Saturday, June 25, 2011

When Swimming Lessons are a Question of Life, Acculturation, and Public Health/Education

Ottawa's beaches officially open with lifeguards on Saturday, June 18, 2011. Beaches in Gatineau Park open on Friday. [on the Ottawa River]

As someone who has spent a lot of time swimming, lifeguarding, and teaching swimming lessons from non-swimmer to the highest lifeguarding levels, I was very struck when I read last year of the increase in the number of drownings in Canada, and more particularly that there was a direct correlation between newness to Canada and highest risk of drowning. As summer has now officially begun, and the temperatures are warmer, there are once again drownings in the news, and concern about certain patterns.

The statistics and analysis last year came from the Royal Life Saving Society (Canada) and the Red Cross. Deaths by drowning in Canada increased 10%, from 368 in 2009 to 404 in 2010. Those who have been in Canada less than 5 years are 4 times more likely to drown than those who have been here longer. Many come from countries where only the rich can afford swimming lessons or water activities, and now have abundant free or minimal cost open water opportunities:

The Lifesaving Society of Canada estimates about half of Canadian children
never take traditional swimming lessons (Errol Mcgihon/ QMI Agency, file)
Drownings on rise in Canada, Lifesaving Society says

Drownings are on the rise in Canada, the Lifesaving Society says.

According to media reports, drownings in 2010 were up 10% over the year before, the society said Tuesday when it released its new national drowning report.

Barbara Byers, the public education director of the Lifesaving Society, said it's very concerning to see the spike in drownings in 2010 amongst children under five years of age. There were 22 reported drownings in 2010 compared to 14 in 2009.

And drowning numbers are up from just a few years ago. Until 2004, the society said there was a long-term trend where each year saw fewer drownings in Canadian waters. After reaching an all-time low of 433 water-related deaths in 2004, there was an upswing to 492 in 2005; 508 in 2006; and a dip to 480 in 2007. Final statistics for 2008 to 2010 are not available yet, so the society used data from media and Internet reports to determine drownings in 2010 were up again over the previous year.

The society estimates about half of Canadian children never take traditional swimming lessons. But new Canadians — people who have been here for five years or less — also have a higher risk of drowning than those born here.

A study last year showed new Canadians are four times more likely to be unable to swim, but focus group research during the past year gave the society even more insight into why that might be, Byers said.

"Over and over again, we heard from our focus group members that swimming was a very Canadian thing to do," she said. "Many said swimming pools and beaches were not easily accessible for them in their home country. They view Canada as being about the great outdoors and swimming is something they want for their children."

The Lifesaving Society is a charity and volunteer organization that works to prevent water-related injuries and deaths.
 Grand Beach, Grand Beach Provincial Park, on Lake Winnipeg, near Winnipeg, Manitoba

The ways people drown are unchanged. Small children are most at risk as they are top heavy, and tend to topple into water, or get pulled farther out by currents. They are less likely to know how to swim, and a distracted parent may not notice a child in distress, who often doesn't scream or thrash about.

Fishermen and boaters are also more at risk--especially boaters who don't wear lifejackets at all times, and only meet federal regulations by having enough of them onboard (one for each child and each adult). Also at risk are those swimming in unsupervised areas, or undersupervised pools. Backyard, apartment, and hotel pools are usually the worst in terms of a lack of supervision.

Alcohol and water activities don't mix. Male risk taking behaviour makes men more likely to be victims of drowning. Also men have proportionately more muscle and can tend to sink like rocks.

New arrivals want to take part in the aquatic activities available in Canada's numerous bodies of water (lakes, rivers, Great Lakes, oceans), yet may be unfamiliar with the particular dangers given their places of origin, and are less likely to know how to swim. They are also less likely to know the difference between safe and dangerous ice, and what to do if one falls through. There are many who have experience fishing or even boating but are essentially non-swimmers.

The solutions have included offering swimming lessons to adults, usually mothers, in their first languages to ensure that parents can pass on the skills, monitor and guide their children's activities, and perform safe rescues where necessary. I think that is an excellent idea.

