MANDEL: Teacher’s lawyer insists he had ‘impressive’ safety standards on canoe trip where student drowned

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It’s hard not to feel for TDSB gym teacher Nicholas Mills.


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It was under his watch that student Jeremiah Perry drowned in Algonquin Park four years ago. Now he sits in a courtroom in the end stage of his lengthy trial, his last chance to convince a judge that he is not a criminal.

Mills, 57, has pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence causing death.

His aim was admirable: Take disadvantaged teens on a canoe trip to Algonquin Park to experience nature and adventure. But the teacher at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute has admitted bending the rules because following the letter of the school board guidelines would have meant many of the students wouldn’t have been allowed on the trip.

But surely the rules were there for a reason.

Court has heard that 15 out of the 33 students on the 2017 canoe trip — including Perry — had failed a mandatory swimming test, and many underwent the assessment while wearing a life jacket. The Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (OPHEA) requires students to pass the test without a life jacket in order to participate in an overnight canoe trip.


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Jeremiah, 15, disappeared during an evening swim in Big Trout Lake on July 4, 2017. His body was found by an OPP diver the next day.

Mills did a lot that was right: He positioned himself in the water with his girlfriend as a human boundary line and ensured a lifeguard was watching the seven students from shore. But the lifeguard was 17 — though the requirement was 18 — with no waterfront experience and no rescue aids.

Prosecutors contend the teacher ignored the required safety procedures and most egregiously, allowed Jeremiah into the lake without a lifejacket when he knew he couldn’t swim.

But in his final submissions, the teacher’s lawyer maintains there is “compelling evidence” that Jeremiah actually could swim, including that he was far from shore when another student felt him pulling down on his legs.


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“What happened to this boy is a mystery,” said defence lawyer Phil Campbell.

And then he seemed to blame the victim, saying Jeremiah may have been too confident in his skills and got himself into trouble.

Court has heard that when the teen took the test at Sparrow Lake two weeks before he drowned, he told a witness that he couldn’t swim and would need to wear a life jacket. Campbell claimed Jeremiah feigned his lack of swimming ability because he was intimidated by his first foray into an Ontario lake.

The defence lawyer also dismissed testimony from a Sparrow Lake lifeguard who said Jeremiah was “totally inept” and couldn’t even float with a lifejacket, saying she must have mistaken him for another student.

Campbell glossed over his mother’s evidence that her son wasn’t able to swim when he’d last been with her in the Caribbean 16 months before. And he reminded the court that Mills conducted a second swim test two days before the drowning and saw that Jeremiah could swim — a contention the Crown has dismissed as a fabrication.


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The trip leader is being held to an unrealistic “aspirational standard,” his lawyer complained. “This was a safe well-run swim site. It does not lose those attributes because a boy drowned.”

He went on to claim that Jeremiah was afforded more supervision than he would have found on a private wilderness trip and certainly more than parents provide at a cottage.

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“It cannot be right that Nicholas Mills can make the same choices or safer choices … than a couple of parents or members of a club or Scout leaders or commercial outfitters, with the same kinds of kids at the same kind of location, and one be deemed criminally negligent and the other, or others, not,” Campbell insisted.

But this wasn’t a private sector trip or a private cottage — it was a challenging six-day school excursion comprised of inexperienced city kids being taken to the back country of a vast provincial park after parents had been assured all safety protocols were being closely followed.

  1. Jeremiah Perry is seen in this undated photo.

    MANDEL: “Where’s Jeremiah?” after non-swimmer disappears during Algonquin Park student trip

  2. Jeremiah Perry is seen in this undated photo.

    MANDEL: Teacher accused of negligence in student’s drowning

  3. Jeremiah Perry is seen in this undated photo.

    MANDEL: Teacher was warned students weren’t prepared for Algonquin canoe trip, court hears

He was in charge. He was responsible.

Did he do enough? Final submissions conclude on Friday and then a judge will decide.


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