A Canoe is a Vessel for the Purposes of the Criminal Code

“Vessel” is defined in Canada’s major shipping legislation – i.e. the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 and the Navigation Protection Act etc. – to include ships, boats or crafts of any kind, without regard to method or lack of propulsion. Canoes accordingly fall within the scope of those acts. In the Criminal Code, the term is undefined. This matters when folks get charged with dangerous operation of a vessel contrary to section 249 and/or operating a vessel while impaired contrary to section 253. 

This was exactly the case in R. v. Sillars, 2018 ONCJ 816 – a sad case involving the tragic death of a child. See here for background details: https://www.muskokaregion.com/news-story/8973313-alcohol-marijuana-factors-in-muskoka-canoe-accident-that-left-boy-dead-court-hears/

In summary, the defendant, Mr. Sillars, was charged with impaired operation of a vessel causing death, operating a vessel with more than 80 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood and dangerous operation of a vessel. He defended those charges on the basis that the “vessel” he occupied at the time, a canoe, did not fall within the scope of the Criminal Code

In his lawyers’ view, the purpose of Criminal Code provisions is to punish misconduct that is sufficiently morally culpable to warrant the stigma of a criminal sanction. In their view, operating a non-motorized canoe did not meet that standard – just like operating a bicycle while impaired does not result in an impaired driving charge. Accordingly, they argued that the Criminal Code definition of “vessel” did and could not include canoes.

On the contrary, the crown argued that operating any kind of vessel, including a canoe, involves a real degree of danger. It also cited section 4(4) of the Criminal Code as authority for the court to rely on the definitions of “vessel” in Canada’s shipping legislation when interpreting the Criminal Code. That section provides that:

“Where an offence that is dealt with in this Act relates to a subject that is dealt with in another Act, the words and expressions used in this Act with respect to that offence have, subject to this Act, the meaning assigned to them in that other Act.”

In the end, the court agreed with the Crown and concluded that:

[55]       Considering the totality of the materials before me and considering that the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act and the intention of Parliament, it is my finding that the term “vessel” contained in s. 253(1)(a), s. 253(1)(b) and s. 249(1)(b) includes a canoe…

[56]      Section 4(4) of the Criminal Code permits the court to look to other federal enactments where the subject-matter of those Acts is the same as the Criminal Code. Looking to other Acts is also permitted by the Interpretation Act, s. 15(2)(b). I find that the subject-matter common to all of these federal enactments is that the definition of “vessel” includes all “vessels” however propelled, which consequently includes a canoe. The subject-matter common to these federal enactments was a mode of transportation or conveyance, namely “vessels,” used on Canadian waterways.

This decision brings the interpretation of “vessel” as found in the Criminal Code in line with Canada’s other shipping legislation.

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