Canada’s North plagued by drownings
Cultural differences could be key
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.
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.