Do Drunk Driving Laws Apply to Canoeing? One Court Says Yes


By Written on behalf of Campbell Bader LLP

In these summer months, you and your family may decide to escape the heat and the city by taking a trip to the lake. You may even decide to relax with a few alcoholic beverages by its side. But beware: a recent Ontario court ruling found that impaired driving laws apply equally to a person who is intoxicated while operating a canoe. 

What Happened?

In April 2017, the accused was spending time at a friend’s cottage on the Muskoka River in Bracebridge, Ontario. He was at the cottage around 12:30 pm with his friend, relaxing. Another friend, who lived on the river, dropped by for a beer.

Sometime later the accused’s girlfriend, arrived at the cottage with her two sons, aged six and eight years of age. 

The accused consumed at least two alcoholic drinks while he was at the cottage and had smoked a marijuana cigarette before anyone else arrived. 

Later that afternoon, the accused went down the Muskoka River in a canoe with his girlfriend’s son, aged eight. At some point, the canoe tipped over and they both fell into the river. The accused was able to get to shore, but the young boy drowned.

Breathalyzer tests revealed that his alcohol level was above the legal driving limit and blood tests showed that he had THC in his system.

The accused was charged 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 a preliminary ruling, one of the key issues raised by both counsel respecting the first three charges was whether a canoe is included in the term “vessel” contained in the Criminal Code

The Decision

The court began by setting out the legislative issue, stating:

“Definitions for Part VIII are contained in s. 214 [of the Criminal Code], which provides: 

“vessel” includes a machine designed to derive support in the atmosphere primarily from reactions against the earth’s surface of air expelled from the machine.

The definition of “vessel” only indicates through the description provided that a hovercraft is included. No other description of a vessel is set out in the definition section.”

The court reviewed principles of statutory interpretation as well as looking to the definition of “vessel” in a variety of different contexts, such as dictionaries and other pieces of legislation. It also considered the defence’s arguments, but ultimately rejected them, stating in part:

“Any kind of activity involving the use of a vessel, including those propelled exclusively by muscular power, is inherently dangerous given the activity is on water, where the depth of the water is usually greater than a person’s height and the proficiency of members of the public respecting their ability to swim is considerably varied. […] The combination of alcohol or marihuana or other illicit substances with activities on the water can only increase that inherent danger. […] 

[O]perating a canoe after consuming alcohol in excess of the legal limit or while one’s ability to operate a canoe is impaired by alcohol or a drug or a combination of both or operating a canoe dangerously in a marked departure from the norm, all of these types of conduct, in my view, are sufficiently morally culpable to warrant the stigma of a criminal sanction.”

As a result, the court found that canoes were included in the Criminal Code offences of impaired operation of a “vessel,” operating a “vessel” with greater than 80 mg alcohol/100 ml of blood and dangerous operation of a “vessel.”

Get Advice

If you have been charged with a driving-related offence, including “over 80”, impaired driving, or refusal to provide a breath or blood sample, contact the team of criminal defence lawyers at Campbell Bader LLPin Mississauga. We have experience defending clients against all types of drunk driving and impaired driving due to drug charges.  We have successfully defended clients against even the most serious charges and acquittal is always our goal. Contact us online or at 905-828-2247 to learn how we can help.


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