I recently watched some old 1984 media footage of when it became law to wear your seatbelt in your vehicle. I was surprised to see so much negativity towards the new law. Many people said it would go against their freedom, their rights and even their manhood. Quite a few squawked, “Catch me if you can.”

Now, drivers buckle up without even thinking about it. It seems like past emotions have settled and the majority of people understand that wearing a seatbelt saves lives.

Kevin chatting with a copKevin Callan

So, will history repeat itself if a law is passed in Canada for canoeists and kayakers to always wear their PFD? It seems so. I just made a brief mention about a possible law on my social media and emotions ran wild!

Most agreed it would be a good idea. It would save lives. Others made some solid points against it, stating a law isn’t needed, just more safety conscious and experienced paddlers. After all, not all days on the water are made up of cold temperatures, heavy winds and big waves. There are times you’ll find yourself floating across calm water under a hot and sunny sky.

wearing a pfd while paddlingKevin Callan

Then came some views awfully similar to strong opinions we saw back in the 80s during the seatbelt debate.

“It should be a personal decision to wear a PFD in a canoe and not the government telling me to do so.”

“The gatekeeping, self-righteous Karen's who are trying to lobby to make this a law while harassing responsible paddlers and small businesses need to get a life in my opinion.”

“Taking away the freedoms of responsible Canadians does not serve to make our country a better place, nor does it help to grow the sport of paddling in a positive way.”

“It doesn’t make sense and likely wouldn’t make much of a difference in preventing paddling deaths when you look at the statistics.”

“We don’t need to bubble wrap ourselves to set a good example.”

“It’s unmanly to wear a PFD.”

My mind was buzzing after reading all the comments. I guess I had touched a soft spot for some. So, to help me focus on the issue I contacted Sgt. Dave Moffatt, provincial marine coordinator for the Ontario Provincial Police to get some facts behind the PFD issue. After all, facts are more trustworthy than emotions during a contentious, hot-button debate.

paddling in the water with a PFDKevin Callan

Kevin: Let’s start off with some stats. How many are drowning out there with and without a PFD? Has it increased due to so many more people going out during Covid?

“You would think the answer is yes. During the pandemic we all know that the numbers of people on the water increased significantly. But believe or not, the fatality numbers have not increased. We had a rough year in 2020. We had 32 fatalities, then down to 27 in 2021, and up to 29 in 2022. Overall, if you take the fatal stats from 2011 (12 years of stats) we’ve had a total of 289 marine fatalities, which 253 of those people were not wearing lifejackets. A marine fatality is defined as when a vessel was involved, and a vessel by definition it is something that is used for navigation. So, if it’s a pool toy or blow-up flamingo, that is not a vessel—unless they are using it to paddle somewhere. It also has to be an involuntary act. If someone purposely dives off the boat, that is not a marine fatality. For example, swimming is a voluntary act. They are ready to go into the water, where involuntary (in a vessel), you do not expect to go into the water.”


What about canoes vs. kayaks for drowning?

“Unfortunately, our worst vessel for drowning fatalities are canoes and kayaks, and they’re pretty close to the same. I don’t know exactly why, but I would assume that it’s the centre of gravity you have to be aware of, so much more prominent than if you get into a small fishing boat. And for some reason, some paddlers forget to bring the safety items required (lifejacket, whistle, throw line). The laws are there to protect you and they forget those items that are required by law.”


What’s the difference between a PFD and a lifejacket?

“A lifejacket is basically designed to look after unconscious victims. So if someone hits their head and goes overboard, the lifejacket is designed to turn you over on your back so your air way is open. A PFD (Personal Flotation Device) is designed to help the conscious victim long enough for them to receive help. There are lightweight and comfortable inflatable vests that inflate and are also lifejackets, not those old keyhole styles.”


How do you properly size a PFD for you?

“When you’re talking about an adult or young adult, just make sure it’s snug and well-fitted. For adults, the chance of a PFD slipping up over your head is very small. But for children it should have a crotch strap, so the lifejacket won’t slip over their head. A common rule is that if you have any more than three inches of play coming up and down from your shoulders, then the lifejacket is too big.”


What are the current laws on PFDs across Canada?

“The Canada Shipping Act of 2001 where [it lists] lifejackets and proper equipment are needed on board is a federal act. It’s all the same across the country. The law basically states that every vessel must carry a lifejacket or PFD. You don’t have to wear them. However, you do have to have them accessible. Accessibility is under the officer’s discretion—but basically, you have to be able to get them on an instant, like a flash.”


What works best: Education or enforcement?

“Enforcement officers across Canada have the same mentality—education is more important than enforcement. However, if someone doesn’t learn from education, then enforcement is the next step. Simply put, everyone in a vessel knows they need to have a lifejacket or PFD on board. It used to be an educational piece, but not anymore. It’s enforcement—no question.”


Does experienced paddlers get into trouble just as often as the inexperienced paddler?

“Experience is a false sense of safety on the water. Whether there are other boats, weather, waves, etc., [this] can put you—experienced or not—in a bad situation. Some people will say, ‘I’m not going to wear a seat belt because I don’t plan on getting in a crash.’ Or, ‘I can put the seat belt on before a crash.’ That makes no sense!”


How close is it to becoming a law to wear a PFD at all times when on the water?

“I can honestly say I don’t have the answer for that. What I do know is back in 2009 when there was some interest with some groups, the idea of making it law to always wear a PFD didn't go anywhere. Transport Canada didn't see it as a priority at the time. The interest is now back, and Transport Canada is trying to determine what is the best way to go about this. Is it mandatory for the youth? Is it mandatory for the certain time of year (i.e., shoulder season)? Is it mandatory for types of vessels (i.e., canoes, kayaks, small fishing boats)? Is it mandatory for certain lengths of vessels (i.e., vessels under six meters)? They will be doing a survey that will soon be out for public consultation about what does the public think. Right now, there are so many people, groups and related organizations interested in supporting a law of always wearing your PFD and Transport Canada is now listening. And that's what they are doing right now, listening and their doing their own research.”


So, what do you think? Should it be law in Canada to always wear your PFD while you’re canoeing or kayaking?