With a shortage of lifeguards and a pandemic limiting swimming lessons, Ontario’s new drowning prevention group aims to educate people heading to the beaches about water safety.
- Across Canada, a shortage of lifeguards is causing concern for the next generation of swimmers.
Briar McCaw and Mary-Kate Townsend founded the Elgin County Drowning Prevention Coalition, working with organizations in southwestern Ontario, after noticing a gap in water safety knowledge.
They founded the Elgin County Drowning Prevention Coalition, working with organizations in the region to improve the education of children, the elderly, people facing language barriers, and migrant agricultural workers in the water sector.
Both live and work on the water in Elgin County and wanted to do something to help educate those at particular risk of drowning, including children, the elderly, people facing language barriers and migrant farm workers.
“People don’t always realize that open water is very different even from a backyard pool,” said McCaw, who has taught swimming in Elgin County for five years and works as a lifeguard in Stanley.
According to the Life Saving Society, 51 people have drowned in Ontario this year.
In June, a 24-year-old agricultural migrant from Guatemala died in hospital after possible drowning in Lake Erie.
We could bring this number [of drownings] in fact, almost to zero if people practice safe behavior in the water.– Barbara Byers, Life Saving Society
McCaw said she often sees beach swimmers struggling after going too far, or children out of their parents’ reach. She said it’s not enough to be able to swim, but water safety should also include knowledge of pool and beach rules, as well as boating safety.
“These are not new messages. You just have to make sure we communicate them clearly,” said Townsend, who is also a boat insurance underwriter.
“We’re really just trying to focus on our own backyard. That’s where we want to make the biggest difference.”
Townsend wants more data on drowning incidents in Elgin County, which has about 100 kilometers of coastline, to help identify water safety knowledge gaps in the community.
She believes that data collection will help identify the target groups most at risk and what can be done, such as creating signs in different languages.
Townsend has learned a lot from similar coalitions in Ontario and wants to see the work spread to other regions.
“Almost all drownings are preventable,” says Barbara Byers, senior fellow at the Life Saving Society. “We could bring that number down to almost zero if people practiced water safety behaviors.”
According to the Life Saving Society’s 2020 Report on Drowning, risk factors include being weak or unable to swim, not having a swimming device, swimming alone, or drinking alcohol.
“The public can monitor the risks of drowning and make sure they have the skills, training and focus on safe behavior,” she said.
“If we did, then our numbers could be very, very, very low.”