Canada’s North plagued by drown­ings

Cul­tural differences could be key

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - WORLD - MICHELLE ZILIO

It’s been said that nearly ev­ery fam­ily in the Cana­dian North has been af­fected by drown­ing, and a quick look at the num­bers in­di­cates the tragic truth of the state­ment. The rate of wa­ter-re­lated deaths in the coun­try’s three vast north­ern ter­ri­to­ries is at least six times higher than in the rest of Canada. And in the case of Nu­navut, the num­ber of drown­ings per 100,000 pop­u­la­tion is more than 10 times greater than the na­tional av­er­age.

Au­drey Giles knows one of the main rea­sons: cul­tural differences.

An as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the Uni­ver­sity of Ot­tawa’s School of Hu­man Ki­net­ics, Giles be­gan study­ing north­ern wa­ter safety in 2006 af­ter spend­ing sev­eral sum­mers giv­ing swim­ming lessons in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries and Nu­navut.

While there, she be­gan to no­tice that her ap­proach to teach­ing wa­ter safety wasn’t ef­fec­tive for the First Na­tions, Metis and Inuit peo­ples she was work­ing with.

“I was ad­vo­cat­ing for some­thing that wasn’t re­ally use­ful,” says Giles. “The prob­lem is not the kids or the adults and their fail­ures to take up wa­ter safety.”

In­stead, she thinks, a big part of the prob­lem is the fear-based mes­sages, com­mon in ur­ban Canada, given by wa­ter safety ex­perts about the im­por­tance of be­ing care­ful on the wa­ter. These mes­sages, she be­lieves, are fun­da­men­tally at odds with north­ern ways of life.

In the far North, lakes, rivers and the ocean are less likely to be used for re­cre­ation — and much more likely to be used for sus­te­nance (hunt­ing, fish­ing and travel) — than they are in the rest of Canada. And the tra­di­tions built up over the cen­turies around the wa­ter have tended not to in­volve for­mal swim­ming lessons or the use of life jack­ets.

While con­duct­ing re­search in the Nu­navut, for in­stance, Giles has en­coun­tered peo­ple who say “wear­ing a life-jacket is a re­ally white be­hav­iour and that it’s not de­sir­able.”

On Canada Day week­end, these re­al­i­ties hit home — lit­er­ally, for Giles — when two Inuit men from the north­ern tip of Baf­fin Is­land drowned when they went for an evening swim in the Ot­tawa River.

Ian Shooyuk, 21, and Solomon Oyuku-luk, 26, were in Ot­tawa to ac­com­pany fam­ily mem­bers for med­i­cal treat­ment they could only re­ceive in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal.

While Carla Oyuku-luk be­lieves her brother Solomon re­ceived swim­ming lessons dur­ing his train­ing as a Cana­dian Forces Ranger, she says Shooyuk, like most peo­ple from their home­town of Arc­tic Bay, pop­u­la­tion 800, was un­able to swim.

“Last year, two men drowned in the town,” Carla says.

Shooyuk and Oyuku-luk’s deaths con­trib­uted to what the Life­sav­ing So­ci­ety calls a drown­ing “epi­demic” in Canada.

Ac­cord­ing to the so­ci­ety’s 2012 Cana­dian Drown­ing Re­port, the num­ber of pre­ventable wa­ter-re­lated deaths in the North from 2005 to 2009 was dra­mat­i­cally higher than in the rest of the coun­try. While the na­tional drown­ing rate dur­ing that pe­riod was 1.4 per 100,000 peo­ple, the num­ber was 14.7 in Nu­navut, 13.8 in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries and 11.6 in the Yukon. Be­yond that, says so­ci­ety pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion di­rec­tor Barbara By­ers, the drown­ing rate among Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties is six times higher than non-Abo­rig­i­nal cen­tres.

“I think ev­ery fam­ily in the North has been touched by drown­ing, which speaks to how preva­lent it is,” says Giles. While the ac­tual num­ber of drown­ings in the North is quite low, as a per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion it is wor­ry­ing.

“It’s bet­ter to talk in trends over years be­cause then you can get enough data that way,” she says, “and in gen­eral, the trend is that drown­ings in the North are very high.”

Among the con­trib­u­tors to the high rate, she says, are the unique Arc­tic en­vi­ron­ment, short­age of funds for wa­ter safety pro­gram­ming and ap­pli­ca­tion of Euro­pean cul­tural norms in in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties — such as the “white” be­hav­iour of us­ing life jack­ets.

It’s dif­fi­cult enough in south­ern Canada to con­vince peo­ple of the ad­van­tages of life jack­ets and floater suits, Giles says, but “on top of that there’s the idea that these are cul­tur­ally in­ap­pro­pri­ate (in the North).”

Some­times, with in­no­va­tion, these chal­lenges can be over­come. As an ex­am­ple, Giles points to Alaska’s suc­cess­ful effort to change how in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tions per­ceive flota­tion de­vices.

“Whalers think bright colours frighten away the whales so they didn’t want to wear orange floater suits,” she says.

