Red Cross helps reduce drowning deaths in Canada

Published: 18 August 2003 0:00 CET

Colleen Lavender of the Canadian Red Cross

Water claims hundreds of Canadians lives every year. Thousands more are injured. Most of the victims are young, many of them just toddlers, their lives cut tragically short because of a few moments of carelessness.

When the Canadian Red Cross took on water safety as a key programme focus in the 1940s, an average of 1,200 Canadians died in the water annually, making drowning one of the leading causes of death among young Canadians. Almost all of those deaths were preventable tragedies.

Today, thanks in part to effective education and public awareness activities, the number of drowning deaths has fallen significantly in Canada, and continues to drop. In a recent publication, ‘10 Years of Pertinent Facts about Drownings and other Water-Related Injuries in Canada’, the Canadian Red Cross reported that drowning has declined by about 100 deaths per year in the last five years.

This is encouraging news, but more work remains to be done to educate Canadians about safety in, on and around the water.

“The good news, definitely, is that fewer people are drowning in Canada,” says Sue Phillips, Manager of Injury Prevention for Canadian Red Cross. “But in 2000, there were still 472 deaths due to drowning. Drownings, like other injury deaths, are predictable and preventable. Our goal, and that of our partners in water safety, is to get that number down to zero.”

Water safety saves lives on land, too

As might be expected, the safety skills students learn in Canadian Red Cross swimming lessons helps prevent drownings, but they also saves lives when the only water in sight is in a drinking glass.

Just ask Peggy Simenson, a grandmother in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, whose life was saved this summer by her visiting nine-year-old grandson, Sam.

When Peggy was choking on one of the medications she takes daily, Sam jumped up and performed abdominal thrusts to dislodge the pill. Sam credits his calm ability to save his grandmother with having taken Canadian Red Cross swimming and water safety lessons for several years. He is in level nine of the 12-level AquaQuest programme.

Drowning research is a critical part of Red Cross Swimming and Water Safety programmes in Canada, and an element that sets it apart from the competition. Armed with the knowledge of how people drown, the Society tailors its course materials and its public education messages to get to the heart of prevention.

“When people ask ‘why take Red Cross lessons?’ I tell them about Sam and his grandmother,” says Phillips.

“The Red Cross emphasizes swimming strokes, endurance, and the fun of being in the water. But we also teach respect for the water and learning what to do if something happens. Those valuable safety lessons are what set us apart from swimming clubs and other programmes that focus only on swimming strokes.”

Phillips asserts that this distinction is critical, because the research indicates that even strong swimmers drown. “Swimming skills alone won’t necessarily save you when your boat overturns, for instance, but knowing what to do next, will.”

Canadian Red Cross released its 10-year drowning report to launch Canada’s Water Safety Week on May 31. The launch generated several media stories across the country.

While Red Cross is careful not to take all the credit for reducing the number of deaths due to drowning, a daily newspaper editorial in the province of Saskatchewan was happy to make the link: “Since the Red Cross launched its water safety services in 1946, more than 27 million Canadians have learned to swim and enjoy water activities safely. It’s more than just a coincidence that during the same period, the number of drownings in Canada has dropped from an average of 1,200 annually to 472 in 2000. Just one more reason for Canadians to thank the Red Cross.”

Using humour to challenge attitudes

Ice hockey, video game animation and a bit of fun are the ingredients in this year’s CRC boating safety campaign. Funded by Canadian Coast Guard, the 30-second TV public service announcement is targeted at young male boaters who don’t wear their lifejackets while out on the water.

“The research is clear,” says Phillips. “Young men don’t wear their lifejackets on boats because they don’t perceive risk. But every year, 200 people – almost all of them men – die while boating. Clearly, attitudes need to change.”

The use of humour and animation tied to Canada’s favourite sport is intended to appeal to young men who take risks on the water, but in some circumstances (such as when playing ice hockey), take precautions.

“The same men who wouldn’t play hockey without their ‘gear’ are boating without a lifejacket,” Phillips explains. “The Red Cross message asks them to rethink this behaviour.”

Related links:

Canadian Red Cross Water Safety Campaign