The director of a new learn-to-swim program is hoping to make a big splash with Winnipeg’s newcomers.
Rishona Hyman said the Ready, Set, Swim! program hit the water earlier this month, offering free swimming lessons to young people aged six to 18.
The aim of the course — operated by a charitable organization — is to reduce the drowning risk among the most vulnerable groups, such as children who are new to Canada and those who can’t afford the cost of lessons, by teaching them swimming and water-safety skills.
Ready, Set, Swim! is an eight-week program being run as a pilot project with 30 swimmers (aged six to 15) at the YMCA.
Children are referred to the program by community organizations, clubs and schools.
"We’re open to anyone, but out of the first 30, 28 are newcomers. I’m super excited, but it’s not fast enough. We need to do more," Hyman said, referring to the recent drowning incident in which three people were pulled from the unsupervised pool at the Courts of St. James.
Ram Nivash Misra, 38, and his sons, Shreyaan, 10, and Aaram, 9, were taken to hospital Sunday afternoon.
Aaram died Tuesday in hospital, one day after his father died. Shreyaan remains in critical condition.
Misra moved to Winnipeg about seven months ago to work at an insurance company, with his wife and sons joining him a month ago.
"What happened (on Sunday) is devastating. I can’t imagine that mother’s pain," said Hyman, a certified lifeguard and swim instructor.
A 2016 report from the Lifesaving Society Canada, the most recent statistics available, states new Canadians aged 11 to 14 are five times more likely to not know how to swim compared with their Canada-born counterparts.
That risk would likely increase for younger children, so newcomer community groups need to talk about water safety and make referrals for swimming lessons, Hyman said.
"It (water safety) needs to be part of the teachings that they’re doing about Canada. It (drowning) is happening far too often," she said.
Last July, Pawan Preet Brar, 20, and Arwinder Brar, 19, both from Winnipeg, died in Lake of the Woods at Kenora, Ont.
In August 2016, 12-year-old David Medina and 11-year-old Jhonalyn Javier drowned in Lake Winnipeg at Grand Beach. Both were members of newcomer families from the Philippines.
Later that month, Jean-Baptiste Ajua, 22, drowned at Birds Hill Provincial Park. He had immigrated to Canada from Rwanda in 2009.
Ready, Set, Swim! is funded by donations and provides swimmers with everything they need to hit the water, including swimsuits, towels, bags, shampoo, conditioner, body wash and nutritious snacks. Instructors are certified by the Red Cross and/or the Lifesaving Society.
Swimmers are expected to continue in the program until they can meet the Lifesaving Society’s swim-to-survive standard without a life-jacket: a forward roll into the water, complete a 50-metre front or back swim and tread water for one minute.
A major change is needed in the conversation and culture around water safety and being able to swim, Hyman said.
"There’s this culture of, ‘Oh, you’ve taken a few lessons, you know how to swim.’ It’s very common now that if you stand at the beach with your feet in the sand and you’re by the water, you’re a swimmer. That’s not good enough," she said.
"When kids are going into a backyard pool, who’s watching them? Do you have a designated pool watcher? We will be talking about that — water-safety education — with the parents of our swimmers as part of our program."
The Lifesaving Society Manitoba is an advocate of water safety and swim instruction for newcomers, spokesman Lorne Edwards said.
"This will continue to be a major component of our education and media campaigns, reaching out to new Canadians," Edwards said, referring to the expected continuation of last summer’s public service announcements in English, French, Cree, Ojibwa, Tagalog and Punjabi.
A online fundraising campaign for the Misra family has been set up by the Hindu Society of Manitoba to help with expenses and funerals.
Updated on Friday, April 26, 2019 at 9:09 AM CDT: Final