The movie “White Mile” (trailer found here) (available on DVD and used in support of some university outdoor recreation courses) is based on a true life event where several adult participants perished during a “corporate-bonding” white water rafting event in Canada.

The point is made in the movie that some participants may have felt pressured to participate on the trip, organized by their corporate boss, despite the perceived (and actual) challenging conditions of the river, which conditions were apparently beyond the skill level and physical ability of some participants (those who perished).

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Indeed, as stated during the movie by an actor portraying a trip survivor, “When people’s lives are at stake, I think people are entitled to decide for themselves how much risk they will be exposed to.”  The movie is indeed instructive on this point (at least as to adult participants) and worth a viewing.

However, the “deciding for themselves” standard only legally applies to adults, and not to youth, who are otherwise legally incapable of “assuming the risk” which may be encountered during an activity.  Hence, the need for “qualified supervision” by attending adult leaders, acting as guardians for the youth during the activity.

During a 1995 Scouting white water kayak event, a Scout perished after failing to navigate around a log barrier in the river.  One of the attending adults subsequently purportedly commented in response to the tragedy that  “No one was to blame. These things just happen. Everyone who came for the trip accepted the dangers when they signed up.

But, did (or could) such a youth have “accepted the dangers” when he signed up?  Indeed, was it even foreseeable that the kayakers would have had to confront such an impediment in the river, such that they would have known of such a danger, much less be legally capable of assuming the risk inherent in such a danger? Again, the only participants legally capable of assuming such risk were the attending adults, not the youth participants, even if such risks were known.

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Parks Canada  has in place regulations  that prohibit entry by custodial groups (such as Scout groups) into the backcountry during the winter when the conditions are potentially catastrophic (such as extreme avalanche conditions).  This regulation is a society-imposed recognition that youth are incapable of assuming the risks of such an activity, particularly when the risks are potentially catastrophic, and that adults should not be permitted to assume such risks on their behalf under those circumstances.

A youth’s parents are the ones who must provide “informed consent” for an activity on behalf of their child (Scout).

It is thus important for adult leaders to both understand the inherent risks associated with an activity, while also sufficiently informing the Scouts’ parents of such risks so that “informed consent” may be obtained for each Scout’s participation.  The Scouts, and their parents, will thank you.

Safe Scouting!

Who can “assume the risk” of an activity?