TORONTO — A Toronto teacher who led a school canoe trip during which a teenage student drowned told his trial Monday that he didn’t follow certain safety guidelines established for such trips because they didn’t reflect industry standards and would have prevented some kids from participating.
Nicholas Mills testified that the guidelines for overnight canoe trips set by the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association don’t align with standards and practices used in commercial excursions, private trips and outings organized by Scouts Canada, adding some are “not practical” or “not necessary.”
The rules requiring that students pass a swimming test beforehand without wearing a lifejacket, and that all lifeguards on the trip be over 18 years old, are among those Mills said he didn’t follow for the annual trip, which ran from 2013 until the fatal outing in 2017.
“I knew that you could run safe canoe trips without following all the OPHEA rules, and I don’t even know the number of people who do (follow those rules) every single summer,” he told his trial Monday.
“And it was a really great experience for the kids” to go on the multi-day excursion, he said.
Even so, the rules he did put in place for the school trips were “way above normal standards in the canoeing industry across the country,” Mills said.
Mills, a teacher at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute, organized and oversaw the July 2017 trip to Algonquin Provincial Park during which 15-year-old Jeremiah Perry drowned. He has pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence causing death.
Prosecutors allege the teacher neglected safety rules and requirements related to the multi-day excursion.
Mills said Monday he saw the OPHEA guidelines as just a “framework that you use with your own personal skills,” but acknowledged that if he wrote on his paperwork that they weren’t being met, “the superintendent or someone above me… would not let the trips happen.”
He insisted, however, the school’s principal at the time, Monday Gala, knew students were being allowed to undergo the swimming test with a lifejacket — something Gala denied when he testified earlier in the trial.
The teacher said the pair discussed the issue clearly in the early years of the trip, and noted Gala had seen students take the test in the school’s pool before the process was moved to Sparrow Lake in 2015.
The principal knew “we were modifying the test, just like we were modifying so much else,” Mills said.
He compared allowing lifejackets during the test to giving students with learning disabilities more time to take an exam, saying both measures allowed more students to participate.
Students who did the assessment with a lifejacket would have to wear one to swim during the trip as well, the teacher testified. Everyone had to wear them while in a canoe, he said.
A student who was also on the trip previously testified he never saw Perry without a life jacket on the trip, but said the teen appeared to be a bad swimmer.
Adrian Coufadis told the court earlier this month that he teased Perry about his poor swimming skills after seeing the younger boy struggling to reach their canoe on the first day of the trip.
But Coufadis said he didn’t think at the time to tell Mills about his observation.
The trial is proceeding in person and by videoconference.