Government set to loosen laws on drinking while paddling, alarming safe boating advocates


The Canadian government could make it easier to get away with drunk canoeing, according to recent reports.

Earlier this year, the federal government introduced a bill that would overhaul the laws regarding the operation of all vehicles, aircrafts, and vessels while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The changes were spurred by their plan to legalize recreational marijuana by next July.

But with many of the laws around impaired driving set to tighten, the penalties for paddling while impaired could loosen. Currently, operating any type of water-going vessel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is an offence under the Criminal Code of Canada. The new bill’s definition of a vessel, however, excludes those propelled “exclusively by means of muscular power,” which includes canoes and kayaks.

Many safe boating advocates aren’t happy with the changes. According to the Canadian Safe Boating Council (CSBC) and MADD Canada, alcohol accounts for approximately 40 percent of boating-related fatalities on Canadian waterways. Having a few drinks before or while you paddle a canoe might seem harmless when compared to operating a high-powered speed boat, but when combined with sun, wind, waves, and a tippy canoe, the effects of alcohol are that much greater—and the consequences can be dire.

Earlier this year, an Etobicoke man was charged with the impaired operation of a vessel causing death after his canoe overturned in the Muskoka River, throwing both him and the eight-year-old boy he was paddling with into the water. Despite wearing a lifejacket, the young boy was swept over a nearby waterfall and later died in the hospital.

In fact, there are multiple canoe-related deaths every spring, many of which are linked to alcohol consumption, which is why representatives of the CSBC testified before the House of Commons studying the bill on Monday, stating that they would like to see the bill amended to include all water-going vessels.

“…a vessel is a vessel is a vessel,” council chairman John Gullick said in an interview. “And you shouldn’t exclude 60 percent of the vessels on the water from these regulations.”