Historic legal case finds any water vehicle counts under impaired driving laws

Published: June 30, 2019

Updated: August 1, 2019

Author: Luke Jones



Canadian legal history has been made as a person has been convicted of impaired operation of a canoe. And while it may seem a comical idea, the case is the first of its kind and has ramifications for the way the law views impaired operation of transportation that is not motorized.

In April 2017, police were called to a freeway ramp to pick up a man who was reported as drunk. A pair of Ontario Provincial Police officers found 37-year old David Sillars at the scene. Sillars was soaked, without his shoes and was in a state of hypothermia. He managed to tell the officers that there was a boy in the river.

During the following historic case, it emerged Sillars has been drinking with friends in a cottage and decided to go canoeing on the Muskoka River with his girlfriend’s son. He and eight-year-old Thomas Rancourt paddled to a yellow barrier put in place to warn boaters about High Falls waterfall. While at the barrier, the canoe flipped and the pair were carried by the river, which in April was running high from snowmelt. Sillars managed to get to shore by kicking off his heavy boots, but Thomas was swept away by the current.

Backup was called to help find the child, but just 20-minutes after officers found Sillars, they pulled Thomas from the cold water at the bottom of High Falls, sadly dead.

Police conducted a breathalyzer test on Sillars, finding a reading of 97 mg of alcohol in 100 mL of blood, 17 mg above the legal limit of 80 mg for driving a car. THC was also found in subsequent blood tests, suggesting Sillars had consumer marijuana that day. Police charged Sillars with impaired operation of a vessel causing death, operating a vessel with more than 80 mg of alcohol in 100 mL blood, dangerous operation of a vessel, and criminal negligence causing death.

In court, the question became whether someone could be convicted for being impaired when operating a canoe. Specifically, does the legal language of “vessel” in the Criminal Code also include canoes?

Justice Peter West studied shipping regulations, marine law, dictionaries and other cases to see if canoe is under the vessel umbrella. In conclusion, Justice West found that a canoe does count as a vessel and he also said any other vehicle that operates on the water also counts. In other words, if you are drunk on your blowup dinghy on a lake, it could be classed as the same as driving your SUV while intoxicated.

Sillars was convicted of all four charges and is now awaiting sentencing. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment, but it is more likely he will be incarcerated for between two to 10 years.