe tipped over and got caught in the current. Sillars was found guilty of: impaired operation of a vessel causing death; operating a vessel with over 80mg of alcohol in 100 mL of blood causing death; dangerous operation of a vessel causing death; and criminal negligence causing death. He is yet to be sentenced.

For the full text of the decision, see:

R v. Sillars, 2019 ONCJ 474 (CanLII)

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About the author

Russell Alexander

Russell Alexander is the Founder & Senior Partner of Russell Alexander Collaborative Family Lawyers.