North American Indigenous Games

'I didn't want them to be afraid of the water': Sisters triumph over drowning tragedy

Their father drowned in Lake Simcoe, one of over 1,200 water fatalities in Indigenous communities in the last 25 years. Now the sisters are champion swimmers — and they want justice.

Their father lost his life on Lake Simcoe. Now they're champion swimmers calling for equal access to lessons

Renee, left, and Alicia Corbiere are champion competitive swimmers — an anomaly for First Nations youth. They want to see that change. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

On a blustery day 13 years ago, Gary Corbiere vanished from his boat on Lake Simcoe's choppy waters.

Police recovered his body four days later off Georgina Island First Nation, a community on the lake where Corbiere and his wife, Kimberly Murray, were raising their two daughters.

The loss rocked the young family. But rather than warn her girls away from the water, Murray took Renee and Alicia Corbiere to the Toronto Swim Club the minute they were old enough to enroll.

"I really didn't want my kids to be afraid of the water," said Murray, a lawyer and Indigenous rights advocate who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.

Gary Corbiere, a lawyer himself, brought a landmark Indigenous rights case to the Supreme Court of Canada. (Supplied by Kim Murray)

Renee, now 18, and Alicia, 15, know intimately the power of water. But they turned their tragedy into triumph, amassing fistfuls of medals at the last North American Indigenous Games in 2014.

Although they're representing Team Ontario once again this week, the Corbiere sisters are an anomaly among First Nations youth.

Indigenous people are ten times more likely to drown than the general population, according to the Red Cross.

Gary Corbiere is one of over 1,200 Indigenous people who have died on the water since 1991.

Kimberly Murray, right, has used her family's tragedy as a concrete example of the importance of water safety training. Murray campaigned in 2009 to keep pools open in Toronto schools. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

The Red Cross reports that hazardous weather conditions, substance use, lack of a life jacket and poor swimming skills contribute to these fatalities.

Advocates believe lives could be saved with basic water-safety lessons — but getting these lessons to remote communities presents a challenge.

Among those tackling the problem is Tania Cameron, a regional coordinator for the Aboriginal Sports and Wellness Council of Ontario.

Cameron thinks traditional knowledge, paired with the Red Cross's standard water-safety instruction, could lower the death rate.

"There was always a system of being in the canoe, who's in the front, who's in the middle," she said of Anishinaabe history. "I think as technology came along and we got in our bigger and faster boats that maybe we don't pay attention to water safety."

Cameron wants to bring culturally-sensitive, modern training to remote communities across the province. "In terms of swim instruction, there really isn't any available in the far north," she said.

And it's not a lack of need, she said, but a lack of money that's preventing the program's development.

Renee Corbiere has a tattoo of her dad's handwriting, sourced from old letters and notes she's kept. The line references an Elvis Presley song he would sing to her and Alicia when they were young. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

ASWCO plans to submit a funding proposal to the Ontario government next month, part of a multilateral financing strategy to lower the drowning rate.

They need at least $30,000, Cameron said, in order to fly about 30 students to training hubs in the north of the province, where the Red Cross will supply free water-safety certification.

"If there are young adults in their community that are willing to be trained, we need to find those resources so they can go get the certification and bring it back to their communities," Cameron said, explaining that only one or two members of each First Nation would need to be taught these transferable skills.

Given the sheer number of deaths, Cameron said, there's a dire and recognized need for such a program.

"Every community is essentially beside some sort of body of water. They're people of the water," said Cameron. "It will save lives."

The family lives in Toronto, where both sisters swam until recently at the Toronto Swim Club. Both Renee and Alicia are aiming for a career in law, which they say is the most practical way to bring justice to First Nations communities. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Lesley Anne Morley, a coordinator for the Red Cross's Indigenous Swimming and Water Safety program based in Alberta and Saskatchewan, visits remote communities in an effort to prevent such deaths.

"They have greater exposure to water, for travel, for work," said Morley. Training water-safety leaders means community members can spot when a boat has gone out too far in rough water, for instance, or pass on best practices around the water.

The Red Cross has run the program in over 30 communities in Saskatchewan and Alberta so far.

Renee Corbiere perches on a diving platform at the Toronto Swim Club, where she's been training since she was six years old. The rate of drowning for Indigenous children in Canada is fifteen times the national average, according to the Red Cross. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

There are no funds to bring pools to northern communities, but for Murray, that isn't a problem.

"We have beautiful bodies of water all over the province, all over Canada," said Murray. "We didn't start swimming in pools as Indigenous people. We started swimming in the lakes and the oceans and the rivers."

Renee and Alicia are adamant that everybody has access to the training they had as kids.

"I think the best thing they can do is bring in people or train people within the communities to help the younger kids," Alicia said. "A lot of them are near lakes and water. So it should be something that's prioritized." 

About the Author

Malone Mullin

Reporter/Writer

Malone Mullin reports for all platforms in St. John's. She previously worked on the web desk at CBC Toronto and CBC Vancouver.