British Columbia

Red Cross swimming lessons take final lap as program set to end after 76 years

The Canadian Red Cross is winding down its swimming program by December to direct more attention to humanitarian demands such as disaster and pandemic response, opioid harm reduction and care giving for seniors.

Red Cross swim and lifeguard programming started in 1946, and will wind down by December 2022

In the '80s and '90s, the Red Cross swimming program was divided into eight levels, each represented by a different colour. Students would earn the now-iconic badge when they completed a level. The colour badge program ended in 1996 and was replaced by AquaQuest, where students continued to earn badges but with a different design. (Barbara Tredger)

It's the end of an era for Canadians who grew up taking swimming lessons and collecting multi-coloured Red Cross badges. 

The Canadian Red Cross announced early January that it is winding down its swimming program by December 2022 to direct more attention to humanitarian demands, such as disaster and pandemic response, opioid harm reduction and care giving for seniors.

The organization is encouraging its water safety training partners to transition to Lifesaving Society Canada — a charity that offers water safety education programs including lifeguard training, as well as swimming lessons for everyone from young children to adults through the Swim for Life program.

Partners in First Nations Communities, however, will continue with the Red Cross as part of the Red Cross Indigenous Peoples Framework. 

"Red Cross would not have made this move without ensuring that they were handing it over to an organization that was well positioned," Dale Miller, executive director of the Lifesaving Society's B.C. and Yukon branch, said on CBC's The Early Edition.

Generations of Canadians have grown up learning to swim through lessons provided by the Canadian Red Cross. (Aaron Favila/Associated Press)

"For people who are in the courses with Red Cross, we have a chart that's going to show exactly what level they'll fit into [with] the Lifesaving Society Swim for Life program," Miller said.

"We're going to make it a seamless transition not only for the swimmers but also for the instructors."

'It was a big deal'

Red Cross started its swimming program in 1946 in an effort to curb the 1,000 deaths from drowning recorded each year. That number has now been cut in half, while the country's population has tripled.

Since then, the organization said it has provided swim training and life-saving skills to more than 40 million Canadians.

Andrea McCallum, former president of the Vancouver Open Water Swim Association, says she wouldn't be the swimmer she is today if it wasn't for the Red Cross.

Andrea McCallum's mother, Sheila, dutifully sewed her daughter's Red Cross badges onto a sweatshirt every time Andrea completed a level while learning to swim. 'It was a big deal,' McCallum recalled. (Andrea McCallum)

"I was doing swimming lessons and then did competitive swimming at eight years old, and then became a synchronized swimmer and then a water polo player and now I'm an open water swimmer. It all started with the Red Cross," McCallum told CBC News.

She said she still remembers how exciting it was to get her Red Cross badge every time she completed a swimming level.

"My mom would sew our badges on to our little sweatshirts ... and it was a big deal," McCallum said. "It was a thing, like it was showing that you were able and capable."

Miller said he recognizes the strong connection many Canadians have to the Red Cross swimming program and acknowledged that taking it over is a "huge responsibility."

But, he said, the Lifesaving Society program will feel very familiar to those used to the Red Cross — and that, yes, they give out badges, too. 

"If people want to sew them onto their bathing suits and towels, they're most welcome to."

With files from Gurpreet Kambo