Wading into Hot Water - Trespassing in Ontario
With more than 250,000 lakes and over 100,000 km of rivers, Ontario is truly an incredible place for anglers! While we have public access to tremendous amount of it, there is still a lot of private ownership of land and access that we must navigate, especially in Southern Ontario.
There is an enormous amount of information floating around regarding river, stream, and waterbody access, which is usually based upon opinion, misinformation, and not fact. Listening to someone’s opinion on trespassing law, instead of fact, can leave you in hot water, deep in fines, and potentially court.
Please note, what is written below is our best understanding of trespassing laws in Ontario, it is not a legal reference.
Knowing what your rights are, what landowners’ rights are, and what constitutes trespassing in Ontario can keep you out of trouble and keep landowner relationships alive and well that can lead to future public access.
First off, what is trespassing?
Trespassing is entering privately owned land without permission.
It is not always clear, at first glance, to what may be privately owned and what is publicly accessible. We’ve put together this list of “tests” to determine if land, or water, is privately owned and where you cannot trespass.
Dwellings & Buildings
Crops & Maintaned Areas
Fenced land – if there is a fence on a property that’s intention was to enclose the land from either human or animal entry, or to keep animals on the premises, you are automatically not allowed to trespass or enter the property without landowner permission, regardless of what state the fence is in. The fence could be fallen down, it could have large gaps in it, but that does not matter.
Dwellings and Buildings – if there is a dwelling or building on private land you are automatically not allowed to trespass or enter the property without landowner permission.
Crops & Maintained Areas – If there are crops planted, orchards, vines, woodlots, cut grass, lawns, gardens, etc. you are automatically not allowed to trespass or enter the property without landowner permission.
Signs – A landowner can post their property as No Trespassing, No Entry, Keep Out, a red dot on a white sign, etc. which only has to be posted at their normal point of entry (e.g. their driveway), not all the way around their property. As an example, someone could own 10,000 acres of land with rivers that flow through it and cross public roads, but if on their driveway they have a no trespassing sign then their entire property is considered posted, even if it is kilometres away. ‘No trespassing’ means no entry for any reason, anglers and hunters do not have exemptions, unless otherwise stated.
It is important to remember that just because a sign is not present it does not mean that you can have access to the area without permission.
You’ve Been Told – If you have been told to remove yourself from someone’s property, or have been told that you cannot enter it then you are not allowed to trespass or enter the property without landowner permission.
When you may be right – it is illegal, in Ontario, to interfere with anyone’s right under the Heritage Act to legally fish or hunt. If someone is harassing you, or has told you false information regarding private property ownership to interfere with your fishing, they can be charged with an offence. But, it is an individual’s responsibility under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act to not trespass for the purposes of hunting and fishing.
Frequently Asked Questions:
If I am floating down a river and get out to wade, am I trespassing?
Maybe! It depends if the bottom of the river is owned and deeded by the government to the landowner. If it is privately owned, then yes, you are trespassing.
If I am floating down a river and anchor in a place where the riverbed is owned, is that allowed?
If the property has been posted as No Trespassing, or falls into any of the other categories listed above, then once your anchor (your property) touches privately owned bottom you are trespassing without permission.
If I bounce off a rock while floating down the river, am I trespassing?
If the property has been posted as ‘No Trespassing’, or falls into any of the other categories listed above, then once your boat, raft, tube, etc… touches privately owned bottom, including rocks, you are trespassing without permission.
Can someone own the riverbed, water, fish, and/or vegetation? The correct answer is, yes. Ownership of the water, fish, and vegetation is uncommon but it is possible in Ontario. There are a few situations where we know of this being true where individuals have been charged for trespassing on privately owned water.
The most common is riverbed ownership where the bottom of the river and banks are owned. In this case, even it if it is on a named navigable waterway, you cannot trespass and if you are doing so you may be charged. Remember, it is based upon what is in their deed and authorised by the crown.
But, what about the Navigable Waterway Act, does that not mean I can go anywhere on a river I want?
No, it does not. Even sections of Navigable Waterways can be privately owned if they were granted or deeded to a private owner. So, your friend who said “if you can put a canoe down it, or float a log down it, means it’s publicly accessible” is not correct.
It is up to you, the individual, to know exactly where you stand (literally and figuratively).
Just because you have accessed a waterbody in the past does not mean that access will be allowed in the future. There are many have always been privately owned with landowners granting permissions for public access. The fact is that in Southern Ontario we are losing access to what were once accessible rivers, streams, creeks, lakes, ponds, and other waterways due to resource abuse and poor behavior on private land. Nothing gets access shut down to the public quicker than a nasty confrontation with a trespasser.
Please be kind, be thoughtful, and respect private ownership,
your actions impact us all.