Across Canada, a shortage of lifeguards raises concern about the next generation of swimmers

Several municipalities across the country have reported a shortage of lifeguards, forcing them to scale back pool hours and cancel lessons. (Lydia Neufeld/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Several municipalities across the country have reported a shortage of lifeguards, forcing them to scale back pool hours and cancel lessons. (Lydia Neufeld/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Three times a year through the pandemic, Catherine Lechman dutifully logged onto her computer in an attempt to register her four-year-old son for swimming lessons.

She tried at her home pool in the Montreal borough of Pierrefonds, at two nearby municipalities and through a private service. In each instance, the spots filled up instantly.

"Since the pandemic hit, no matter where I tried, whether I wanted to drive somewhere or pay a small amount of money or a larger amount, there was just no availability to get lessons," Lechman said.

"Now he's going to be five, and he barely knows how to float in the water."

Finally, Lechman was able to get her son enrolled in a lesson for the summer session, which began earlier this month.

Even then, there were only four spots available in his age group because of a lack of lifeguards on staff.

The shortage of lifeguards and instructors extends across the country, forcing many municipalities to scale back pool hours and limit the number of lessons available despite pent up demand.

WATCH | A lifeguard shortage creates problems at some pools:

The challenge of recruiting new staff

In Toronto and Ottawa, city officials had to cancel swimming lessons this summer because of staffing shortages. The waiting list in Prince George, B.C., topped 700 this spring and other municipalities were also struggling to meet the demand.

In Prince Edward Island, the province announced some beaches would be without supervision.

Advocates worry the shortage could have lasting consequences for a generation of children struggling to access swimming lessons.

"It's definitely a short-term problem this year, and it's going to be a medium-term problem and a longer-term problem because even if we can sort of get through the summer, there are still not enough younger pre-lifeguards in the pathway to become lifeguards," said Barbara Byers, public education director at the Lifesaving Society of Canada.

While it's difficult to put an exact number on it, the labour shortage seen across many industries is particularly acute among lifeguards, Byers said.

Many of those with experience have moved on to other fields, and the training required means it's difficult to quickly hire new workers, she said.

"Over the past two years, there haven't been any or very many new instructors and new lifeguards in the mix."

Byers is concerned that children, particularly those from low-income families, won't have access to swimming lessons — something she views as an essential life skill.

Her organization designates the week of July 17 National Drowning Prevention Week. Over 400 Canadians die in preventable water-related incidents annually.

"If children haven't been taking the lessons and the parents, for obvious reasons, haven't been able to enroll them, the worry is that they'll get out of habit, they'll lose the momentum to take the lessons," she said.

"You know, it's been called like The Hunger Games, trying to get your kids into lessons."

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Higher wages, free training

Byers said governments should get inventive about ways to address the shortage — from raising the wage for instructors and lifeguards, to making the training to become one free (it can cost up to $1,000 to get certified, she said).

Some municipalities have already taken such steps. Earlier this year, the district of West Vancouver offered qualified candidates free lifeguard training worth close to $1,000 to help staff two beaches in the district. The new program also provided graduates excellent prospects of landing a job that pays almost $28 per hour.

In Quebec, a publicly funded organization called Brigade Splash visits pools, beaches and waterparks around the province to meet with staff and swimmers to spread information about how to be safe near the water.

Philippe Doucet, the head of the program, has worked as a lifeguard since 2016. One aspect of his current job is to get more young people interested in becoming a lifeguard.

"You develop leadership, self-confidence, physical fitness," he said. "You develop all these skills and you meet new people."

Lechman, for her part, said she hopes more young people soon join the field.

"It's an absolute, absolute necessity. It's a skill that every single person should have the right to be able to have to acquire."