Another excellent idea is incorporating swimming and water safety lessons more diligently in the public school physical education. I have taught these classes, and in one instance taught 2 newly arrived boys in my few words of Portuguese plus "close enough" Spanish. I also had a Portuguese friend translate the swimming level and requirements along with their award so their parents would know what they had accomplished, and what level to register them in at a municipal pool. They went from non-swimmers to being able to swim serviceably on front and back; and, more importantly, had a few survival skills if in difficulty--the first being an ability to not panic and right themselves if underwater.

Newcomers with no swimming skills are not a new phenomenon in Canada. What is newer, and not addressed enough, is that cut backs to public education, and particularly to physical education classes, have resulted in fewer children learning adequate swimming and water safety skills as part of their standard education. Schools are built without pools to save costs, and schools with pools are closed. With less time and funding allocated to physical education there is less opportunity to take classes to municipal pools or nearby school pools.

Swimming lessons should start with baby's bath, making it a fun and safe experience, and encouraging a love of movement in water. Next are parent and baby/toddler swims, and then moving on up, at least to a level of good drownproofing and swimming ability and general knowledge of water safety and rescues. Municipal pools usually offer the least expensive classes; sometimes, the programs are free. Any school phys ed opportunity should be taken advantage of, even if the swim suit is a very modest one. Universities offer swimming lessons including for non-swimmers as part of the Athletics program that students have already paid for with their obligatory incidental fees.


My swimming "career" started as above. I knew it was partly a safety issue, but thought it was mostly because my mother loved swimming and going to the beach. We often did so with her, or with her and her brother, another beach-y swimmer. I only discovered,  when my mother started taking my nephew to municipal family swims, and lessons, how much it was a safety issue. One day, she said, "I thought I was finished with all this when you two got your lifeguard qualifications, and I could relax."

My Dad was a non-swimmer because there were no Catholic swimming lessons, and my grandmother didn't want him going to Protestant ones, whether at the Y or at the public municipal pools. He was also one of those non-swimmers who was pushed into the water "for fun" and got a scare, making sure he didn't like swimming. He did learn, as an adult--at the same Protestant YMCA pool he wasn't allowed to learn at as a kid--to protect his toddler daughters from mishap. I learned and taught at the YWCA, and there was no religion involved.

Let's just say that drowning is an interfaith, transcultural, physiological response. Learning to swim is great fun, enhances safety, is one of the life long fitness sports, and opens the way to other aquatic activities--for all!

Somehow, I now feel like blowing a whistle, and yelling "No running!", "No pushing!"; or giving a weak swimmer the eye to get back to the shallow end, or to get off that diving board; or carefully explaining to tattling little girls that if they don't want the little boys to push them under water, they should stop taunting them into doing so, and then showing they are having so much fun while being "drowned". :D

Parlee Beach, New Brunswick. Handout photo, New Brunswick Department of Tourism and Parks

Further Reading:

Drownings in Canada increase 10 per cent
Drowning risk high for young children, new immigrants: Stats
Kids under 5 at higher risk of drowning, report warns
Let’s find a way to make water safety a cool issue
Swimming & Water Safety
Water Safe

What is the availability of swimming lessons and aquatic activities in your country?
How did you learn to swim?
What would your suggestions be to make water safety a cool issue?
What would your suggestions be to make swimming and water safety lessons more accessible to newcomers?
How much are sports part of acculturation to a new country and society?
Other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, surfing the Atlantic

13 comments:

countrygirl said...

I don't live near the sea but by a magnificent lake (lake of Como) and there are several indoor pool where kids can receive lesson, some school organize swimm lesson.

Since i was very little i swam (at the beginning with floater around the waist then the two little ones around each arm and i remember that at i certain point i took of one and then another one...i can say that i started to swimm without any formal swimm lesson (i took the later to be a better swimmer)

I think it's also cultural thing that many immigrants don't know to swim i mean muslim women can't wear a swimwear so why bother to learn to swim, yes there's the burkini but i think it was made for the coverted who before the conversion liked to swim.

A good swimmer can drown too if she/he doesn't respect basic rules as Don't go where there's a strong current, don't enter if there are big waves and don't drink alcool.

And as a personal note tomorrow i will go swimming (or more dipping) with my dog in a small creek in Swiss (ok it's about 10 minutes from where i live)

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

Every child should learn how to swim. I would also say I think every immigrant who cannot swim should be encouraged to learn.

