One year after two children nearly drowned at Grand Beach, a cottager pushing for increased safety measures says he’s treading water with provincial officials.
Wayne Betker was president of the Grand Beach Cottage Owners’ Association last May when the wind on Lake Winnipeg pushed two young girls on inflatables far from the beach.
The harrowing series of events that followed nearly cost multiple people their lives. Jason and Cynthia Cherewayko — a couple unrelated to the children — along with cottager Blake Morden rushed out to save the girls.
In the year since, Betker, who still sits on the association’s board, has been meeting with Manitoba Environment, Climate and Parks Department representatives to suggest changes that could prevent a repeat of that day’s terror.
Although there have been brief flickers of interest in his suggestions, there has been no progress, he said.
"The province and (Grand Beach Provincial) park officials don’t take this as seriously as we would like them to take it," Betker told the Free Press Tuesday. "We would like them to engage in proper dialogue to go through the various initiatives that we’ve put forward."
Those suggestions include a dedicated boat staffed by medically trained personnel able to perform quick rescues if needed; having beach safety officers on site before June (the beach safety office typically doesn't open until June); and requiring more officers on site during busy weekends.
He was told it would be too expensive to implement his safety measures.
"I gave them a list of about eight things that I thought they should do — at least consider and respond back to — and the senior parks official clearly stated in in a couple of situations, they just couldn’t do it because of budget restraints," Betker said.
And while officials said that a few of his ideas were feasible, they turned their attention to drought conditions and forest fires. This year, flooding has been top of mind.
Betker said some measures were relatively inexpensive, such as installing identifying signs on the beach so emergency personnel can more quickly get to where they need to be, creating a life-jacket loan program and offering more water-safety awareness programs.
Another idea, prohibiting floating devices on days with dangerous wind conditions, was shot down because, "like a lot of things in society today, they just are hesitant about restricting individuals as to what they can do to enjoy the beach," he said.
There are, technically, no lifeguards working at Grand Beach where — as is also the case at Winnipeg Beach and Birds Hill Park — there are trained beach safety officers.
On a typical day, there are seven safety officers working at Grand Beach, Betker said. Their job is to patrol, help search for missing people, issue warnings for unsafe behaviour and provide water rescues and first aid when needed.
However, the officers don’t supervise the swimming area of the beach; visitors are warned to swim at their own risk.
Betker said he’s worried, in particular, about new Manitobans who may not be aware of the potential for drowning at Grand Beach.
In 2016, a 12-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl, both immigrants from the Philippines, drowned in the lake.
After that incident, the province said it would be reviewing beach-safety protocols in the province.
"These things happen," Betker said. "We know that we can’t prevent all of them from happening. But it’s the feeling that nothing is going to change."
A spokesperson from the province said the beach-safety budget was increased by 54 per cent this year, to $1.1 million. Signage warning swimmers of the dangers of inflatables will be put in place at Grand and Winnipeg beaches and at Birds Hill Park.
Blake Morden vividly remembers that horrifying day last May. The nurse and veteran lifeguard assisted by grabbing his kayak and pulling Jason Cherewayko and the younger of the two girls back to shore. The other girl was helped back to safety by her father and Cynthia Cherewayko before she drifted out as far as her six-year-old sister had.
However, Morden said the responsibility lies not with the province to put up more "unsightly" signs or implement tighter restrictions on swimmers, but on parents to monitor their children closely.
Morden was called to help during 2016’s tragedy, and said education is key: he had actually helped teach Cynthia Cherewayko to swim about 30 years ago.
"I think if the province is going to put money into something, they should put it back into putting Learn to Swim program in the schools. Because if you do it out of the schools, then the kids all get it."
Manitoba has, for several years, had Canada’s highest drowning rate for children under the age of five, Christopher Love of the Manitoba Lifesaving Society said.
"We are still, unfortunately, the child drowning capital of Canada," he said.
About 80 per cent of all drowning deaths in Manitoba occur at natural bodies of water, most either staffed only by beach-safety officers or not at all.
"We would love to see all of the very busy public beaches in the province with lifeguard patrols… but having a supervised and delineated or set out swim area is a good step forward," he said.
Beach-safety officers will begin the season at Grand Beach on Thursday.
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.