Two friends accused of illegally hunting in the RM of Piney were acquitted of all charges in Steinbach Provincial Court last Thursday in a case which depended on the legal definition of hunting.
Judge Catherine Carlson said the Crown’s case against Richard Gilbert Fontaine and Garrison Jeffrey Lohr-Mansbridge left her in doubt that they were hunting when they were stopped by Manitoba Conservation officers on private land near St Labre on November 10, 2020.
The two men were charged under the Wildlife Act with unlicensed night hunting and hunting on private land without permission. They pleaded not guilty and were tried earlier this year.
The Crown relied on the testimony of the two conservation officers, who had been dispatched to patrol an area of the RM of Piney where illegal hunting is known.
A few minutes after midnight, a van equipped with a light bar headed towards the stationed officers, who testified to seeing beams of flashlights sweeping across the fields on either side of the access road. Signs prohibiting hunting and trespassing have been placed nearby.
Inside the truck, which belonged to Fontaine, officers found an unloaded .308 caliber rifle near the driver’s seat and an empty magazine on the center console next to four cartridges of the same type. Other bullets, a hunting license, a hunting knife, deer meat, flashlights and a laser pointer were found in the back of the vehicle.
Carlson noted that night hunters often use laser pointers and bright lights to blind and immobilize targeted animals.
Testifying at trial, Fontaine did not dispute the facts of the case but offered an alternative explanation for them.
Fontaine said he had been hunting all day on Crown land near Marchand. At dusk he picked up Lohr-Mansbridge and went to supper at Smitty’s in Steinbach, throwing a jacket over the gun in the cab of his truck. Then they went to a friend’s house to help bring down a deer.
They then headed east on gravel roads in search of alfalfa fields where deer like to feed in the fall. Fontaine said he intended to return later and ask the owner for permission to hunt.
Both parties agreed that no wildlife was seen on the ground that night. Fontaine insisted he would not have shot an animal that night even if he had spotted one.
The Wildlife Act defines hunting as “hunting, driving, hunting, attracting, pursuing, worrying, following after or on the trail of, seeking, shooting at, stalking or watching for wildlife, whether or not the wildlife is then or thereafter captured, killed, taken or injured.
Carlson cited decisions from the Manitoba Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada which distinguish between “searching” and “searching” for prey. The first, she said, involved a greater degree of thoroughness and intentionality which the Crown in this case has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
Carlson said the location, time of night, use of lights, and the availability of a rifle and ammunition were suspect but did not establish a “readiness” consistent with the hunt.
Fontaine testified that his rifle could not be loaded with a single bullet, only with a magazine, which made loading time consuming. Conservation officers conceded that neither of the men were seen fumbling with the gun during their arrest.
Carlson concluded that it was “less likely” that the two were hunting than that they were looking for potential hunting locations.
She ordered the Crown to return all items seized from the two men during their arrest.