Traditionally, Canadians enjoy the water and most live near it. New immigrants have just begun to show up here in the north. We have South Asian doctors and variety store owners so far. Few seem to come to cottage country to vacation but their children and grandchildren will I am sure.

I am most distressed at children drowning in pools. I personally would not want the responsibility of owning one.

jaraad said...

It is interesting that they know new comers are more likely to drawn than those who have been longer in the country.
I love swimming a lot. My father taught me swimming at age 3 in Kuwait. I don't know who taught him though. I never asked him, I should ask him now :) Because in Irbid, Jordan at that time they were no pools or any open water spaces.

Unfortunately, for the last three years or so the lake of the Ozark in MO is not safe to swim in because of E. Coli. I am not sure if we still have the problem this year or not.

p.s. I think you meant "public education", an "l" was missing some where :)

oby said...

"Catholic vs Protestant" swim lessons? Man I must live under a rock! I never heard of that and I thought my dad was pretty heavy duty Catholic when I was a kid...I always thought of it as a secular sport!

oby said...

I have seen some burkinis...I have never actually seen it up close and personal but it looks like it is made from the same material a bathing suit is made from. They appear to be made in a way that would not inhibit someone if they got into some trouble in the water Ie: lot of fabric in the way...it looks to be functional and yet safe. don't know though... just my guess.

coolred38 said...

I wrote a post similar about Bahrain and Bahrainis...surrounded by water but drowning at alarming rates each summer due to the fact that few ever learn to swim. Adults and children alike. It is a tragedy that could be so easily avoided.

countrygirl said...

Sometimes it's stupidy/careleness that causes drowings...i mean a couple of week ago i've read a news that a football player saved a litttle girl from drowining during a pool party...he was the only adult that knew to swimm...i'm wondering what in the hell a pool party and only ONE person who kner to swimm? Why the owner didn't put some fences around the pool and most important you buy a house with a pool and you don't manage to get some swimm lesson!

Wendy said...

We have a wonderful pool in our condo but unfortunately our female Muslim friends refuse to swim in a non-segragated pool and I refuse to have their husbands/boychildren swim when the females seeming can't or won't so there it is. Opportunity lost I guess.

Susanne said...

I've never heard of religious swim lessons either. I did a double take reading that!

Wendy said...

Catholic/Protestant swim lessons ... just goes to show stupidity and ignorance are not the sole properties of Muslims. LOL!!!

Chiara said...

Thank you all for you comments, and sharing your experiences.

About the Catholic vs Protestant swimming lessons, it is a rather stunning rationale, but it does seem to hold, perhaps subconsciously, as at least when I was teaching there were far more non-swimmers among the Catholic school classes than among the public (perceived as Protestant, and were up until a few decades ago) school classes, perhaps reflecting a reluctance to send children to the Y or the municipal classes. On the other hand, I did much of my life guard training at a public municipal pool attached to a public high school and had many in my group from the local Catholic high school.

I deliberately put that in about my grandmother's rationale because I think that there are many like her who are intelligent but parochial and misguided on some issues.

I also find for new immigrants or international students, even today, there is some misunderstanding that the Young Men's/Women's Christian Association is religious or restrictive. There was a time when it was, which is why there is a Young Men's/Women's Hebrew Association. Those days are long gone.

Also, I have had Muslim medical specialty students on scholarship from oversees be reluctant or apprehensive about training in a Catholic hospital or in a Jewish hospital--in that they fear they wouldn't be welcome or would be discriminated against. Both those hospital systems which started out privately have long been part of the public health system, and I have trained and taught in both. They are open for training and clinical care to all. Their medical staffs are multi-faith. Their chaplaincy services are multi-faith. In my experience any such religious discrimination can happen anywhere, and has been perpetrated by people with a personality disorder--as judged by their peers.

...cont'd...

Chiara said...

Countrygirl--You are so lucky to have learned in the beautiful Lake Como! Many have used flotation devices of various types to help them learn or give them courage. It is a good idea to get more formal lessons to perfect technique.

As far as I know, the issue is for all new immigrants, and Muslim women are a minority of that population. There are facilities that offer women only activities, and some universities have women only swims to accommodate those who prefer that for whatever reason. The earliest years of schooling would be a good time for swim lessons as a health, fitness, and safety measure, and where it would be more feasible (and cost effective) to teach children together. Phys Ed classes are most often segregated right through high school, though both genders may be on the field or in the pool at the same time.

Very true that good swimmers should practice good water safety.

I hope you enjoyed your dip in the Swiss creek. I once went with family to a beach on a Swiss lake/river (I forget which one) which was very nice, with a beautiful view!

Thanks for your comment and sharing!

Tossing Pebbles in the Sand--thanks for your comments which are very apropos. Backyard pools are still dangerous despite preventive legislation. Most families I know with one are quite obsessed about their children's safety in them and that of visiting children. It is still amazing how toddlers can be safely in view one minute and in danger the next!

I agree that there should be more encouragement for immigrants to learn to swim. That should be part of the responsibility of public programs in cities and communities with a high immigrant population. Having a teen teach or interpret for a qualified teacher would be a win/win situation in my opinion.

There seems to be a gradual shift toward interest in cottage country, and you are right it is probably partly generational, involving length of time in the country, and also freedom from the initial financial challenges of immigration.

Jaraad--as I understand the research that was done, the initial question was just to find out why there were more drownings. In the process of investigating that and the circumstances of the drownings they discovered that there was a disproportionate number of new immigrants among the victims. Then further study, including focus groups, was done to determine exactly why that was and how to remedy it.

What a nice way to learn to swim! Let us know if you get an answer from your father.

E. coli is a big problem as are other forms of water pollution. It is impressive what can be done when a municipality or region decides to do a proper cleanup and prevention program. There are some impressive new beaches and harbour fronts in Canada after such an initiative.

Thanks for the proofreading help. I fixed the typo as soon as I read your comment. :D

...cont'd...

Chiara said...

Oby--Indeed! My grandmother was born in a small village in the mountains above Lucca in Tuscany. Apparently Tuscans are known for being particularly rigid in their religiosity. Perhaps Countrygirl can give us the contemporary view of whether this still is thought to be true among regional beliefs in Italy.

Based on the pictures and descriptions of the burkinis I have seen online they are functional and safe. Also, there are more modest standard one-piece suits that many Muslim women feel comfortable wearing. And then there are the Muslim women in bikinis. On the beaches in Morocco I have seen mostly fashionable one-pieces, including the ones with a lot of cutaway features, and some bikinis worn by Moroccan women. The Europeans are more likely to favour the 2 piece or bikini over a one piece--though fashion dictates style and colour!

Coolred--yes, I remember your post well. Feel free to link a post when you feel it is relevant to the discussion here. To me, an island full of non-swimmers is a reflection of the same phenomenon that sees coastal villages full of non-swimmers--even though the people make their living from fishing and water transport. They feel safer on or beside the water, but disaster occurs if they are in the water. Pearl divers excepted of course--they have unique challenges, and now are obsolete. Agreed, preventable, especially in this day and age and with the resources that Bahrain has.

Thanks for your comment.

Wendy--that is interesting. I wonder if the deprivation will inspire the men to push the women to swim? Or if there could be a women only swim at certain off hours as a form of encouragement. The outdoor apartment pool where I lived in Hong Kong was by default essentially women and young children only at certain hours of the day. Some mothers liked to swim very early morning to get laps in before the little ones woke, and the hubs were still home in case they did.

The hotel I stayed at in Tehran had an outdoor pool, and I wondered how they were going to manage the women only/ men only swim times, until I figured out that since there was no blocking the view of the pool from the hotel and surrounding buildings the solution was men only swimming. :(

Thanks for sharing your perspective on it.

Susanne--I think for those of us from a younger generation and in pluralistic societies the idea is very foreign, but then again there is renewed sectarian violence in Ireland, just showing that religion remains a social organizational precept. Thanks for your "shock and awe"! :D

Wendy--thanks for pointing this ous. All fundamentalisms seem to blend and hold the same extreme and exclusionary attitudes. Bah, humbug! :D

Thanks again to all for your comments and sharing your experiences, and perspectives.

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