MANDEL: Impaired canoeist responsible for boy’s death finally goes to prison

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The man convicted in Canada’s first case of impaired canoeing causing death is finally going to prison.

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Free on bail since his 2019 conviction, David Sillars lost his appeal Tuesday and will now begin serving his six year sentence for the drowning death of his girlfriend’s eight-year-old son, Thomas Rancourt, on the swollen and frigid Muskoka River on April 7, 2017.

It can’t come too soon for the family that still grieves the young boy.

“It feels great,” his father Jamie Rancourt said in an interview. “It’s not going to bring my son back, but at least we’ve got something. At least the sentence isn’t reduced, and we don’t have to go through another trial.”

With 1 1/2 times the legal limit of alcohol in his system, as well as marijuana, Sillars took Thomas canoeing on that freezing day after school to get a blue barrel stuck on a yellow danger barrier just above High Falls in Bracebridge.

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Thomas was a weak swimmer, didn’t know how to canoe and was dressed by his mom in a lifejacket that was too small squeezed over two layers of clothing and a winter jacket. School buses had been cancelled due to ice on the roads, and the fast-moving water in the spring snow runoff was so frigid that it would take only three to four minutes for hypothermia to set in.

No responsible adult would have ventured out on that river with a child.

Despite all the posted danger signs and the warnings from his friends in the cottage that day, the 37-year-old Sillars took the boy canoeing to dislodge the blue barrel near the barrier. He later told police Thomas leaned out with his paddle, capsizing the canoe and throwing both of them into the turbulent water.

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The boy was swept to his death over the raging, 15-metre high falls; Sillars swam to safety.

Blood taken at the hospital found Sillars had 128 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood. He was charged with impaired operation of a vessel causing death; operating a vessel with over 80 mg; dangerous operation of a vessel causing death; and criminal negligence causing death.

At his trial, Sillars argued that a canoe isn’t a vessel and the legislation was intended for motorized boats. In what was believed to be a precedent-setting decision, trial judge Peter C. West ruled that impaired laws do include non-motorized vessels such as canoes.

Convicted on all counts and sentenced to six years, Sillars was then freed on $1,500 bail.

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He appealed on four grounds: the trial judge was wrong in finding that a canoe is a vessel; his right to a lawyer was delayed; there was no expert evidence from the Crown about what a reasonable prudent canoeist would have done under the circumstances; and the six-year sentence was unfit.

The Ontario Court of Appeal rejected each argument — the three-judge panel reconfirmed that Canada’s impaired boating laws intended to include non-motorized vessels such as canoes and there was no breach of his right to counsel.

The appeal court also rejected the need for an expert to testify that no reasonable canoeist would venture on to the swift-moving, freezing river that day: “Both the owner of the cottage and one of the guests testified that it was too dangerous to go out on the water that day. It was obvious to them. It was obvious to the trial judge,” wrote Justice Mary Lou Benotto on behalf of the panel.

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“Based on the trial judge’s findings, it is also plain and obvious that any lay person would come to the same conclusion.”

The appeal court also found six years wasn’t an unfit sentence under the tragic circumstances: Sillars was in a position of trust as a father figure to Thomas, yet took him on a foreseeably doomed excursion while impaired and without safety equipment — just so he could retrieve some garbage.

And so at last, he will begin to serve his sentence for causing the death of a young boy.

“It’s been a long five years; it’s been a roller coaster,” sighed Thomas’s dad across the phone line. “Now it’s over, and he’s going away, and we can move on, I guess.”

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