'He’s been robbed of a life': Grandmother of boy who died in Muskoka River 'ecstatic' over precedent-setting conviction

David Sillars, the man convicted in connection with the canoe-related drowning death of an eight-year-old Huntsville boy at High Falls in Bracebridge in April of 2017, is going to jail.

July 5, Sillars’ 2019 conviction was upheld on appeal, an emotional day for Thomas Rancourt’s family.

“On the day that the appeal came through and said everything was upheld — he’s off to jail, I was ecstatic,” said Donna Posnikoff, Rancourt’s maternal grandmother on July 7. “I was shaking I was so happy, and then the next day — yesterday, I just felt drained and sad — really, really sad.”

Posnikoff is pleased the man responsible for her grandson’s death is finally behind bars.

“There’s some sort of closure knowing that he’s in prison,” she said. “We thought there was probably going to be a new trial or the appeal was going to be granted.”

She said, since Thomas’s death, the family has learned not to let their hopes get high for fear of being devastated by the outcome.

“I think that’s why, on the day the decision came through, I was so happy and shaking,” she said.

The decision, upheld on appeal, was made Oct. 4, 2019 when Sillars was convicted of impaired operation of a vessel causing death; operating a vessel with over 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres blood causing death; and dangerous operation of a vessel causing death and criminal negligence causing death after taking his girlfriend’s son canoeing at the top of High Falls on the Muskoka River in Bracebridge on April 7, 2017, at a time when the spring runoff was in full force, water levels were elevated, the current strong and water temperatures described as hypothermia inducing.

This is a precedent-setting case with Justice Peter C. West stating at the time that this is ‘the first time charges have been prosecuted respecting the operation of a canoe where the individual operating the canoe had consumed alcohol and marijuana.”

However, Sillars filed an application with the court of appeal and was released on $1,500 bail that same day.

“Even when we’re happy and we’re doing things as a family, we’ve all got this cloud over our heads that will last forever,” said Posnikoff. “He was eight. I’m the grandmother. He should have been at my funeral, not the other way around. He should have been allowed to grow up.”

It hurts her to think of Sillars swimming to shore leaving young Thomas to fend for himself against the cold water and strong current, wearing a life-jacket that was too small for his frame.

Posnikoff sees value in the court’s conviction and although she doesn’t feel the six-year sentence is long enough, there is now precedence for police enforcement and, when hearing of this case, she hopes people will be more obedient when it comes to drinking and canoeing, particularly with a child in their care. She likens an impaired Sillars navigating the canoe close to the buoys at the top of High Falls dam during the spring freshet to “putting your child on Highway 11 and saying, ‘Go ride your bike.’”

“In six years, if Sillars actually serves the six years, he could get out, he could ask for parole,” she said, “He’ll get out and he’s going to go home. When’s Thomas coming home?”

Thomas would have turned 13 in February and Posnikoff thinks of all of the things that her grandson will never do. He studied French immersion at Riverside Public School in Huntsville. He loved school and had a thirst for knowledge and when she sees the young boy’s friends, she often finds herself staring awkwardly at them thinking of what Thomas would be like at this age.

“There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think of Thomas and think of what he would have been like,” she said. “I’ve been robbed of him, and he’s been robbed of a life and I’m afraid he’s going to be forgotten.”

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911. Simcoe Muskoka Family Connexions provides 24/7 service. If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, report the information immediately by calling 1-800-461-4236. The child and youth mental health crisis line is 1-844-287-9072.

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By Jon Doe