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Updated: 7th January 2019 09:51

Family of young drowning victim sue province, RCMP

The family of a Calgary-area girl who drowned on a southeast Alberta lake is moving forward with a lawsuit against the RCMP and the province.

The Toney family spent a lot of times outdoors. (Courtesy of Toney family)

The family of a Calgary-area girl who drowned on a southeast Alberta lake is moving forward with a lawsuit against the RCMP and the province.

fatality inquiry was held last year into the death of five-year-old Janessa Toney.

She died in September 2008 when the boat she was in with her parents and two sisters hit a rock in stormy weather on Lake Newell near Brooks.

Janessa Toney, 5, died after drowning on Lake Newell. (Courtesy of Toney family)

The Chestermere family made it to a beach but RCMP brought a small Fish and Wildlife boat over and they all tried to fit it.

Janessa's father, Allen Toney, gave written testimony at the fatality inquiry that he had misgivings about loading the entire family plus three rescuers, onto the Fish and Wildlife boat.

The Toney's lawyer Darren Williams says the boat was too small and it sank, trapping the young girl underneath when the boat capsized.

An RCMP officer who took part in the rescue testified at the fatality inquiry that he heard Janessa calling for help, and that he suspected she was under the overturned boat, but he could not reach her.

Family wants to see changes

Williams says the family is claiming damages in excess of $50,000 in its lawsuit — but more importantly, they want changes to RCMP operations around bodies of water. The family's lawsuit claims the RCMP failed to conduct a safe rescue.

Despite the proximity to Lake Newell, one of the largest lakes in southeast Alberta, the Brooks RCMP detachment did not have a program for training its officers in water search and rescue.

The RCMP officer who was in charge of the search and rescue also told the inquiry that there were problems with the operation.

Lake Newell, near Brooks, on a calm summer day. (Submitted by Christine Ring)

Sandra Sutherland-Byers said she lacked expertise in water search and rescue, and did not know which of her colleagues had the relevant training.

The RCMP and province have yet to file statements of defence. An RCMP spokesperson said the national police force does not comment on cases before the courts.

The lawsuit was originally filed in September of 2011 in the Federal Court of Canada as an admiralty action, meaning it deals with maritime law and is under federal domain.

Since lawsuits are typically launched in provincial court, both the federal and provincial governments wanted the lawsuit tossed — with the Alberta government arguing the Federal Court lacks jurisdiction over the province.

Federal Court of Appeal decision

But a Federal Court of Appeal ruling this month said this was to be an exception.

The case now proceeds to arguing about responsibility, which also came up in the fatality inquiry.

Provincial court Judge Darwin Greaves made four recommendations for the prevention of similar deaths.

He said the availability of STARS should be expanded. 

Greaves also said communities that have a significant body of water, such as Lake Newell, should develop Community Inter-Agency emergency marine rescue plans.

He said the RCMP — since it is mandated to take charge of all water rescues in Alberta — must be up to that job.

The judge also recommended that the Department of Sustainable Resources, Fish and Wildlife "should ensure the best selection of equipment, and the best decision making" if it is going to launch into missions involving apparent risk to life.

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