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Canada

MANDEL: Impaired canoeist saved himself instead of helpless child, says grieving grandma

OSHAWA – The grandmother of the drowned boy is tearfully pouring out her heart in the hushed courtroom.

But then the respectful silence is torn by a groan.

David Sillars — convicted of the drunk canoeing that led to the death of eight-year-old Thomas Rancourt — is lolling back in his chair as if he were watching a bad play and murmuring in disgust.

And incredibly, still in his corner and still supporting him despite the guilty verdicts that blame the impaired Sillars for taking her son into the frigid, raging Muskoka River, sits Thomas’s mother Jessica Hooper.

No wonder so much tension bristles in this sentencing hearing, even as Ontario Court Justice Peter West begins by imploring both warring sides to try and honour Thomas’s memory by moving forward.

But there is too much anger here and too much blame.

On April 7, 2017, with 1 1/2 times the legal limit of alcohol in his system as well as marijuana, Sillars took his girlfriend’s son out on a canoe on that freezing day to retrieve a blue barrel stuck on a yellow danger barrier just above High Falls in Bracebridge.

He ignored warnings from his friends that it was too dangerous: the spring run-off left the frigid river swollen with a strong current.

Instead, Hooper zipped her son — an inexperienced swimmer and canoeist — into a too-small life jacket over three layers of clothing.

Sillars paddled them out to the barrier, despite all the posted danger signs.

When their canoe tipped, Thomas was swept to his death over the turbulent 15-metre high falls while Sillars swam to safety.

David Sillars, left, Jessica Hooper outside court in Oshawa on Thursday, Aug. 15 Veronica Henri / Toronto Sun

Donna Posnikoff is tortured by what her grandson’s final moments of life must have been like.

“Thomas was alone, terrified, freezing and in pain — because of you, David Sillars,” she said through her tears as she read her victim impact statement.

How could he ignore Thomas’s cries? she demanded.

“You left him to save yourself,” she said, anger underlying every word.

“We would have tried to save him or died trying.”

Posnikoff lamented not only losing a grandson in the tragedy, but her daughter as well: The boy’s mother is estranged from her entire family because she remains in a relationship with Sillars.

To this day, Posnikoff said she can’t comprehend his “sick, twisted, manipulative pull on my daughter Jessica.”

For her part, Hooper filed a victim impact statement describing Sillars as her best friend who shares in her grief over Thomas’s death.

“Dave and I have woken to nightmares together, we have held each other as we cried together,” she wrote.

“Sitting in the hospital, he cried and apologized so many times.”

But their future together is now on hold, she complained — as she fights to retain custody of her youngest child and Sillars isn’t allowed to be with him.

“We had talked about him adopting the boys. We had talked about marriage. We had talked about a life together,” she wrote.

“Everything that we had discussed and planned is no longer an option for us.”

Especially since Sillars, 40, is looking at prison time.

Convicted of impaired operation of a vessel causing death, operating a vessel with over 80mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood causing death, dangerous operation of a vessel causing death, and criminal negligence causing death, Sillars should spend between six and eight years behind bars, Crown attorney Frank Giordano told the court.

“A child died needlessly,” he said, “to retrieve garbage floating in the river.”

Court heard Sillars has a criminal record of 15 previous convictions, including assault and uttering threats.

Defence lawyer Jonathan Rosenthal reminded the judge that this is the first case of its kind in Canada — no one has been convicted before of impaired canoeing causing death — and urged West to sentence Sillars to only two years in prison since he’s “exceptionally remorseful” and suffers from mental health issues, including PTSD since the tragedy.

“There’s no doubt he did something stupid that day that resulted in (Thomas’s) death,” he said. “David will live with this for the rest of his life.”

The judge will deliver his sentence in Bracebridge — near where Thomas died — in October.

mmandel@postmedia.com

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