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Sudden spike in toddler drownings shocks Quebec

A sudden spike in toddler drownings in the backyard pools that pockmark the provincial landscape has Quebeckers searching for an explanation and stricter measures to keep children safe.

Two two-year-old children died within hours of each other in separate backyard pools on Thursday, bringing the death toll to seven children under age five in just 21 days, according to the Lifesaving Society, which provides programs, products and services designed to prevent drowning. The number of deaths since the start of summer is greater than the total number of toddler pool deaths in the previous three years.

Marylou Rondeau drowned near noon after she slipped out of the family home and onto the deck in Saint-Rémi, Que., near Montreal and managed to defeat a rickety gate intended to keep her safe.

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News of her death had barely broken when a seventh child, a two-year-old boy, drowned near Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, another Montreal bedroom community.

"These recent deaths are incredibly worrying, and they do not following the trend of the past five years," said Raynald Hawkins of the Quebec branch of the Lifesaving Society. "This number in three weeks is just bewildering."

Many factors may help explain the deaths, according to Mr. Hawkins, but there is no easy answer. Quebec has more backyard pools per capita than almost anywhere else in North America, some 300,000. Working-class suburban Quebeckers who don't have a cottage have especially taken to inexpensive above-ground pools to beat the heat, and this summer has been unusually hot and dry.

National surveys have shown private pools pose by far the greatest drowning threat to young children, while older children and adults tend to drown in large bodies of water. A B.C. Coroners Service report found almost 30 per cent of deaths at swimming pools between 2006 and 2012 involved children between the ages of one and four. All of the deaths happened in residential pools.

The recent spate of Quebec deaths may be a statistical anomaly, but Mr. Hawkins and grieving families say action is needed to awaken parents to the risk.

The case of Marylou Rondeau brought the issue to a new level of scrutiny on Thursday as her uncle described how her mother, father and a police officer tried to revive her. François Dufault said an older, rambunctious sibling may have broken the gate.

"Her father can't walk from a work accident, so he was sitting. The girl gave him a kiss and toddled off. Her mother was taking care of her two older brothers. My wife was there folding laundry. They literally lost track of her for two seconds," Mr. Dufault told reporters outside the home.

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He added a message for parents: "Secure your pool or don't bother getting one."

The deaths started to catch attention in Quebec on June 22, when a 23-month-old in Terrbonne drowned in a backyard pool. Each time, grieving family members have called on parents to build fences, make sure gates are locked and keep a close eye on children.

Quebec became the first province to require fences on new pool construction in 2010. Experts say its law is still one of the toughest in North America, although enforcement varies. Advocates say the law should apply to older pools, too.

The pool in which Marylou drowned was installed last year and was due for a municipal inspection on Thursday, according to Mr. Hawkins.

He said an aggressive provincial safety awareness campaign he credits for reducing drowning deaths in the past decade ended in 2010. He said he asked Municipal Affairs Minister Laurent Lessard on Thursday to reinstate it.

"I don't like to point fingers at parents, but we teach our children to stay off the street, we should teach them to stay away from the water with the same vigour. But I know that's hard to get through to a 16-month-old who sees how much fun the pool can be," Mr. Hawkins said.

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But even close attention is no guarantee.

Caroline Fregeau can clearly remember the day two years ago when her two toddlers jumped into their backyard pool without their water wings. "My boyfriend's back was turned to them and he heard a splash," the Montreal mother of three said.

"It was only a few seconds that they were unsupervised but their heads were already under the water. It was very scary," Ms. Fregeau said. "The kids, they just get excited about the water and then don't think."

Quebec recently announced it would follow Ontario's lead to launch a "Swim to Survive" program for Grade 3 students. Mr. Hawkins said the program will improve overall safety by boosting awareness for the entire family.

Overall, 44 people have drowned this year in Quebec, a pace above last year but still about average over the past five. Water safety in Quebec and nationally has improved dramatically in the past 20 years. Drownings steeply declined from 1990 to 2005, when they rose gently and stabilized.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More


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