Mexican Consulate in Leamington, Ont. urges water safety after migrant worker drowns

Rescuers spent several days searching for Juan Carlos Alfaro, who was last seen when his canoe capsized, eventually finding the man's body about eight kilometres west of Leamington.

'Having these kinds of risks is now a clear and present danger'

The family of Juan Carlos Alfaro, who drowned in Lake Erie last month, tried to send the body home, but decided in the end to cremate because of extensive deterioration. (Jorge Paz)

The tragic death of a migrant worker who drowned in Lake Erie last month has prompted the Mexican Consulate in Leamington, Ont. to launch a water-safety campaign to prevent other deaths.

Rescuers spent several days searching for Juan Carlos Alfaro, who was last seen when his canoe capsized May 28. Friends have told the Consulate he did not know how to swim, nor did he have a life jacket in the boat. 

The 25-year-old man's body was eventually found about eight kilometres west of Leamington, a small lakeside community where an estimated 3,200 Mexican migrant workers settle temporarily every year. 

With so many workers living throughout southwestern Ontario, Consul of Mexico Alberto Bernal wants to create a campaign working with police and government to install signs, warning people of potential dangers on the water.  

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"Having these kinds of risks is now a clear and present danger," Bernal told CBC News. "This unfortunate accident should not be happening. It's a warning to us."

Consul of Mexico in Leamington, Alberto Bernal says a recent migrant worker drowning in Lake Erie is a wake-up call to promote water safety to those coming to work in the region. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

Death shocked migrant worker community  

Alfaro, who had been working in Leamington on temporary work visas for the past six years, was the sole financial provider for his wife and two children back home in the city of Irapuato, located in the south central region of the state of Guanajuato. 

There is assistance available to the family, according to Bernal, who said the entire Leamington community has rallied behind the family. 

Shortly after the death, hundreds of people showed up at a community dinner to help raise money for Alfaro's family.

Bernal does not want to see any more tragedies on the water. He wants to educate migrant workers about water safety, which could be part of every newcomer's orientation.

Dozens of migrant workers showed up to the funeral of Juan Carlos Alfaro, who drowned last month when his canoe capsized on Lake Erie. (Jorge Paz)

"They should avoid any kind of dangerous situation or have the proper gear for the activity they are doing, regardless whether it's for labour or their own recreational activity," he said. 

Go big, say water safety advocates

Drowning prevention strategies need to be robust, reaching people in several ways over a lengthy period of time, said Pamela Fuselli of the injury prevention group Parachute, which advocates for water safety.

"Hearing it from different sources and having that same message over and over again is what helps integrate that knowledge into people's awareness," she said. 

Fuselli agrees with the Consulate's idea to erect signs that describe potential risks on the water with universal graphics that everyone can understand, no matter their language.

Having those messages and reminders on beaches or near any water access points can be the most important component to any safety strategy, she said. 

"Those are the times that are really important for visual cues or reminders," Fuselli said. "Everyone needs to know what to do, they need to be reminded at the time, they need to have access to those safety devices."

Expanding worker safety programs

The Mexican Consulate has done similar work with a cycling safety campaign after several road collisions. Many of the thousands of migrant workers ride bikes as their main source of transportation in Essex County. 

Part of that campaign was holding a cycling safety tutorial during an information fair in April. The Consulate handed out safety equipment, such as reflectors and vests.  

"We are looking to expand the topic of safety to, not to just road safety, but also safety on the lake," Bernal said. 

As news of Alfaro's canoeing mishap rippled through the migrant worker community, and back home to Mexico, Bernal could only watch as people slowly lost hope for a happy ending. 

The rescue effort stretched into days with helicopters flying above the lake and marine units searching the waters below. As it dragged on, friends and family started to fear the worst. 

"In the beginning, we had hope he could be rescued alive, but after time, all of us realized that was beyond expectations," Bernal said.