Ottawa stays course on ‘voluntary approaches’

Dave Seglins – CBC News

Posted: May 22, 2010
Last Updated: May 25, 2010

Ontario Provincial Police are calling on Ottawa for a new law to require everyone in small boats to wear life-jackets in a bid to curb Canada’s average 180 boating-related fatalities each year.

OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino pressed the case with federal Transport Minister John Baird recently, urging legislation to mandate the wearing of life-jackets on moving vessels under six metres in length.

“You increase your odds of surviving exponentially by wearing your PFD [personal flotation device],” OPP Staff Sgt. Chris Whaley told CBC News this week in Toronto at a kick-off event for National Safe Boating Week.

Currently, boaters are required to have PFDs within reach for everyone on board. But the law does not force anyone, including children, to actually wear a life-jacket.

“Eighty-five per cent of victims, had they been wearing their life-jackets, would have survived,” Whaley said. “My question is, what are people waiting for? I think the legislation is inevitable.”

However, Ottawa has no plans to change the existing law.

“We can all do our part to reduce recreational boating incidents and fatalities that occur every year on Canadian waterways,” wrote James Kusie, a spokesperson for Baird.

“At this time, the minister is not proposing mandatory wear of life-jackets,” Kusie said.

“However, we will continue to work with law enforcement and other boating safety partners to advocate voluntary approaches to wearing life-jackets.”

Victim’s mom calls for law

Jennifer Ferro, mourning the loss of her son who was not wearing a life-jacket when he drowned May 9, is also pushing for the new law.

She said her 18-year-old son died after his canoe capsized following an all-night party at a cottage on Lake Eugenia, a small body of water south of Georgian Bay.

“Dean died on Mother’s Day,” Ferro said from Cambridge, Ont.

“It was very windy morning, a very cold morning, and the boat capsized. Neighbours thought they saw him hanging on to the boat … but the waves were too strong,” she told CBC News.

Ferro said a law requiring life-jacket use might have given her son and other boaters reason to pause before heading out on the water.

“We’ll never know, right. But at least there would have been a chance,” Ferro said. “I think they would approach a boat with more respect — more respect for the danger that that boat presents.”
Anglers see snag

But not everyone supports mandatory life-jacket use.

“Heavy hand of the law can go too far,” said Terry Quinney of Ontario’s Federation of Anglers and Hunters, which runs public service campaigns encouraging boaters to voluntarily wear flotation devices.

“We fully support existing rules and regulations to keep boating and keep fishing on the water safe. But we’ve drawn the line at mandatory wearing of PFDs or life-jackets.”

That was echoed by numerous boaters CBC queried on Lake Chemong, northwest of Peterborough, Ont.

“I don’t have one on right now so I’m probably not the best one to ask that question,” said boater Dave Marr, out for an afternoon cruise with his wife and two children. The children were wearing PFDs.

“That’s our law,” Marr said, but he discounted the need for him to wear a life vest. “We’ve just been puttering along. I’m not really too concerned about going overboard.”

That common attitude frustrates Barbara Byers of the Lifesaving Society advocacy group.
PFD, like seatbelt, ‘just in case’

“Many people say, ‘I’ve been boating my whole life and I haven’t died so I don’t need a life-jacket,’” Byers said. “But you’ve probably driven in a car your whole life and you wear a seatbelt just in case. It’s the same thing when boating.”

Byers, who has headed a life-jacket task force for the Canadian Safe Boating Council, called the OPP support for a new law “significant,” and said her group has letters of support from the Quebec provincial police and from large municipal police forces in Toronto, York and Peel Region.

She cites studies in the United States, where she says Mississippi has watched rates of boating-related fatalities plummet in regions where life-jackets are mandatory.

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