A Case for School Canoe Trips: Rethinking Risk

 In Travel

A Case for School Canoe Trips: Rethinking Risk


Bob Henderson


In July 2017, Jeremiah Perry, age 15, died in Algonquin Park by drowning on a Toronto high school canoe trip. As best we know, he slid into the lake water by mistake from the campsite shoreline. He was a non-swimmer not wearing a life jacket during this campsite time. 

Later the teacher in charge of the Outdoor Education field trip was charged with criminal negligence causing death. It was learned that 14 out of the 31 students on the trip had not passed the required pre-trip swim test. The teacher has been ordered to stand trial for the charge of criminal negligence deeming it a matter of criminality rather than tragedy. Wait! It was still a tragic event and much referred to as such in parental circles, educational institutional settings, and the wider paddling community. 

Now in 2020, it is clear that Jeremiah’s death by drowning (no life jacket was worn) had tragic consequences for provincial outdoor education programs, specifically school canoe trips. Without going into all the details, it has become clear that the resultant new stipulations for school outdoor programs have effectively “drowned” most school canoe trips. 

Okay, one stipulation: a mandatory swim test at the site of departure at the time of departure, in full clothing. If an individual fails this swim test (often to be held in the chilly waters of May/June or September/October), this individual must be “compensated” with another equivalent school run adventure outing on the spot led by a provided staff member of course. See. Prohibitive: pretty hard to staff for this. There are others. 

In 2019, The Durham Board of Education came out with a ruling that no student should be within 300 metres of a waterfront for any school outing, canoe related, or otherwise. It was quickly noted that one Durham high school is close to 300 metres of the Lake Ontario shoreline. A responsible board rep stated, “We take student safety very, very, very (that’s three verys) seriously.” I suggest that by three verys things can become nonsensical and overbearing such that stipulations/requirements are designed really to cut programs. It seems a cowardly way to go about this. Later, the board retracted the ruling. 

Call it like it is: we want to shut down these school canoe trip programs because children’s safety is questionable even though accident/ incidence statistics in no way bear this out against other school  activities. 

Remember one death. Tragic and criminal:  yes, but deemed very much preventable. Somehow this could not be a “one bad apple” story, but was treated like possible systemic negligence for Outdoor Education school canoe trips. 

Enter Manny Castillo, a 15-year-old high school rugby player from Mississauga who died from a “dump tackle” by another player at the end of a game in 2007. This was a sport death. It was ten years before Jeremiah Perry’s death by drowning on a school canoe trip. This was an outdoor education death. What are the differences? Many. More on this later.

The jury found the accused rugby player guilty of manslaughter. He had been 16 at the time. Sentencing was in 2009. The crime was attributed to “highly competitive instincts” and the retaliatory nature of the altercation. He was sentenced to one-year probation, 100 hours of community service, and ordered to undergo anger management counseling. 

The father of the dead athlete put the blame on organized sport, particularly hockey and hockey coaches who he believed do not reprimand players for fighting. The accused player played both rugby and hockey. 

The defense has argued that Manny Castillo “knew rugby was a physical sport and willingly faced the risks of the game.” In essence, wasn’t the defence saying that children’s safety is questionable and acceptable in sport? No three verys in this case. 

More recently, in May 2019, a “high tackle” at a high school rugby game in Cape Breton led to the head injury of a player and eventual airlift of the player to Halifax where he recovered. 

The Nova Scotia Athletic Federation canceled high school rugby for the remainder of the season, citing concerns over safety and insurance costs related to Incident Report Data that noted 149 head injuries in rugby over the past five years; this being over five times the number of hockey and football. Over 1000 students play rugby in Nova Scotia. The legitimacy of the statistics was questioned. Seems to me, some would call this a “three verys” response. 

The Nova Scotia government reinstated the sport within the next five days, highlighting the “intense backlash” from coaches, parents, sports organizers, but mostly (if one watches the media handling of events) student players themselves. Student players lead almost immediate protests, commonly shouting, “let us play.” The provincial political opposition leader was quoted as saying, you can’t, “lock the kids up and take things away from them.”

In interviews, the provincial head rugby coach highlighted the sport’s recent safety enhancement efforts and noted that it was a “tragedy” speaking of the sports cancellation and noted we must accept the sport’s “elements of collision.”

Now, let me be clear: I have nothing against sport and rugby in particular. I played in high school myself. Rather I am speaking from a  pro outdoor education position (particularly well-run high school canoe trips).  I am also pro well-run high school sports. These three events are shared (two deaths and one head injury) so that differences can be explored. 

Where is the public outcry to support Outdoor Education and the school canoe trip? Certainly the outcry is nothing compared to the public outcry in canceling sports activities. Is the outdoors (time in Nature), specifically canoeing, less valued or less understood. 

Could an outdoor educator speak to the “tragedy” of effectively killing school canoe trips (with many large and small wounds) as the Nova Scotia provincial rugby coach noted seemingly neglected in the air-lifted head-injured young athlete? Not a chance!

