Municipality: swim at own risk
Covered bridge area will have signs, no lifeguards
There is a tragic sense of déjà vu surrounding the drowning death of 25-year-old Mohammed Chowdhury near the Wakefield covered bridge on July 25, bringing an unsettled discussion in the community back to the surface.
The drowning death of the Bangladeshi international student in his final year at the University of Ottawa is the second drowning in less than six years. In September 2015, a 23-year-old Algonquin College student from Zimbabwe was swept away by the Gatineau River’s deceptively powerful currents.
After the latest drowning, discussion has resumed about the safety of the popular swimming spot for locals and tourists alike, as well as what exactly the responsibility the municipality bears in protecting swimmers.
As with this latest drowning, the death in 2015 spurred residents to demand action from the municipality to combat the dangerous behaviour that had been increasingly on display, including loud, intoxicated, and sometimes nude tourists, playing their music at full volume and jumping from the bridge.
In November of 2015, the property at the foot of the covered bridge was officially transferred to the ownership of the municipality, allowing the MRC Police to regularly patrol the location and enforce municipal bylaws against jumping from the bridge and public intoxication. The municipality also installed signage indicating the rules in force.
What seemed to have been overlooked in these changes is signage informing swimmers of the dangers inherent in the river itself.
Ward 6 councillor Claude Giroux drafted the proposal to turn the swimming spot into a public park in 2016, and promised extra signage informing visitors of the new bylaws as well as ‘no lifeguard on duty‘ type signs. The latter signs were never erected.
Giroux explained that, while council would be taking further action to improve safety around the area including the signage indicating the water's dangerous currents, he said he was concerned that residents had recently begun to play “the blame-game.”
“You can't account for people making bad decisions,” Giroux said, adding that the municipality could try to make sure people are making informed decisions by adding signs about swimming. “If you're not a good swimmer, you shouldn't swim there.”
However, even for strong swimmers, sometimes there’s not much that can be done if someone is pulled under by the current, Giroux added.
“Even if we went the full monty and put a lifeguard there, there's very little chance that the lifeguard will be able to help if someone is in distress,” Giroux noted.
While no official announcement of new signage has been made, Mayor Guillaume Lamoureux said that discussions on next steps had taken place at the municipality’s general committee meeting on July 26, as well as conversations between himself and the MRC des Collines Police Chief Yves Charette.
Lamoureux confirmed that signage would be added that point out the river’s dangers, though he couldn’t give a specific date on when that signage would be installed. He said that the municipality would not be designating the spot as an official swimming area, and reiterated that swimming in the Gatineau River or any other non-designated and unsupervised swimming area remained the responsibility of the individual.
“This location is not, nor do I think it should be, a designated swimming location because of its inherent dangers,” Lamoureux said. He compared the dangerous swimming rock to the much safer beach at Lac Philippe, which has wide beaches, progressive and predictable bottom, and most importantly, good viewpoints for lifeguards.