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Over the past several years there have been huge changes to the impaired and over .80 laws in Canada. These changes have led to more arrests for impaired driving offences and more severe penalties for those who are convicted.

One significant change that has occurred is the broadening of what is considered a “conveyance” for the purposes of impaired driving. In 2018 an Ontario Court ruled that impaired driving and over .80 laws in Ontario apply to a wide range of water vessels in the same way they apply to motor vehicles, even if the vessel is propelled only by muscular power.

These changes in the law stemmed from a 2018 Ontario Court of Justice decision called R v Sillars. In that case the Court convicted a man of impaired driving and over .80 offences after an incident involving a canoe. Mr. Sillars had been on a weekend trip with his family in Muskoka. After consuming a quantity of alcohol and marijuana, Mr. Sillars went out in his canoe with his young stepson. At some point during the outing the canoe capsized, throwing both passengers into the water. Mr. Sillars was able to swim to shore but the young boy was swept over a waterfall and later died of his injuries.

Mr. Sillars defended the charges, arguing that the canoe did not have a motor and was propelled only by muscle power. The Court stated that though the canoe was not motor powered, it nonetheless fit the description of a vessel as outlined in the Criminal Code. The Court further reasoned that activities on the water are inherently dangerous and as a result extra care must be taken. The Court clarified that the term “vessel” includes all water vessels propelled both by motor and by muscular power and includes canoes, kayaks, paddleboats, rowboats and stand-up paddleboards.

This interpretation of the law was possible because of the current wording of the Criminal Code. The Code states that an individual can be arrested and charged with impaired driving or over .80 offence if they “operate a motor vehicle or vessel” while impaired by drugs and/or alcohol. While the meaning of motor vehicle is generally obvious and straight forward, the meaning of the term vessel is less clear. The Code does not define the term “vessel”, thus leaving its precise definition open to interpretation.

It is important to note that this particular case was decided in the Ontario Provincial Court which means the decision is not necessarily binding on other provinces in Canada. The Courts of other provinces are free to interpret the term “vessel” differently. However, we expect other provinces to follow a similar path.

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