WINNIPEG — Mark Wasyliw knew something had to be done after two children drowned at a Lake Winnipeg beach in 2016.
"This hit me very personally. The students were around the age of my children," said the trustee with the Winnipeg School Division, where David Medina, 12, and Jhonalyn Javier, 11, were students.
Their families had recently arrived in Canada from the Philippines.
Wasyliw's school division, Manitoba's largest, and the city of Winnipeg announced a pilot program Wednesday to incorporate water safety education into the curriculum. The Swimming Counts program includes three 40-minute sessions in the pool as one hour of classroom time.
About 2,300 Grade 4 students from 59 schools are to take the course between this month and June. It's hoped it will become a permanent fixture and spread to more schools.
The program was designed with help from the Canadian Red Cross and the Lifesaving Society.
"It is a basic set of skills which will arm a student with enough knowledge to basically keep themselves alive until help gets there," said Wasyliw.
Soon after the 2016 drownings at Grand Beach, Wasyliw learned that newcomers to Canada and Indigenous youth — two groups highly represented in his school division — are most at risk of water-related accidents.
"We deal with a lot of poverty issues in the Winnipeg School Division," he said. "Many of our students can't afford swimming lessons or never leave the inner city."
The program would cost $63,000 a year, which Wasyliw said works out to $30 a student and a small fraction of the school division's $408-million budget.
"It's money well invested," said Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, who chairs the city's protection, community services and parks committee. "I think this program will be extremely successful and it will save lives."
Pagtakhan's family came to Canada from the Philippines when he was a toddler. He said his parents had a lot on their minds at the time and enrolling their kids in swimming lessons wasn't at the top of the list.
"It was basically survival, learn the language, bring the kids to school and get a house."
Schools are the "great equalizer" when it comes to making sure everyone has the skills needed to stay safe, said Shelley Dalke, director of the Canadian Red Cross's swimming and water safety program.
"We need to start taking a look at it as fundamental skills and knowledge that anyone in Canada needs to have."
Christopher Love with the Lifesaving Society said water safety education offered in schools across Canada varies. Sometimes it's up to the province and sometimes it's up to local school divisions.
In Ontario and Nova Scotia, the society's Swim to Survive training has been taught to more than 80 per cent of students in Grades 3 and 4.
The Swim to Survive standard requires children to be able to forward-roll into the water, tread water for one minute and swim 50 metres without stopping. His group believes that if every child in Canada could master those three skills, drowning deaths would be cut by as much as 70 per cent.
Swim to Survive elements will be incorporated into the Winnipeg program, but Love said instructors may have to tailor their classes for kids who have never been in the water before.
"We would love to see the Swim to Survive standard being used in all schools across the country for that Grade 3-4 age group," he said.
"It's going to take constant reinforcement and getting into every single school over multiple years."
— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary
The Canadian Press