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)
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
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
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