Water Safety Top of Mind During COVID-19

Christine Wagg

by Christine Wagg

It has been almost 16 years since our community lost King Boloko to a tragic drowning one hot summer evening.  This loss was felt throughout the African community as his family had immigrated to Canada from the Congo in hopes of a better life.  As a young man, King was involved in many sports like soccer, football, and cadets to name a few, but swimming lessons were not something that occurred to be an activity.  This is the case for many New Canadians as recreational swimming is something new and many coming from countries where water is not a prominent as we see here in Ottawa.

We have all faced challenges during the past 15 months with isolation and social distancing.  This has also been a challenge to safely find outdoor activities during our hot summer months.  Last year in Ottawa, Fire and Police Marine Units were busy on our water ways attending to many distress calls on the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers with people finding themselves in trouble.  With restrictions in place for swimming at Ottawa’s lifeguarded venues, many turned to swimming in open waters with little or no swimming abilities.  We had 11 drownings last year alone in Ottawa.

The Lifesaving Society of Ontario studied who is drowning, and what are they doing at the time.  We see that young children under the age of 4 where adult supervision is absent or distracted 92 % of the time, and men ages 20 to 34 during their peak risk-taking years. 

For New Canadians, our study has shown that 79% of New Canadians plan to be in or around the water during the summer.  While 57% say they will participate in swimming, 19% say they are unable to swim.  Our second leading place to see high numbers in drownings is boating.  31% say they will participate in boating, 60% say they have no knowledge of boating safety.

Not everyone grows up around the water or has access to affordable swimming lessons.  It is a mandate of the Canadian Drowning Prevention Coalition is to have zero drownings in Canada.  To achieve this, we need to remove barriers to water safety programs, teach every Canadian how to swim, and what are the risks and drowning prevention messaging that needs to be shared.

The key messaging to safe in and around the water this summer are:

  1.  Never leave children unattended around the water.  Children always require constant and undisrupted supervision from adults.
  • Wear your Personal Flotation Device for weak swimmers.  Donning a Department of Transport approved PFD will ensure you stay afloat in the water.
  • When boating, all on board should be wearing a PFD or lifejacket.  Like a seatbelt, it won’t work if you’re not wearing it!  Lakes and rivers can pose greater risks than pools as the depths and currents can change quickly.
  •  Take swimming lessons.  The City of Ottawa offers lessons to all ages and has a Hand in Hand program to assist with fees.
  • Always swim in supervised areas.  The safest place to swim is where there are lifeguards.  The City has 4 lifeguarded beaches and 9 outdoor pools, over 50 wading pools with trained attendants and will open the remaining indoor pools once restrictions on indoor activities permit.

With the loss of King, the Boloko family has encouraged and supported many children to have swimming lessons.  Knowing that strong swimming skills and a keen understanding of water safety can prevent the loss of precious lives.

Enjoy our wonderful water ways this summer safely.  Make a plan, ensure you have all the safety gear and swim with a buddy!  It is important to know before you go so that you don’t find yourself in trouble and everyone stays safe.

Chris Wagg is an aquatic professional working for the City of Ottawa for over 35 years.  Her dedication to the prevention of drownings has taken her outside of her day job to holding many positions within the Lifesaving Society, Ontario Branch.  First as Area Chair, then to provincial positions of Volunteer Personnel and Aboriginal Council, to now Vice President of Public Education.Locally, Chris has been one of the founding members of the Ottawa Drowning Prevention Coalition, which has been working with multiple agencies in the Ottawa Area to collaboratively prevent drownings in Ottawa.  Chris is also on the steering committee for the newly formed Canadian Drowning Prevention Coalition.  She has presented to Ottawa model regionally, provincially and internationally.