More than a year and a half after the tragic deaths of six snowmobilers who fell through thin ice on Lac Saint-Jean, a Quebec coroner has found that proper signage could have warned the group that they were heading "straight for a death trap."
Coroner Jessica Tremblay released six individual reports today — one for each victim of the Jan. 21, 2020, incident — detailing the causes and circumstances of the men's deaths, who plunged into the lake while riding off trail.
Tremblay's report says a group of eight French nationals, led by guide Benoît Lespérance, attempted to cross a snow-covered channel on Lac Saint-Jean between the towns of Saint-Henri-de-Taillon and Alma in an attempt to reach the town of Saint-Gédéon.
In what Tremblay described as an ill-fated decision, the report says Lespérance had left the marked trail and took an unfamiliar shortcut across the lake to reach their destination, which was located about eight kilometres away at that point.
Five tourists riding behind the guide fell and disappeared into a hole in the ice, while two others fell into a second hole but were rescued by the final snowmobiler and were eventually able to reach safety.
Lespérance, 42, returned to help the first five snowmobilers but was later found partially submerged in the hole, and he was taken to hospital where he was declared dead.
Tremblay ruled the deaths accidental. The victims of the fatal incident were identified as Yan Thierry, 24; Jean-René Dumoulin, 24; Arnaud Antoine, 25; Julien Benoît, 34; and Gilles Claude, 58.
'Not a mistake, but a decision'
According to police, Lespérance was an experienced guide and he had all the necessary training to lead this group to its destination. But surveillance footage from a gas station where the group stopped shows Lespérance did not have in-depth knowledge of the shortcut he intended to take, since he took several minutes to consult a map on his phone, appearing to be looking for his way.
According to the report, it is "improbable" that the group continued onto the lake by mistake rather than staying on the marked path, as weather conditions, notably the visibility, would not have been a problem.
Speaking to reporters on Friday afternoon, Tremblay said Lespérance made the conscious decision to go off trail. "It is not a mistake, but a decision of the guide," she said, adding that speed and the conditions of the vehicle also did not play a factor in the incident.
"There is no doubt that the area to which Mr. Lespérance guided the group was at risk," the report says of the area that is known for thin ice and strong currents.
Tremblay said, however, that police evidence suggests that when the group arrived to the spot where they left the marked trail, there were already snowmobile tracks on the ice, a factor which she believes gave Lespérance and the others a false sense of security.
Following the coroner's report, Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx said a mandatory training program for off-road-vehicle guides announced last year will be in place by the end of December of next year, with an upgrade on hours.
"Roughly, we're going from 14 hours up to 37 hours [of training], 20 of which will be totally dedicated to wilderness and remote areas," she said.
A series of recommendations
According to Tremblay, there was no signage to alert the snowmobilers of the dangerously thin ice. Moreover, they did not have the technological means to communicate with each other or call for help.
In a series of recommendations, Tremblay is calling on the Fédération des Clubs de Motoneigistes du Québec to improve signage in the area and warn people to stay away from that section of the lake.
She also recommended the federation install signs where trails intersect with the shores of a lake or a river to warn people of the real dangers of travelling on these bodies of water in the winter, and to reiterate the importance of staying on the designated trails.
Tremblay says snowmobilers should have navigation systems and communication devices with them at all times, and she is calling on the Quebec government and the province's snowmobile federation to introduce that practice.
In a statement to CBC News, the federation says it intends to read the report closely and put in place all appropriate measures to prevent similar unfortunate events from happening again.