Preet Johal, like many new Canadians, never learned to swim. But when she moved to Victoria in 1992, she was determined that her kids would get the lessons she never had.
Her husband's brother had drowned in Elk Lake near Victoria when he was just 15, and no one in the family wanted to talk about swimming.
"I broke that taboo. I said, 'No, we are living on an island.' I wanted my kids to learn how to swim."
Ms. Johal's experience - no pools, no open water and certainly no swimming lessons near the home in India where she grew up - isn't uncommon among new Canadians. A new study shows that immigrants are more than four times more likely to be unable to swim than people born in Canada. As a result, they are at a greater risk for drowning, according to the Ipsos Reid Public Affairs study commissioned by the Lifesaving Society.
The findings released on Thursday confirm what drowning-prevention experts have suspected for nearly a decade, Lifesaving Society public education director Barbara Byers said.
"For the first time, we have scientific, evidence-based data to support what our hypothesis was: that new Canadians have a higher drowning rate," she said.
Ms. Byers had seen news stories about new Canadians drowning, but didn't know the exact numbers: Coroners don't keep track of whether victims are immigrants.
A 24-year-old recent immigrant from Haiti drowned at Petrie Island beach on the Ottawa River in May. Last July, a woman and her two daughters, all from Pakistan, drowned in a hotel pool in Gananoque, Ont. And an eight-year-old boy drowned in Quebec's Yamaska provincial park in 2006 while he was with his mother, who came to Canada from the Philippines. None of the victims could swim.
Many immigrants want to embrace the Canadian experience, but don't have the knowledge to do so safely, Ms. Byers said.
"Many of them want to participate, but they do so naïvely without knowing the risk," Ms. Byers said.
There are a variety of explanations for the numbers.
Like Ms. Johal, some people didn't have access to swimming pools or suitable bodies of water in their home countries, said Jean McRae, executive director of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria. The organization helps immigrants integrate into their new communities.
"In Canada, there's kind of an expectation that if nothing else, people will at some point in their life want to swim," Ms. McRae said. "In a lot of developing nations, that's just not the situation."
Money for lessons is also an issue, said Eyob Naizghi, executive director of Vancouver's MOSAIC, an immigrant-support organization. Some city pools and recreation centres subsidize fees, but the cost goes beyond the price of classes, he said.
"It's the affordability to drive your children over to the swimming pool, or taking a bus with three or four kids and paying for it, or the affordability of making the time to go: Some of them may be working two or three jobs to make ends meet," Mr. Naizghi said.
Last year, the Lifesaving Society translated its drowning prevention literature into 26 languages to reduce the number of barriers to understanding water safety, Ms. Byers said. The organization also translated boating safety tips into 33 languages, she said.
The Red Cross in Brandon, began a water safety pilot program for new Canadians in March, spokesman Tony Zerucha said. Translators of Mandarin, Spanish and Ukrainian work with instructors and students to make sure everyone understands the boat safety and drowning-prevention lessons, he said.
But translating the message isn't enough, said University of Ottawa professor Audrey Giles, who researches connections between culture and water safety. Drowning-prevention education must be tailored to the needs of each community to be effective, she said.
"What we need to do is get people who represent the fabric of Canadian society involved in water safety programming. And it's not just we need to do more of the same, it's that we need to fundamentally change what we're doing," Dr. Giles said.
Ms. Byers acknowledges the Lifesaving Society needs to do more research into the most effective way of educating new Canadians about water safety, especially after this study. But translations are a first step, and other approaches will cost more money, she said.
"I feel it's a start, and I think it can't hurt. We are a charity; we have limited funds," Ms. Byers said.
The study surveyed 1,032 Canadian residents between 18 and 60. Of all the respondents, 433 were born in Canada and 599 were new Canadians.