The judge-alone trial for a Toronto District School Board physical education teacher charged in relation to the drowning of a 15-year-old C. W. Jefferys Collegiate student while on a six-day canoe trip to Algonquin Park started at the University Avenue courthouse on Monday.
According to the indictment, 57-year-old Nicholas Mills stands charged that he, on and between May 26, 2017 and the July 4, 2017 at the City of North York and elsewhere in the Province of Ontario, did by criminal negligence, fail to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm, and/or safeguard the life of Jeremiah Perry, thereby causing his death.
Mills, who is out on bail and was sitting in the body of the courtroom wearing a mask next to his lawyer Philip Campbell, across from Madam Justice Maureen Forestell, has pleaded not guilty. The Crown and other observers are watching on Zoom.
In her opening remarks, deputy Crown attorney Anna Stanford told the court that on the evening on July 4, 2017, Jeremiah Perry disappeared within minutes of entering Big Trout Lake. His body not found until the next morning by an Ontario Provincial Police dive team.
Stanford said Mills’ conduct showed a wanton and reckless disregard for the safety of others spanning a six-week period during which time Mills planned for the TDSB summer school program known as REACH.
“Mills, as a teacher had a clear duty of care to all his students,” said Stanford, likening his responsibility to that of a reasonably prudent parent.
She said while he was in charge of the group of 33 students aged 14 to 19, 15 of the students — or almost half — had failed a swim test in the days prior to the trip.
“Mills paid no attention to that high failure rate. He was acutely aware many children were not competent swimmers. Jeremiah Perry was one of those kids,” said Stanford, who suggested he did not share the test results with others.
The Crown prosecutor said she will argue Mills took this group of students, most who had little or no wilderness experience, on a multi-day trip in the backcountry of Algonquin Park, surrounded by water, where lakes are big, deep and dark.
Stanford said she will show Mills did not provided parents with meaningful information about the trip, calling it inadequate and inaccurate, which prevented parents from making informed decisions about their children’s safety.
Stanford said she will also prove that Mills paid little attention to safety guidelines which he was obliged to do as a TDSB teacher and altered the swim test, because he knew students would not pass the more difficult test mandated by the TDSB.
She alleged Mills also used an underage and inexperienced lifeguard who couldn’t properly watch the group.
“Nicholas Mills stood by as Jeremiah Perry, a non-swimmer without a life jacket, entered a lake that was entirely unfamiliar to him. That lake had a significant swimming hazard just offshore: a steep and sudden drop. It was at the bottom of this drop that Jeremiah’s body was found some 18 hours after he disappeared,” said Stanford.
The Crown said it will call upon a number of witnesses, including a TDSB representative, an authority on the safety guidelines Mills was mandated to apply, staff from the Sparrow Lake Camp where they had been taken for a swim test on June 21 and 22, group leaders from the canoe trip and Perry’s dad, Joshua Anderson.
According to Stanford, Anderson “had no meaningful understanding what his child was involved in.”
“The evidence will expose multiples breaches of rules. Some less serious and some more so,” said Stanford, who told Forestell that Perry’s death was entirely preventable.
In his opening remarks, defence lawyer Philip Campbell said that Mills, who was the founder of the REACH program at C. W. Jefferys, and was running this trip for the fifth year in a row, was following the canoe tripping swim test guidelines endorsed by the TDBS.
Campbell said he will show that none of the things the Crown argues Mills did in the planning of the trip approached criminal negligence or led to the death of Jeremiah.
Campbell said he believes the case comes down to what happened on July 4, 2017.
“The question the law will pose: Was it unreasonable and sharply below the range of reasonableness to allow a 15-year-old boy into water that was shallow upon entry and then became suddenly and noticeably deeper but not over his head, when the boy was being watched by three responsible and capable people? Those three were certified lifeguards with the credentials to protect people in all sorts of water.
“It included Mr. Mills, a phys ed teacher qualified to teach swimming with a bronze cross in water rescue.”
Campbell told the judge, “In the face of what we know about supervision, you will be asked to infer that the presence of Jeremiah without a life jacket was indicative of criminal negligence by Mr. Mills. The defence will say that does not make sense,” calling it a dreadfully sad case that is largely circumstantial.
Mills was arrested in July 2018 after a lengthy investigation by the OPP. He has been on home assignment ever since. The trial continues.