The History of Lifesaving Sport in Canada
Lifesaving competition is a mandate embedded in the Lifesaving Society’s founding Aims and Objects. In fact, William Henry – the founder of the Royal Lifesaving Society – was a champion swimmer and one of the organizers of the aquatic events in London’s 1908 Olympic Games.
In Canada, the Lifesaving Society sponsored lifesaving races in the 1930s and has organized lifeguard competitions since the late 1960s. In 1975, Ron Hatch, an Australian lifeguard, introduced Nova Scotia to the surf ski and surf lifesaving competition. That same year, The Nova Scotia Lifeguard Service hosted the first Nova Scotia Surf Lifesaving Championships.
The national Lifesaving Society staged the first Canadian Lifeguard Pool Championship in Winnipeg’s Pam-Am pool in 1977. This national championship has been an annual feature of competition in Canada ever since.
In 1986, the British Columbia / Yukon Branch of the Lifesaving Society was selected to host World Lifesaving Federation Championship and conference. At this event, dubbed Rescue 86 for short, lifeguards from across Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and other nations participated in a two-day competition at Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver. Teams participated in both pool and waterfront events. Vancouver Parks and Recreation, Thunder Bay and the Nova Scotia Lifeguard Service entered club teams in the championships.
In the 1980s, the Ontario Branch of the Lifesaving Society began hosting a mid-summer waterfront lifeguard championship. The Ontario Branch also introduced the Canadian Lifeguard Challenge, a one kilometre run, a one kilometre paddle and a one kilometre swim. The event attracted several out-of-province competitors and is the forerunner of the Canadian Ironguard Event.
Also in the 1980s, Canadian competitors began travelling to the United States Lifesaving Association’s annual National Championship in search of fiercer competition and international-style events. In the late 1980s, other provinces became active in hosting waterfront championships including New Brunswick and Quebec.
In 1988, a team from Thunder Bay, Ontario represented Canada at the World Lifesaving Championships at Southport Beach, Queensland, Australia.
Throughout the 1990s, various unofficial teams represented Canada in international competition.
In 1998, the first Canadian Junior Lifeguard Games were staged at Carleton University pool in Ottawa.
In 1999, the Lifesaving Society formalized Canada’s National Team program and for the first time, selected a National Lifesaving Team to officially represent Canada at international events. The national team’s first international competition was Rescue 2000, the World Lifesaving Championships in Sydney, Australia. Canada collected 5 medals, placed 7th in surf events and placed 12th overall. The 7th overall finish in surf events qualified Canada for the 2001 Goodwill Games to be held in Brisbane, Australia.
The year 2000 also marked the inaugural season of the Nova Scotia Surf League competition series, Canada’s first sanctioned lifesaving competition series. Also in 2000, the Society sanctioned the first Canadian Surf Lifesaving Championship at Risser’s Beach, Nova Scotia. In 2001, a Masters division was included in this annual open-water championship.
In 2001, Canada competed against 7 of the world’s best nations in surf lifesaving events as part of the Goodwill Games held in Brisbane, Australia.
Also in 2001, the Canadian Lifeguard Championship featured internationally standardized race events in addition to Canada’s traditional simulated emergency response events. The 2001 championships were held at the Kinsmen Pool in Edmonton, Alberta.
In 2002, a Masters division was inaugurated at the Canadian Lifeguard Pool Championship at Toronto’s Etobicoke Olympium, and a junior competition was introduced at the Canadian Surf Lifesaving Championship. With these additions, Canadians could now compete in junior, senior and masters divisions of open water and pool Canadian championships.
Today, Lifesaving Sport is a worldwide movement with Commonwealth and World Lifesaving Championships attracting thousands of participants from some 40 nations. At home, participation in Canada’s own national championships continues to grow as does participation in dozens of provincial, regional and community lifesaving competitions across the country.
But no matter how large the sport becomes, we proudly point to its humanitarian origins and we still require participants to learn the rescue skills required to be a lifesaver before becoming eligible to be a competitor.