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Deep Waters: Courage, Character and the Lake Timiskaming Canoeing Tragedy

by James Raffan

The overwhelming sentiment of James Raffan’s troubling Deep Waters is that the 12 boys who drowned in the 1978 Lake Timiskaming canoeing tragedy never had a chance. Raffan, an experienced canoeist and wilderness lover, convincingly argues that through a combination of cult-like zeal, authoritarian rule, and little or no safety training, the leaders of St. John’s School of Ontario put its charges in harm’s way on a canoeing venture designed to instill character in the young boys. By the end of the day, all four canoes had tipped and 12 boys and one leader were dead.

St. John’s was an Anglican prep school for boys designed as a rugged antidote to the perceived sloth and permissiveness of the Ontario public school system of the 1970s. The founders and staff fervently believed that adversity and hardship built character, that corporal punishment taught respect for authority, and that it was “better to die in the woods than in front of a television.”

Through extensive research of the school’s annual reports and interviews with survivors and parents of the boys who died, Raffan demonstrates that the staff were unable to differentiate between well-designed challenges and impossible goals that routinely ran along the knife-edge of disaster. When the full extent of the horror was made known to the parents of the boys and to the world – the tragedy made international headlines – the parents rallied around the school to protect it from the media. After all, the parents had deliberately taken their children out of the public system and enrolled them in St. John’s: blaming the school would have called their own judgment into question.

Raffan is under no such illusions. As an avid canoeist, Raffan has a sense of stewardship and respect toward the outdoors. This respect, combined with the solid tools of investigative journalism, reveal that the tragedy was less an accident prompted by Mother Nature than the inevitable result of human error and hubris.