Water safety through a cultural lens

February 19, 2020
Swimming instructor and First Nation community members learn drowning prevention in a traditional canoe on the water

A Royal Roads doctoral student and the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation have received national and international awards for creating a drowning prevention program that reflects the cultural teachings and needs of the Tla-o-qui-aht People.

Emily Francis, a Doctor of Social Sciences student and Master of Arts in Environmental Education and Communication graduate, is a swimming instructor in Clayoquot Sound. She worked with Gisele Martin of the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation, along with Elders, parents and other community members, to co-create swimming lessons built on traditional water safety knowledge and the Lifesaving Society’s Swim to Survive program. The Tla-o-qui-aht program was one of six Francis created with Nuu-chah-nulth Nations.

The Tla-o-qui-aht  program received the 2019 Canadian Drowning Prevention Award — Community Action from the Canadian Drowning Prevention Coalition and the 2018 Royal Life Saving Society Diploma Award. With permission from Martin, Francis presented her research at the International Life Saving Federation’s 2017 World Conference on Drowning Prevention in Vancouver.

“The Nuu-chah-nulth People and many Indigenous People spend a lot of time in and on the water, but the lack of aquatic facilities and lifesaving equipment makes it challenging to increase drowning prevention education,” Francis says. She says the World Health Organization’s Global Report on Drowning (2014) highlighted closeness to water increases the risk of drowning, especially among young people.

Nuu-chah-nulth language and culture activist Gisele Martin was Francis’ partner on the Tla-o-qui-aht project.

“ʔukłaassiš ƛaʔuuk ḥistaqšiƛs ƛaʔuukʷiʔatḥ ḥiisaakʷist̓as maḥtii ʔiiḥw̓asʔatḥ. mamuuks ʔuuʔatup ƛaʔuukʷiʔatḥ ʔaḥʔaaʔaƛ tiičmis ʔuqkin. mamuuks ʔuḥʔiš taatnaʔis. ḥupiistał maḥsaniš taataapatamitniš.”

“I come from Tla-o-qui-aht, from the House of Eehwasat and I work to protect our culture and the life force of our home. Some of my work is with youth. Emily and I decided that we wished to help each other in our projects,” Martin says, practicing the Nuučaanuł language.

“ ʔiiḥmisukqin quʔacmis. suuʔin ḥaaḥuupa ƛaḥ.”

“We treasure our way of life and culture. Let us hold on to our teachings now,” she says.

The Tla-o-qui-aht program involved time both in and out of the water, and included cultural practices such as sharing a meal, learning from Elders and performing sacred practices.

When it was time to swim, children, lifeguards and community members boarded a traditional canoe, carved by master carver Joe Martin, while Elders observed from shore.

“We did the whole swimming program out of the canoe. It was so powerful,” Francis says.

“In this experience, we were all swimming together,” she says. “The kids felt comfortable to be themselves because they were in their home community with their parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles.”

“ƛułʔiš piwał ʔaḥkuu Saasitqwaʔiis.  ʔunaakmitniš ʔuuqmis. ḥistakšiƛin nism̓a ʔaḥʔaaʔaƛ ḥiłaacu wałyuuʔuqkin.  čačimḥiʔała ḥaḥuupa ʔuḥʔiš tiičmisʔuqkin.”

“Saasitqwaiis the whaling canoe is a beautiful vessel, which we had fun with. We come from the land and the water, our home of Tla-o-qui-aht. Let's continue to make good way of life with our traditional teachings, biological diversity and the elements of our home,” Martin says.

Martin says Elders and the children had positive things to say after the program was complete.

“ḥuḥtakšiiḥin quʔacmis ʔaḥaaʔał suusaa. ʔiiḥmisʔiš ʔaḥkuu.”

“We are really continuing to learn and practice our cultural traditions and swimming. These are very important,” she says.

Francis is continuing to research and practice culturally informed drowning prevention as the center of her doctoral dissertation.

“I’ve been given many recreational opportunities in my life and to be able to share my skills with others and help others, that’s my end goal,” she says. “Gisele [Martin] has been a true teacher to me and the person who has changed my life the most through this, and in addition, her family.”

Martin says she looks forward to continuing their work.

“huʔaswit̓asʔin matak suusaaʔaqƛƛ̓uup̓ičḥ.”

“Maybe soon again we will return to swim together in the summer of 2020.”