Parental action, water safety classes key at preventing drownings: expert

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A recent spate of drowning incidents in Ontario and Quebec has led to renewed calls for more vigilance around water and making swimming lessons part of the school curriculum.

The issue was top of mind Tuesday following the death of a six-year-old who was pulled from a Montreal pool. A lifeguard had been on duty and several other people were swimming nearby when the incident happened Monday, officials said.

Also Monday, a 13-year-old girl was pulled from a small lake at a campground in southwestern Ontario and later died in hospital. And last week, a five-year-old girl and her mother drowned in an unsupervised pool at a resort west of Collingwood, Ont.

Lifeguards are a great preventative measure, said Barbara Byers, of the Lifesaving Society, a charity devoted to preventing drownings and water-related injuries.

“If they’re guarding at a pool and they see a non-swimmer, they’ll make sure the non-swimmer stays in the shallow area, they’ll make sure they stay away from the drop-off, they’ll make sure they have a parent within arm’s reach.”

Less than one per cent of drownings in Ontario and Quebec occur in “lifeguard-supervised” environments, said Byers.

But parents and guardians should always keep a close eye on their children when they’re in the water, she suggested.

“We always tell parents that lifeguards aren’t babysitters.”

Teaching kids to swim is among the best ways to prevent drownings, Byers added.

“Swimming requires instruction,” she said. “We’re not fish. We don’t just have the ability to learn how to swim on our own.”

“If we can ensure that all kids learn these skills during school time, then we can provide them with that training, irrespective of whether the parents are aware of the need for the children to learn how to swim,” Byers said.

She noted that her organization helps run a grant program in Ontario that allows school boards to teach swimming as part of their curriculums, but it’s not mandatory for school boards across the province.

A compulsory water safety program for Grade 4 students was piloted in Winnipeg from January to June this year after two students drowned during summer break in 2016, a spokeswoman for the city’s school division said.

Radean Carter said the program — which teaches kids how to forward roll into the water, tread water for a minute and swim 50 metres without stopping — has since been made permanent.

Similar programs are in place in several other countries, including the U.K., where all students are taught to swim a distance of 25 metres “competently, confidently and proficiently” and “perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations.”

Students are also taught water safety in the Australian state of Victoria.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press