Liberal MP Colin Fraser said he was persuaded by the Canadian Safe Boating Council, which had testified it would send the wrong message to the publicBowing to concerns from safe boating advocates, Canadian MPs have reversed course and plan to continue allowing police to lay impaired driving charges on drunk canoeists.
On Wednesday, Liberal MP Colin Fraser passed an amendment that removes a clause in Bill C-46 that would have excluded drinking and paddling from impaired driving laws.
The legislation will need to get through the Senate once it passes in the Commons, so it could be amended again before becoming law.
The Liberals can use their majority to push through amendments, but in this case didn’t have to: the change got unanimous support in the justice committee.
In an interview, Fraser said he was persuaded by the Canadian Safe Boating Council, which had testified it would send the wrong message to the public to exclude drunk canoeing.
“The CSBC gave some pretty clear examples of where it can be extremely dangerous to have somebody impaired in the water,” he said.
Police are always able to charge someone for being intoxicated in public and engaging in dangerous activity, but being charged with an impaired driving offence under the Criminal Code triggers harsh provincial punishment, including automatic driver’s licence suspensions.
In a quirky grey area, however, Canada’s impaired driving laws only require that a road vehicle be motorized to qualify, not water-going vessels. Vessels are not defined in the Criminal Code at all, aside from an instruction that hovercraft are included.
It means impaired driving laws don’t apply to bicycles, but some jurisdictions apply them to canoes, kayaks and even inflatable rafts.
The original version of the bill specified that vessels excluded those “propelled exclusively by means of muscular power.” Fraser’s amendment removes that language, leaving the vague definition in place.
The CSBC’s John Gullick said he’s still not fully happy, as he was hoping to have the definition changed to explicitly include canoeists.
“But we have a victory in the sense that it’s now back the way it was,” he said. “I’m very happy that they listened to us.”
Police in Ontario have laid impaired driving charges against canoeists, but sometimes dropped them when prosecutors decided there wasn’t a reasonable chance of conviction.
Fraser said he wants to leave it up to the courts to develop the case law on drunk canoeing, rather than having the government clarify it.
“I really don’t think that we’re opening up Pandora’s Box here, it’s been pretty rare,” he said. “I think it’s probably better to just keep the law the way it is already.”
But the definition may soon be tested in court. Earlier this year, Ontario Provincial Police laid charges against David Sillars, a 37-year-old who tipped a canoe on the Muskoka River. An eight-year-old in the canoe was swept over a waterfall and died.
Sillars is charged with impaired operation of a vessel causing death and operating a vessel with a blood-alcohol level over 80 milligrams causing death, among other counts.
During the committee meeting, Conservative MP Rob Nicholson — a former Conservative justice minister — appeared to cite that case in asking for clarification on what the amendment would do.
“My colleague, Tony Clement, was just the other day telling me about a terrible accident. Somebody was impaired and somebody got killed, in the boat. It wasn’t a motorized boat … So it’s going to be still a crime to paddle a canoe impaired?” he asked.
“Yes,” Fraser replied.
“Thank you very much, that’s all I need to know,” Nicholson replied.
Shortly after, the vote passed unanimously.
Source: National Post