Challenge to mandatory life-jacket bylaw doesn’t float

CALGARY — Two Calgarians think they have the right to decide whether to strap on a life-jacket for a lazy afternoon of floating down a shallow river.

CALGARY — Two Calgarians think they have the right to decide whether to strap on a life-jacket for a lazy afternoon of floating down a shallow river.

But a judge has ruled that idea doesn’t float.

Siblings Cory and Brittiany Latouche filed a constitutional challenge to a bylaw that says people must wear life-jackets at all times when they’re on a city waterway.

They started their fight after getting slapped with an automatic $500 fine for not wearing the flotation devices when drifting down the city’s slow-moving Elbow River last August.

“I think everyone’s responsible for themselves,” Brittiany said outside court.

“Yes, children and people who don’t know how to swim should be taking the extra precaution, but taking away people’s personal freedom and rights of what they’re allowed to do and what they’re not is kind of a big deal.”

The siblings argued that under the Constitution, only the federal government can make laws about waterways.

But Judge Judith Shriar ruled they failed to successfully argue that the city’s rule infringes on any of the federal government’s powers.

Federal laws stipulate only that life-jackets must be in the boat or raft, not that they must be worn. City lawyer Ola Malik said the bylaw complements that rule.

“We’re protecting the lives and safety of those who engage in boating activities.”

River rafting is a popular Calgary pastime in the hot summer months. Rafts can be rented cheaply and many young people buy their own to turn into mobile partying pads along the city’s waterways.

Alcohol is forbidden, although many people openly flout that rule, with beer in coolers seen sitting in the middle of the rafts. People who live along the river have also complained about rowdy and disrespectful behaviour.

The siblings were floating on the more shallow part of the river, which is at times only inches deep. They pointed out it’s ridiculous to require life-jackets be worn in water where rafts need to be carried over bits so shallow they won’t float.

But Malik said there are still boating accidents and the occasional death.

“The reality is, people drink, they become intoxicated, people can drown in very shallow waters,” he said.

“We’re not only trying to protect those people who engage in those activities, but (police), fire, other bylaw officers who are going in to rescue these people.”

The Latouche siblings admitted that they didn’t even have life-jackets in the boat as required by federal law. They plan to appeal.

Cory said he’ll be back on the water this summer without a life-jacket. He said he might be open to paying for a rescue, if that ever became an issue.

“I took the risk of going down the river myself without a life-jacket. I know there’s consequences to my decisions.”