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Waves of nostalgia for Canadians taught to swim by Red Cross as program winds down

2022 will mark end of a program that taught water safety to millions of Canadians over 75 years
The Canadian Red Cross announced earlier this month it was ‘winding down’ its swimming and lifeguard lessons through 2022, marking the end of a program that taught water safety to millions of Canadians over a 75-year stretch. (Photo by The Canadian Press)

Jaime Gonek doesn’t remember what happened to the yellow jacket she had as a kid, the one adorned with sewed-on swimming badges she’d earned from years of lessons with the Canadian Red Cross.

But the Edmonton-based fitness instructor still remembers how it made her feel — and those memories flooded back this week when she heard the Canadian Red Cross was axing the program at the end of the year.

“Good grief did I wear that thing with pride,” Gonek said with a laugh.

“I vividly remember grabbing the card (after testing at the end of a lesson) and feeling whether or not the badge was in there because that’s how you knew you’d passed. And yeah, I saved them all.”

The Canadian Red Cross announced earlier this month it was “winding down” its swimming and lifeguard lessons through 2022, saying it would direct more of its attention to disaster relief, pandemic response, opioid harm reduction and care-giving for seniors.

The transition will mark the end of a program that taught water safety to millions of Canadians over a 75-year stretch.

Those like Gonek who took the program in the 1980s and 1990s, earned water level safety badges as they completed each lesson stage. The eight tokens were small, square patches featuring the outline of a swimmer on coloured waves with the Red Cross symbol etched on the top left.

Each colour denoted the level the swimmer had completed, beginning with yellow and progressing to orange, red, maroon, blue, green, grey and white — for those who mastered rescue breathing, the sidestroke and an endurance swim of 500 metres.

The colour badge program ended in 1996, though students continued to earn patches with other designs.

Gonek began the program at age seven in the early-to-mid ’80s and earned all eight colour badges before progressing further through the lifeguard program. She eventually joined her high-school swim team and competed in triathlons as an adult. Now she trains swimmers in lower fitness levels for their first triathlons.

Gonek said her love of swimming began as a child with her first Red Cross lessons in Edmonton, about an hour’s drive from where she grew up in Smoky Lake, Alta.

“My parents didn’t trust the people who taught lessons out on the lake, so we used to drive every weekend into Edmonton,” she said. “I was a total water baby. They always had a hard time getting me out.”

Gonek said she was “nostalgic” and “a little sad” to hear the Canadian Red Cross program was ending, but the organization’s swimming and lifeguarding lessons will transition to other forms.

The Canadian Red Cross said it was encouraging its water safety partners to shift to swim and lifeguarding programs with Lifesaving Society Canada through the course of this year.

Red Cross swimming and lifeguard training will also continue in First Nations communities as part of the Red Cross Indigenous Peoples Framework, the organization said.

Rishona Hyman, owner of Aqua Essence Swim Academy in Winnipeg, said she was “shocked” to hear of the program shuttering, calling it “the best kept secret in aquatics.”

Hyman’s academy had been one of the Canadian Red Cross’s training partners since opening in 2002. Her instructors will go through crossover programs this year to teach lesson plans from Lifesaving Society Canada.

“At the end of the day they both teach swimming lessons, but it’s no question it’s a different program,” Hyman said “But … if you’re signing your child up for a swimming lesson, you probably won’t notice the difference.”

Hyman said the Canadian Red Cross is trying to make the transition easy for instructors, but feels ending the programs was “another jab at aquatics” following a difficult pandemic that left many pools shuttered for long stretches of the last two years.

Canadian Red Cross CEO Conrad Sauvé said in a Jan. 12 statement the decision to halt the programs was driven by “regular assessments” of the organization’s services and “evolving humanitarian needs.”

The Red Cross’s swimming and lifeguard programs began in 1946, and the organization said it has offered water training and skills to more than 40 million Canadians.

Hyman took Canadian Red Cross swimming lessons as a child, adding she still has all her badges from the water safety program.

“I remember getting my red and my green and my grey and being very proud,” she said. “Even as a young kid I was able to recognize this was part of something bigger.

“There was a commonality — everyone could talk about their Red Cross badges. It was like an identity.”

— Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press

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