Ottawa

'It's time': Make life jackets the law for kids in boats, grieving mother says

Her son died in a boating accident on the St. Lawrence River last summer, and now this Stittsville mother is calling for federal law to require all children to wear life jackets when they're on a boat.

Joshua Steinburg, 11, died in boating accident on St. Lawrence River in September 2018

Cara McNulty's 11-year-old son, Joshua Steinburg, died in a boating accident on the St. Lawrence River on Sept. 1, 2018. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

Joshua Steinburg, 11, was at his father's cottage along the St. Lawrence River near Rockport, Ont., last Labour Day weekend when he, his father, his older brother and two other children hopped in a speed boat to get some ice cream and gas, then go for a swim.

On the trip back, the boat hit two large waves in a deep, narrow channel about 100 metres off the south shore of Club Island, and capsized.

Everyone resurfaced except Joshua, who wasn't wearing a life jacket.

It wasn't until 49 days later that a dive team finally recovered his body.

There is no federal law in Canada forcing children to wear life jackets, and now Joshua's mother, Cara McNulty, is trying to change that.

She was shopping in Ottawa on Sept. 1, 2018, when she got the call about what happened, she told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Monday.

'I just knew'

Joshua Steinburg. (Diamondview Photography/Supplied by Cara McNulty)

"Obviously we dropped everything and just took off. At the time I didn't know the gravity of the situation. I knew there was an accident," she said.

"It was on the drive there that I found out ... that there were helicopters searching for Josh. They hadn't found him. There was that moment of just knowing. I just knew, even though you tell yourself all kinds of excuses ... deep down I just knew."

Because no one had seen Joshua come up for air, even though other boaters were nearby and responded within a few minutes, officials believe he was likely unconscious when he hit the water.

Soon, the response shifted from a search to a recovery, and Ontario Provincial Police divers were dispatched. They searched for about a week, McNulty said.

But it didn't end there.

Volunteer search lasted weeks

"That's when we had divers come from all over. They came from Florida, from New York, from Toronto, the GTA, from Quebec City, Gatineau, Ottawa, Brockville — they came and they were there, dedicated, devoted," she said.

For weeks and weeks, another boat owner took the family out on the water to search for Josh with binoculars.

"Every day you get hopeful because you get closer. I think what I learned, and what people don't understand, is that underneath the surface of that water is a completely different world," McNulty said.

Eventually, cadaver dogs helped them further narrow the search area. A sonar team from the U.S. came in with some sophisticated technology, and Joshua's body was finally found.

'It's time now to change this'

Now McNulty has started a campaign to raise awareness about the fact that while federal law stipulates watercraft must carry life jackets for everyone onboard, there's no law saying they have to be worn — even by children.

"A lot of people think that's the law, but it is not. And for children's safety, this is absolutely fundamental," she said.

"We know the No. 1 reason why people die in boating accidents over the age of four is not wearing a life jacket. We know it. It's been known for a long time. The Red Cross, the Lifesaving Society of Canada have been advocating for this for years. It's time. It's time now to change this."

A petition addressed to Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, started three weeks ago, had garnered more than 2,400 signatures by Monday morning.

CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning