Treacherous waters

Northern Canada has the highest drowning rate in the country. Audrey Giles is working with Arctic communities to reduce that tragic toll.

Audrey Giles

“The number of drownings in the North is six to 16 times the national average in any given year.”

– Audrey Giles

If you’re boating or snowmobiling in the Arctic, the Inuit will tell you to bring a knife so that if you fall into the frigid water you can stab floating ice and pull yourself out.

But you won’t find that technique in Canadian swimming, boating safety or lifeguarding courses. Audrey Giles aims to change that.

Giles is a professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Human Kinetics. For nearly 20 years, she has been working with northern Canadian communities to reduce the alarmingly high rate of drowning in that region. “The number of drownings is six to 16 times the national average in any given year,” she says.

The reasons why water-related emergencies are so much more frequent and deadly in the North are complicated. The temperature is, of course, one factor. Remote northern communities can also be a long way from health services. And climate change is altering waterways and ice routes — which had long been safe — to the point of being treacherous.

Perhaps just as important as these physical challenges is a failure of training and prevention. In every city south of the territories, there are relevant public safety campaigns and training for the area. Not so in the North, Giles has found.

While completing her undergraduate degree, she went to Cape Dorset, Nunavut, in 1998. She worked at a municipal swimming pool and discovered that her certifications and experience in Toronto didn’t translate well to a tiny seasonal pool in the Arctic.

Running swimming lessons and lifeguard courses to southern standards in pools that are commonly only a metre deep is just not possible. This means that local people miss out on the deep-water physical skill components of courses offered in the South, so they often cannot become certified.

The content of the courses is an even bigger problem. “These cultures have had water safety since time immemorial,” says Giles. “It’s deeply offensive to try to replace the traditional knowledge of Elders on ice safety or boating with southern ‘experts’.”

The professor’s research is aimed at developing and deploying culturally and geographically appropriate water and boat safety programs. Giles returns to northern communities as often as she can, usually four or five times a year. She has just finished developing boat safety programs tailored to three communities in the Northwest Territories. The research is a collaboration between the University of Ottawa, the N.W.T. Recreation and Parks Association, the communities and local governments.

The people of Inuvik wanted a public safety campaign, so graduate student Katie Gloss worked with them to create posters and use social media. Deline pitched an app to help people be more prepared on the water, tracking where they are going and when they are coming back. Fort Simpson asked for boat safety training that includes cold-water survival, and requested signs about alcohol and boating.

Co-creating these resources fills an important gap. Municipalities and territorial governments are supportive, but the Northwest Territories’ Department of Health and Social Services, for example, has only one person working in injury prevention.

“The key is working with the local peoples,” says Giles. After nearly 20 years of forging relationships in their communities, she has built the trust and understanding that are essential to designing water safety programs that speak to northern realities.


by Ben Williamson

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