After three new-Canadian youths drowned last summer in Manitoba, a Winnipeg based non-profit organization is helping newcomers learn to swim.

"That was a catalyst for us. It's not the first summer that we've seen something like that happen," said Sara Warkentin, an educator with Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services, or NEEDS Inc.

"One of the youth that died last summer was a past client but I think when you see those stories they affect us regardless, because it is the community we serve," she said.

Last August, 12-year-old David Medina and 11-year-old Jhonalyn Javier were pulled from the water near Grand Beach's popular boardwalk area along Lake Winnipeg. The families of both children were recent immigrants from the Philippines.

Later that month, 22-year-old Jean-Baptiste Ajua drowned at Birds Hill Beach. He had immigrated to Canada from Rwanda in 2009 and had become a Canadian citizen earlier in the year.

A 2016 report by the Lifesaving Society of Canada says new Canadians from 11 to 14 years old are five times less likely to know how to swim than their Canadian-born counterparts, yet very few swimming courses aimed specifically at newcomers are available in Manitoba.

"We wanted to take a preventative approach going forward and say, 'OK, we don't want to see this happen any more, so what do these children and youth need to be safe around water?'" said Warkentin.

Last fall, NEEDS began fundraising to start a program that would help newcomers access swimming lessons.

Sara Warkentin

Sara Warkentin says there are many barriers for newcomers when it comes to accessing swimming lessons, especially for teens who never learned to swim as kids. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The program launched in January and has seen between 30 and 40 youth, ages 12-21, take part in a 10-week course at Winnipeg's Sherbrook Pool. NEEDS hopes to put 100 youth through the program by the end of the year.

No new funding for classes in provincial review

On Wednesday, the province released a review of beach safety that was prompted by the drownings at Grand Beach and Birds Hill beach.

The report said the province would continue to work with settlement organizations to promote and improve water-safety initiatives targeting new Canadians, but didn't say any new funding would be available.

While there are subsidized swimming programs offered for low-income families, they aren't necessarily geared toward newcomers.

Sustainable Development Minister Cathy Cox said the province is set to spend $40,000 on beach safety, including life jackets for certain beaches, new brochures, more modern signage and a Zodiac boat for Birds Hill Beach.

She said the English as a second language program offers some water safety training for newcomers.

Warkentin said for many immigrants, it not as easy as just signing up for swimming lessons.

Many of the families are just getting settled, learning to speak a new language, catching up on lost school time and figuring out how systems work in Canada, she said.

"We saw an opportunity to really provide support in that area, so we bring the kids [to the pool], we provide the transportation, the supervision, the swimwear, the space, we pay for the lessons, everything."

NEEDS swimming

Many of the girls who swim in the program choose to wear leggings and long-sleeved shirts, which are more modest than typical swimwear. The pool is also closed to the public during the lesson to ensure no men will see them. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The program's goal, she said, is "eliminating a lot of those barriers so it doesn't have to seem like one more thing they have to deal with."

Many of the youth in the swim program are teenagers or young adults. Warkentin says it's more difficult to find programming that is geared toward that age group.

"There's an assumption in Canada that if you're like, 15 years old, you already know how to swim, which is not the case for a lot of newcomers coming in," she said.

Cultural factors may deter newcomers

Warkentin says aside from language and age barriers, there are also cultural factors that can deter newcomers from learning to swim.

"There's cultural and religious issues of gender-segregated swimming. So part of our goal for the swim program was to have a women's-only space for our teenage girls to feel comfortable and be able to swim in a way that didn't contradict their religious or cultural values," said Warkentin.

Many of the girls who swim in the program choose to wear leggings and long-sleeved shirts, which are more modest than typical swimwear. The pool is also closed to the public during the lesson to ensure no men will see them.

NEEDS received a grant from the Manitoba Coalition for Safer Waters, as well as a few other sponsors, to run the current program. A "burkini pool party" fundraiser was also held in October, after the community rallied to raise enough money to start the program.

But the organization hopes to secure funding for future classes as well.

Sara Warkentin

Sara Warkentin, left, says while the program is about safety and learning, it is also a lot of fun, which keeps the youth coming back. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

"We'd like to keep going as long as there is a need in the community for water safety skills and for swimming lessons," said Warkentin.

Warkentin says in addition to safety, it's important that newcomers are able to take advantage of Canada's lakes and waterways, and to participate in "the full range of activities that I can enjoy as a Canadian, and that they should be able to as well."