Can I be charged for impaired paddling?

Impaired driving in a canoe will be treated the same as impaired driving in a motor vehicle.




Prior to the R v Sillars case

Prior to the R v Sillars case, it was unclear whether canoes, a pleasure craft powered by muscular power was subject to the impaired laws.

This is because the Criminal Code had no clear definition for the term “vessel.” Parliament also failed to provide us with a clear, comprehensive and inclusive definition of the term ‘vessel.


What happened in the Sillars case?

In 2017, Mr. Sillars went canoeing with his then-girlfriend’s eight-year-old son. The canoe capsized and the little boy died as a result. The police charged Mr. Sillars with impaired driving in a vessel (a canoe) .

Mr. Sillars registered a first reading of 97 mg of alcohol in 100 mL of blood — above the legal driving limit of 80 mg. A second test registered a reading of 100 mg. Blood tests showed Sillars also had THC in his system and had likely consumed cannabis earlier that day. Mr. Sillars was charged with impaired driving in a vessel amongst other charges.Mr. Sillars contested impaired paddling charges in court.


Landmark decision

Justice West in an Ontario court decision (Nov. 15, 2018), held that canoes are “vessels” under the Criminal Code of Canada and so does pretty much anything else that transports you over water. In other words, non-motorized vessels on water will be treated the same as powerful motorized vehicles on land.

How prevalent is boating and drinking?

His Honour cited stats from the Canadian safe boating council – that between 1991 and 2010 there were 375 deaths in suspected and confirmed cases involving alcohol and unpowered vessels such as canoes and rafts in Canada.

The boating council urged MPs to allow police to charge canoeists with impaired driving offences. The boating counsel said that excluding canoes would hurt their public awareness campaigns.

Parliament deliberately excluded “non-motorized pleasure crafts” from the impaired driving laws.


Recently Parliament has completely re-written the law relating to impaired operation of a number of different conveyances, including “vessels” (see Bill C-46, s. 320 Criminal Code).

The original definition “vessel” in Bill C-46, under s. 320.11, excluded vessels propelled exclusively by muscular power. This meant canoes and kayaks and other “vessels” propelled exclusively by muscular power would not be considered as “vessels” under the Criminal Code.

During the Justice Committee hearings, a number of different agencies, including the Canadian Safe Boating Council, made submissions against this exclusion. Statistics were provided in the CSBC’s submissions, which reflected the increase in the number of non-motorized vessels propelled exclusively by muscular power.

Ultimately the exclusion of “vessels” exclusively propelled by muscular power was removed from the final draft of the definition of “vessel,” which was presented to Parliament for ratification.

Justice West held that it is in his view this decision by the Standing Committee was something to consider in determining Parliament’s intention concerning which “vessels” are included in the Criminal Code offences respecting criminal conduct affecting the operation of vessels.


What Does This Mean?

It is now illegal to to paddle dangerously (s. 249 of the Criminal Code), to hit-and-paddle (s. 252), to drunk-paddle (s. 253), or to be in the care or control of a canoe, even a motionless one, while being impaired (s. 253)


What counts as a vessel?

A vessel is anything capable of being navigated down a waterway. This would include canoes, kayaks and even stand-up paddleboards count as vessels


What does this mean for you?

If you intend to drink and engage in any water sports or embark on any vessels, you should be mindful that you could be charged with impaired driving.