Drowning-related 911 calls on the rise in Montreal, but swimming lessons remain hard to access

On Monday, Urgences-Santé sent out a news release saying that ambulances had responded to 20 drowning-related calls during the month of June in Montreal and Laval.

Urgences-Santé responded to 20 drowning incidents in Montreal and Laval in June

During the pandemic, many families have had a hard time accessing swimming lessons for their kids. (Félix Desroches/Radio-Canada)

The death of a 10-year-old boy in Quebec City last month, coupled with an increase in drowning-related calls to Urgences-Santé, has some advocates saying parents need to be more careful than ever about letting their children be around water.

On Monday, Urgences-Santé sent out a news release saying that ambulances had responded to 20 drowning-related calls during the month of June in Montreal and Laval.

The service notes that this represents a "significant increase" from the same period last year, when it responded to four calls in June of 2020.

Raynald Hawkins, executive director of the Quebec branch of the Lifesaving Society, said the increase can be attributed to the hot weather and the pandemic restrictions that limit international travel.

"We've never sold so many pools, water sport equipment, Sea-Doos, boats. And when it's hot, people want to be near water," said Hawkins.

Raynald Hawkins is the executive director of the Quebec branch of the Lifesaving Society. (CBC)

Hawkins said that it's a shame that many children have not had access to swimming lessons due to the pandemic.

"This is 15 months where we have no swimming lessons," said Hawkins.

When it comes to kids, Hawkins said supervision is key.

"No remote work, no gardening. And when there's a party, one adult should be designated to watch the kids. Because on those occasions, everyone thinks that the others are looking," he said.

The Lifesaving Society offers swimming lessons funded by the Education Ministry in schools that request the service, teaching students in Grades 3 and 4 basic survival skills in water.

In 2019, 20,000 students got the training. The lessons have been put on pause due to the pandemic, but Hawkins is hoping they will resume soon.

'A perfect storm'

Adam Di Fulvio, president and CEO of the Montreal Institute of Swimming, told CBC that people are keen to get their kids enrolled in lessons, but that his company has a waiting list of 400 families.

"It's really hard to get swimming lessons these days. Between the fact that some centres are still not yet offering full programming, and because pools have capacity restrictions, and there's an ongoing staffing shortage. So there's a perfect storm of events that have come together to lead to the massive shortage of availability of swimming levels."

Adam Di Fulvio is the president and CEO of the Montreal Institute of Swimming. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC)

Di Fulvio said that the pause in swimming classes has hurt the skills of kids who took lessons before the pandemic.

"There is a clear and visible regression of all the kids that used to swim pre-pandemic, all the ones that have returned now we see that they have regressed in their swimming abilities. Kids that have just learned how to swim have regressed to non-swimmers," he said."

"It's almost getting urgent that we need to get these kids back in the pool and give them instruction right away."

Safety first

Samantha Naccarato is a mother of two children, both of whom are enrolled in swimming lessons. 

She told CBC that it was a priority for her family to make sure her kids would gain the skills to be safe in the water.

Both of Samantha Naccarato's children have been enrolled in swimming lessons from an early age. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC)

"For myself and my husband, swimming is the only activity that is non-negotiable," she said.

"It's just really important that they learn the skills so if they ever go to a pool or a lake or anything, they're comfortable swimming and we don't have to really worry about them."

The Quebec Lifesaving Society maintains statistics about drowning deaths in Quebec each year. They don't yet have official data from the coroner, but according to the unofficial census, as of July 5, there have been 31 drownings in the province so far in 2021.

By comparison, there were 38 drownings by this date in 2020 and 95 in total for that year. In 2019, there were 59 drownings during the year.

Best practices

The Lifesaving Society also tracks the locations of these deaths, noting that most happen in open waterways like rivers and lakes.

Hawkins said last year 31 people drowned while doing some kind of water sport, and that 27 of those people were not wearing a life jacket.

He emphasized that it's important not to swim or go out on the water alone. Last year, half of the people who drowned were unaccompanied, he said.

For its part, Urgences-Santé is advising the public to learn first aid, so that they can step in to provide care while waiting for an ambulance.

In its news release, the service said every minute that a person does not receive resuscitation after a drowning incident reduces their chance of survival by 10 per cent.

With files from Kwabena Oduro, Radio-Canada