The Alaska Whal­ing Com­mis­sion and other groups worked with Mus­tang, a life­jacket com­pany, to de­velop white floater jack­ets to sat­isfy these wor­ries. “The up­take on these has been in­cred­i­bly pop­u­lar,” Giles says.

For her, the Alaska case is in­struc­tive. One of the key ways to re­duce drown­ings in the North is to gear wa­ter safety pro­gram con­tent to­ward strate­gies that make sense for Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties.

Be­cause vir­tu­ally ev­ery com­mu­nity in North­ern Canada is lo­cated on a body of wa­ter, Giles be­lieves it is im­por­tant to ac­knowl­edge up­front the Abo­rig­i­nal re­spect for and knowl­edge of the wa­ter. These com­mu­ni­ties have built strong relationships with wa­ter, some­thing those de­sign­ing safety pro­grams rarely take into ac­count.

What is needed, she says, is a move away from Euro­pean train­ing mod­els, a process she refers to as “de­col­o­niza­tion.”

“If we look at things like health care or ed­u­ca­tion, there’s been a big move­ment to­ward de­col­o­niz­ing those. I think sport and re­cre­ation, in­clud­ing wa­ter safety, is still an area that re­mains in need of some re-ex­am­i­na­tion,” she says.

It might seem nor­mal in south­ern Canada to think of wa­ter safety in­struc­tors and life­guards as the ex­perts, Giles says, “but in the North, el­ders and hunters are seen as hav­ing a great deal of knowl­edge, and these are the ex­perts. Yet ... they are not in­volved in de­sign­ing the train­ing pro­grams or teach­ing them.”

At the same time, these prob­lems with teach­ing wa­ter safety are also be­ing un­der­mined by a new de­vel­op­ment — cli­mate change.

“Routes that used to be safe over ice are no longer safe,” Giles says. “So el­ders’ knowl­edge is not as use­ful as it once was.”

Warmer Arc­tic tem­per­a­tures mean ice that would nor­mally be safe to tra­verse on skis, snow­mo­biles, snow­shoe and on foot is now more likely to break, es­pe­cially dur­ing early win­ter and the spring thaw on the ice fields, says Deb­o­rah Stip­donk, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Macken­zie Re­cre­ation As­so­ci­a­tion in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries.

“I think we need to do a lot more ed­u­ca­tion,” says Stip­donk. “We need to not only think about it for hunters ... We need to start talk­ing about fam­i­lies and chil­dren be­ing safe at that time, too.”

Giles, who works with groups like the Cana­dian Red Cross and the Life­sav­ing So­ci­ety, the coun­try’s lead­ers in safety train­ing and prac­tices, says she’s en­cour­aged by the Red Cross’s in­ter­est in work­ing with her to pro­mote “cul­tural sen­si­tiv­ity” in its pro­grams for the North.

“They think more ed­u­ca­tion is the an­swer and, while I agree with that to some ex­tent, I think we fun­da­men­tally need to change the things that are be­ing taught and the way they are be­ing taught,” says Giles. “Not one ap­proach is go­ing to work across this huge na­tion of ours.”

At the mo­ment, nei­ther the Red Cross or Life­sav­ing So­ci­ety has a wa­ter safety pro­gram specif­i­cally aimed at Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties.

How­ever, in a broader effort to tackle wa­ter safety in Canada’s re­mote north­ern, ru­ral, Abo­rig­i­nal and coastal com­mu­ni­ties, the two or­ga­ni­za­tions have joined for a cam­paign called Open Wa­ter Wis­dom. Its aim is to re­duce drown­ing and in­jury rates in youth and chil­dren through greater pub­lic aware­ness of safe wa­ter prac­tices, in­clud­ing the use of life jack­ets. It cur­rently op­er­ates in six com­mu­ni­ties in the North.

Ac­cord­ing to By­ers, the Life­sav­ing So­ci­ety is will­ing to adapt its ex­ist­ing pro­grams for use in First Na­tions, Metis, and Inuit com­mu­ni­ties when needed.

For in­stance, in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries the so­ci­ety runs the Wa­ter Smart and Swim to Sur­vive pro­grams, funded by the ter­ri­to­rial gov­ern­ment and Trans­port Canada. It also runs a life­guard train­ing pro­gram on nat­u­ral wa­ter­fronts across the coun­try. That pro­gram op­er­ates in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries but has not been as suc­cess­ful in the Yukon or Nu­navut, ac­cord­ing to By­ers.

This sum­mer, the so­ci­ety also joined with Right to Play, the sports pro­mo­tion char­ity, to fly into four re­mote Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties in North­ern On­tario to teach and ex­am­ine wa­ter safety prac­tices and cer­ti­fi­ca­tions. It was con­sid­ered a suc­cess but did not reach any of the north­ern ter­ri­to­ries.

Post­media News

The body of Solomon Oyuku-luk, an Abo­rig­i­nal mem­ber of the Cana­dian Forces Rangers, isre­moved from the Ot­tawa River, where he drowned dur­ing a visit on June 30.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.