Would a politician speak up to defend the risk in school canoe trips by noting, “well, you can’t lock kids away.” It hasn’t happened in Ontario recently. We suggest the canceling of school sports would be a politically charged event. Could a day come where a student would not be allowed within, say … 300 metres of a sporting field? Watch out sports, balls are banned from some  schools recess times. 

Who’s keeping Incident Report Data on school canoe trips? I’m not sure but I think NO ONE. It isn’t statistically significant enough. Now, sports, on the other hand…

Who’s telling children before the outdoor education activity that they should know about and “willing face the risks of the activity”? Everyone; the teacher and school board with waiver forms and risk management aplenty and society-at-large, largely because sports are a fixture and known entity, while time in remote “wilder” nature is becoming less and less familiar, more and more feared in this lack of understanding.

Post Jeremiah Perry’s death, kids and parents are being told school canoe trips are not safe by the regulations put in place to safeguard youth. I wonder about the safeguards put in place to safeguard kids from “dump tackles” and sports “elements of collision” causing head injury and death? 

The risk in outdoor education generally and school canoe trips particularly do not warrant excessive regulations that force teachers to crumble in unmanageable despair. In outdoor education, risks are manageable and demand the attention of responsible principals, teachers and students. In sports, surely the same rules of risk management and responsibility are needed and dutifully enacted. Both should be part of a healthy school curriculum. 

In 2019, Jeremiah Perry died on a school canoe trip at a campsite by drowning as a non-swimmer without wearing a lifejacket. Too many kids on that trip were non-swimmers. Seems to me, it is a bit like putting a youth out on the “collision” sports field with limited equipment and perhaps limited knowledge of the game and saying, “go out there and play — you know the risks.”  Two things are obvious: teach kids about the sport and the outdoor activity and wear protective equipment. In a waterfront setting with a non-swimmer; simple, wear a lifejacket at all times near water and if a high percentage of the group are non swimmers organize a hiking trip. 

In Outdoor Education, one death is criminal with arguably unmanageable consequences. . In sports it is accepted. That school educator responsible for Jeremiah Parry let the boy and the school board and the field of outdoor education down. He was criminially charged for his negligence but so to were all school run canoe trips in Ontario. Suffice it to say, Perry and the other non-swimmers (because of the high percentage) should have been on a hiking trip not a canoe trip and for non-swimmers, wearing life jackets around water is mandatory.   There you have it: your school board stipulation. Now, reinstate school canoe trips and there should be trip possibilities for groups of non-swimmers too. 

Prohibitive regulations as experienced by outdoor educators would not befall the sports coach/league. Not yet. The deeper inquiry concerns, culturally,  how risk is considered/accepted in sports and outdoor activities. 

There is a narrow risk — the possibility of injury (say, a broken arm) and there is broad risk. Broad risk is the possibility of  later life trauma through a provided lack of experiences. True learning involves possibilities of risk, be they physical, emotional, social, or intellectual. Building lifelong resilience comes from such risk taking. I like to call this “testing our powers.” That is part of what sport and outdoor field trips offer. The outdoor trip also offers potential valuable time in the wilds/ Nature.  Good for us we are beginning to be told!

Narrow risk is easy to quantify; easy to put on an Incident Report Form. A problem with broad risk is that it is hard to identify but we can  learn to recognize it in the later life casualties of learned helplessness observed in disengaged, complacent youth?

Long-term effects of neglected responsibilities in education to provide risky work, risky play and risky learning amount to a call for a much wider interpretation of the meaning of risk in education. Educational “safeguard standards” must come to consider narrow AND broad risk. There is a valuable tension here that is a core concept of education that we appear to be losing when it comes to outdoor activities but not for sports. Not yet!

This wider interpretation of the “playing fields” to include youth having time in nature should not be dependent on singular “criminal” episodic events. For the school canoe trip, there needs to be public and student outcry saying “let us play” that is heard at administrative and political levels.  In Canada, time on the water in a canoe seems a serviceable national dictum. Rite to play! Right to paddle! Rite to Nature! Rite to learn!  How many lakes and rivers grace our landscape? How much learning for all Canadians is wrapped up in the heritage-rich iconic canoeing experience? 

That’s another topic. 

Back to Perry and Castillo. These deaths were treated differently. Our Canadian society accepts sporting tragedy not outdoor activity tragedy, specifically school canoe travel, tragedy.  Rather, it is a misguided set of perceptions that are tied to public outcry for sport and outdoor risk and to lack of depth in our understanding of risk whereby narrow risk is aggressively appreciated while broad risk is aggressively underappreciated. From these understandings, educational institutions and other societal forces but specifically outdoor education teachers can come to the liability and policy table armed with better tools to reconceptualize risky sport and risky outdoor education. 

There will and should always be risk. That is clear. We need to think about it wisely and listen to the practitioners who wisely practice it passionately in the spirit of learning and lifelong resilience. We need sport and we need school canoe trips and more outdoor education. 

Bob Henderson

Notes: I would like to acknowledge the fine work of Chris Beeman. His essay, Wild liability in Education for Narrow and Broad Risk will be published in a forthcoming issue of Policy Futures in Education. Also visit the “Get Kids Paddling” web site. Thanks to Dave Goldman for his leadership to get and keep kids paddling. 

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