Working to Save Lives in the North

Sgt Peter Moon, Public Affairs Ranger, 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, CFB Borden

Teaching boating safety, particularly the wearing of personal flotation devices in power boats, is a challenge in the Far North of Ontario.

Most power boats in the top two-thirds of the province are open boats that are used for subsistence hunting and fishing by the Cree, Oji-Cree and Ojibwa peoples who live in the area and where water travel is an everyday part of life.

But with water comes danger. Because the summers are short and the waters cold, few northern aboriginals learn to swim. Poverty is widespread and putting food on a family's table is often more important than buying a personal flotation device (PFD) or other safety equipment.

People regularly venture out in weather conditions and with a lack of safety equipment that would make a southern boater flinch. Marine safety enforcement is virtually non existent.

It is a problem that the Canadian Forces is trying to address. "It's a big problem, we have too many deaths, and we've been hammering away at it," said Major Guy Ingram, commanding officer of 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group. "It's a lifestyle thing in the north and we're trying hard to change it."

Water safety was a major part of the training given to more than 100 Junior Canadian Rangers at an annual wilderness camp this summer in the bush north of Geraldton, Ont. For many Junior Rangers the message got through. But for some it didn't - largely because of traditional northern attitudes to boating safety.

Jamie Sutherland, a Junior Ranger from the Cree community of Fort Albany on James Bay, was not impressed. He said few people in Fort Albany venture out with PFDs and if they do they rarely wear them. "I don't need a PFD," he said. "I won't be too far from shore if anything does happen. And I can swim. I'll be all right if anything happens."

It was an attitude shared by the adult occupants of an 18-foot aluminum freighter canoe when they went fishing last June on the Winisk River, upstream from Peawanuck, a small Cree community near the Hudson Bay coast. The occupants were Matthew Gull, a Canadian Ranger and an expert outdoorsman, and Wilfred Chum, an experienced aboriginal constable with the Nishnawbe-Aski Police. It was a cold day, there was still ice on the shore and the river was flowing fast. Neither man had a flotation device of any kind.

They were on their way home in the dark when they entered a set of rapids. Gull was driving at full speed when Chum shouted a question. "I throttled down real quick to speak to him," Gull said, "and the wake caught up to us in the rapids and hit the back of the boat. The water came in from behind and the rear of the boat began sinking."

The canoe capsized in the frigid waters. Chum's body was not found for more than three weeks. Gull, a powerful swimmer, was swept downriver, fighting for his life.

"I'm 33 now and I've been driving boats since I was eight-years-old and I know how to handle a boat," he said. "I've driven boats out in Hudson Bay in really rough waters, like four-foot waves. I never used a personal flotation device and it was really a shock that this was happening to me."

He survived being swept through another set of rapids but after two hours in the river, exhausted and debilitated by the cold, he lost consciousness. He came to and realized he had been swept down the river to Peawanuck and had somehow reached shore. He was discovered by his father, Moses, who was walking the river bank listening for his son's engine.

"My thoughts, like most people up here, were that you just don't need PFDs; stay with the boat, the boat's not going to sink," Gull said. "If my friend and me had been wearing PFDs we would have stayed above water and we would both have eventually made it to shore safely. As it was, I don't know how I made it. I knew I was dying. Somehow I survived. My friend didn't."

The Canadian Forces now stores PFDs in each of the 16 Northern Ontario first nations in which it maintains a Canadian Ranger patrol. "Everybody in the community can use them," Major Ingram said. "All they have to do is return them to the sea containers we use to store them. We've got to get the lifestyle and attitudes changed and we've got to start with the youth. Any time the Canadian Rangers or Junior Rangers train with us they have to wear a PFD. They don't have a choice."

More first nation chiefs, concerned at the number of unnecessary drownings in the north, are asking the military to provide water safety training in their communities. The Canadian Forces have responded by sending in water safety instructors and distributing pamphlets and posters.

There are indications that things are very slowly beginning to change. With the emphasis on safety in their training, more Junior Rangers are starting to wear a PFD when they go out in a boat.

"The people of the north know how to run a boat," said WO Caryl Fletcher, a Ranger instructor. "They are experts. But they take chances we would never take in the south. They are comfortable with it. They've done it for years. Many of the Canadian Rangers and Junior Rangers are starting to pass on what they learn from us and our safety message is slowly beginning to spread across the north to their families and friends."