Insurance issues keeping WC snowmobile trails closed

WEST CARLETON – Snowmobile season is here but enthusiasts are frustrated as not all trails are open as land use agreements have not been approved due to rising insurance issues.

The land use issues relate to leasing and insurance and a quarter of trails in the Ottawa, Kingston and Cornwall areas are not open for sledders.

“Approximately 25 per cent of our most popular trails will have to remain closed due to issues with our land use permission,” District 1, Upper Canada Snowmobile Region of the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC) district manager John Boals released in a statement Jan. 17. “We want to warn snowmobilers that routes using abandoned rail lines are particularly affected and there will be closed gates along many of these corridors.”

District One President Bruce Robinson says he’s talking to the legal departments of area municipalities, including the City of Ottawa to work through the issue.

Insurance claims are up due to some “staggering numbers” related to snowmobile incidents.

Between 2009 and 2019, 45 per cent of the 175 snowmobile deaths in the province were alcohol related the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) stated in a recently released 10-year data report. Another number shows 45 per cent of victims were travelling on frozen waterways at the time of the fatal incident.

“The circumstances that led to the deaths include intentionally driving on to open water (puddle jumping/water skipping), breaking through the ice and collisions with other snowmobiles and natural landmarks,” the OPP said. “We hope this data will encourage snowmobilers to avoid the recurring behaviours that contributed to the majority of the incidents over the past decade.” 

This data has changed the way insurers provide coverage for landowners who allow snowmobiling on their property including the City of Ottawa.

“It’s a staggering number,” Coun. Eli El-Chantiry told West Carleton Online last Thursday (Jan. 23). “That’s what triggered the review and will lead to less coverage.”

El-Chantiry says the OFSC and City of Ottawa legal department are “negotiating with insurance.”

El-Chantiry says the negotiations did not begin as soon as they could have which may have contributed to the delay.

“The OFSC new this was coming in September but didn’t get on it,” he said. “We received a letter last week. The snowmobilers got caught up in the middle of it.”

The West Carleton Snowmobile Trails Association (WCSTA) is encouraging its members to fill out a letter template and send it to local politicians including MP Karen McCrimmon, MPP Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, El-Chantiry and Mayor Jim Watson.

“I am writing to you at this time because one of our most important winter recreation activities is being threatened all across Ontario by insurance and landowner issues that are beyond the control of our organization,” the letter reads in part. “Our society has become so Americanized that we have imitated their litigious ways and now the ambulance chasers have affected our insurance company to the point that they are not able to meet the coverage demands of some of our corporate landowners. We have reached a stalemate with many of our municipalities, large corporations, and even MTO with the wording of our land use agreements. The indemnification clause proposed by our insurance does not meet the needs of some of our corporate landowners and neither side will budge.”

El-Chantiry isn’t sure about the value of the letter campaign.

“Not sure what that’s going to do,” he said. “I’m asking both parties to expedite and allow the groomers on to get the trail ready. I don’t blame the city or insurers. Why didn’t the OFSC do this in September? I’m not impressed. I’m getting a lot of emails, questions from friends and really, I don’t have the answers.”

El-Chantiry is a well-known snowmobile enthusiast himself and member of the WCSTA. The councillor’s office has also been sending letters to those inquiring about the issue.

“The Amendment to the Licence(s) of Occupation with the local snowmobile clubs has been sent to the Beautiful Eastern Association of Snowmobile Trails (BEAST) as spokesperson for all the local clubs,” the letter reads. “They will now send the amendments to the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC) and their insurer for review. It is hoped that the amendments will be accepted which will result in them issuing a Certificate of Insurance. Once the City of Ottawa receives the certificate of insurance, the trails on city property can be opened. The councillor is being kept apprised of the situation by city staff. It is hoped that going forward, the OFSC will start negotiations with the city far in advance of the snowmobile season, in order to avoid this situation in the future.”

In the meantime, all involved are asking snowmobilers to avoid trespassing on closed trails.