This man tested Canada's tax laws by moving in a canoe — and won

This man tested Canada's tax laws by moving in a canoe — and won

A teacher who relocated for work by loading his belongings into a canoe and paddling up the Rideau Canal to Ottawa has convinced Canada's tax agency to allow him to claim his moving expenses.

John Konecny decided to test the limits of the Income Tax Act after a tax court judge disallowed his expense claims for his move from Whitby, Ont., to Ottawa in 2014.

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) allows Canadians who move more than 40 kilometres for work or school to deduct eligible expenses from their taxable income, meaning they won't have to pay tax on the portion of their income they spend to move.

For decades, Konecny had been moving annually between the two cities, teaching in southern Ontario during the regular academic school year and eastern Ontario during the summer.

Until five years ago, he'd also had his expenses allowed. But when a lawyer suggested his attempts to have his moving costs deducted were "nearly treasonous," he vowed to fight.

"I was on Parliament Hill the day the Queen and Pierre Trudeau signed the Constitution ... I'm a proud, obedient, tax-paying citizen," the 54-year-old said.

"At that point, I have to admit, I think I snapped."

Stu Mills/CBC
Stu Mills/CBC

Was working vacation, judge said

As a young education graduate in the 1980s, Konecny had tried to get hired in his hometown by the Ottawa Carleton District School Board.

Although the Toronto District School Board first offered the new teacher full-time employment, Ottawa's public board came through later in the year with an offer to teach summer classes.

Konecny said yes to both boards, keeping up the annual teaching cycle for three decades.

In 2014, however, CRA rejected his moving expenses of $1,400.

Konecny took it to tax court, where a judge scoffed at his claims, calling Konecny's annual travel to Ottawa not a "move" but merely a working vacation.

Not only did he lose the case, the fight over the $1,400 deduction had cost him $3,000 in court fees.

The loss stung.

"I guess my position with the government is, 'Don't allow me to do something repeatedly under the law and then tell me 20 years in that I'm not correct,'" he said.

'Could you move in a canoe?'

Though he had lost, the presiding judge did offer some guidance.

He told Konecny that each time he moved, he should update his driver's licence and banking information and take out magazine subscriptions — all to solidify the status of his residency.

Then, the justice challenged him.

"He was like, 'Mr. Konecny, could you move in a canoe?'" the teacher recalls.

Konecny replied he believed he could.

"Something in me said, 'Hey, he asked, [so] why don't I show him?'"

Something out of Monty Python

Konecny spent hours in law libraries, researching precedent-setting taxation decisions. In 2018, he set out to test the limits of the provisions in the Income Tax Act, planning a relocation-by-canoe that he called a "Monty-Python-esque farce."

At the end of the last day of classes on June 26, the teacher loaded food and clothes into a battered blue fibreglass canoe, along with a converted weed-wacker to use as propulsion.

He's doing the exact same thing as the person who's going across the country in an automobile. He's just doing it on the cheap. - Tax law professor Vern Krishna

He brought along a bicycle and a small trailer capable of towing his craft when waters became too rough, and he set out from the public docks in Whitby.

Konecny's move took him through five provincial parks, where he collected admission fee receipts, and up the Rideau Canal. He also kept receipts for three nights' worth of campfire wood, and several bags of ice to keep his food and his insulin cool.

John Konecny
John Konecny

'Slightly unusual'

"This fellow did something slightly unusual in the selection of the mode of transportation," said Vern Krishna, a University of Ottawa tax law professor who wasn't surprised to see CRA accept the expense claims.

"But in principle, he's doing the exact same thing as the person who's going across the country in an automobile. He's just doing it on the cheap."

In the end, Konecny submitted claims totalling just under $1,000.

That's about what a professional moving company would have charged for the minimum billable weight for that distance, said Larry Kruger of McWilliams Moving & Storage Ltd. in Peterborough, Ont.

While moving-by-canoe was once commonplace in Canada, Kruger said he didn't think Konecny was likely to put companies like his out of work.

"I've been in the business 37 years and I've never heard of it. It's hilarious!"

Francois Brouard, an accounting professor with the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, said the Income Tax Act doesn't specify what kinds of vehicles are acceptable for a move.

Nor does it precisely say what kinds of expenses will be considered "reasonable".

"Sometimes there's a grey zone," said Brouard.

Stu Mills/CBC
Stu Mills/CBC

Planning his next move

Last week, Konecny learned that his expense claims, under review by the CRA up to that point, had passed inspection.

His research suggests he may be the first person to have successfully claimed expenses for a move by canoe since the Income Tax Act underwent a major rewrite in 1972.

He's already trying to plan his next relocation.

"So my friends have suggested a really great move would be dog sled."