Appeal heard in precedent-setting Ontario case involving impaired operation of a canoe

Sitting at his home in North Bay, Ont., Jamie Rancourt watched on Zoom as defence lawyers argued in the court of appeal in Toronto that David Sillars, the man convicted of his son’s death in 2017 after taking the eight-year-old out in a canoe, should have his verdict and sentence overturned.

“It’s bringing up a lot of old emotions. It’s tough to hear some of the old stuff again,” Rancourt told Global News via Zoom, clearly still very heartbroken about the death of his son.

In October 2019, Sillars was sentenced to six years in prison after being found guilty after a judge alone trial of impaired operation of a vessel, namely a canoe, causing death, operation of a vessel with a blood-alcohol content over 80 milligrams causing death, dangerous operation of a vessel causing death and criminal negligence causing death.

Read more: Toronto man on trial for impaired operation of canoe causing child’s death

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It was April 7, 2017 when eight-year-old Thomas Rancourt went on a canoe ride with Sillars, his mother’s boyfriend, on the Muskoka River near Bracebridge. A short time later, the canoe capsized and Rancourt, who was wearing a life jacket that didn’t fit and who was not a strong swimmer, went over a steep waterfall at High Falls.

The boy did not survive. Sillars managed to swim to safety and was later arrested.

At trial, it was determined Sillars was impaired by alcohol and THC.

On Monday, defence lawyers Frank Addario and Bill Thompson argued that a canoe is not a vessel, saying there is no legal definition of vessel, despite the ruling by the trial judge at the time.

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They also argued that Sillars should have been given the right to counsel prior to being given a breath screening test and said that the Crown did not prove that Sillars was criminally negligent, a marked and substantial departure from the relevant standard of care.

Madam Justice Julie Thorburn responded to Thompson’s argument that no evidence was presented to the trial judge of what a relevant standard of care was.

Read more: Toronto man found guilty of impaired operation of a canoe in precedent-setting case

“He was wearing a life jacket that didn’t fit. He took him out in the boat. Even if the mom put it on, he had a responsibility to make sure it fits. I share my colleague’s points that some things are so obvious. Do we really have to have experts to come in and testify?” said Thorburn.

The defence also called the six-year prison sentence unfair, arguing a two-year sentence would have been fit.

“This was effectively a test case. Prior to this, no one had been tried to dangerous operation of a canoe. Given this is the first case of its kind, there are no precedents,” Thompson told the court.

Crown prosecutor Philip Perlmutter argued that while the word “vessel” is not formally defined in the Criminal Code, he said if Parliament had wanted to attach that qualification, they would have done so.

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“In my submission, the law can’t cover off every absurdity. A muscular powered water craft is a vessel for the purposes of the Criminal Code,” Perlmutter explained.

Perlmutter added that the appellant was not entitled his right to counsel until after failing his approved screening device and said that there was nothing objectionable about the way Sillars was given his right to counsel.

Read more: Toronto man sentenced to 6 years in prison after being found guilty of impaired operation of canoe

As for the sentence, Crown Attorney Davin Garg argued that six years in prison was fit given Sillars’ somewhat lengthy criminal record, telling the panel, “This is a case that was obvious to anyone, the dangers involved.”

The decision on the appeal was reserved. Sillars was released back out on bail pending the decision.

Jamie Rancourt said that he still has a tough time believing that Sillars took his son out for a canoe ride that day.

“School buses were cancelled due to freezing cold. It’s April 7 so we’ve got spring runoff, the water’s flowing. We all know better,” Rancourt said.

“Common sense tells you the water is high. The water’s flowing. He had no business going out there to canoe.”

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