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


246 pages
Contains Maps, Bibliography
ISBN 0-00-200037-7
DDC 797.122




Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is the editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual.


On June 11, 1978, hypothermia claimed the lives of 12 boys and one
leader from St. John’s School of Ontario after their canoes overturned
during an ill-fated expedition up Lake Timiskaming on the
Quebec–Ontario border. A coroner’s report on the tragedy highlighted
serious criticisms—“[s]cant preparation for the trip, no radio,
dearth of local knowledge, lack of swimming ability, staff learning on
the job”—and concluded that “the entire expedition constituted an
exaggerated and pointless challenge.” Astonishingly, the coroner
decided not to lay a charge of criminal responsibility against St.
John’s School.

In Deep Waters, wilderness writer James Raffan sets out to answer three
key questions: “What exactly were the organizers of that school trying
to accomplish? Why did those boys die, and for what? And whatever
happened to those who survived?”

St. John’s School of Ontario, like its counterparts in Manitoba and
Alberta, espoused “spartan, back-to-basics education” and “strict
Christian values and discipline.” St. John’s, which catered to
parents dissatisfied with the public school system, operated like a cult
in several important respects. “The St. John’s way,” Raffan notes,
“was to restrict phone use, ban radios and televisions, remove all
outside influences, and establish school rules and norms in the first
six weeks of term.” Corporal punishment was an integral part of the
St. John’s “character-building” mandate. So too were physical
activity and adventure. “We think it is better to die in the woods
than in front of a television,” declared one St. John’s headmaster.

As Raffan’s harrowing account of the canoeing expedition makes clear,
hubris, arrogance, and a reckless disregard for safety precautions were
hallmarks of the St. John’s way, too. In the words of a former
student, “Basically, these guys were playing God with people’s lives
and they didn’t do a very good job.”


Raffan, James., “Deep Waters: Courage, Character and the Lake Timiskaming Canoeing Tragedy,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 13, 2024,