Why swimming lessons in Toronto are now even harder to take

« It’s the Ticketmaster experience but for the public good. »

That’s how Peter de Koning, a young dad who works in marketing, described the process of waking up before 7 a.m. to earn a coveted spot in a city-run recreation program through the system of online registration. Within minutes, many programs filled up.

« Even if you’re a little late, you can lose, » he said. Fortunately, when registration for the fall lineup opened last month, de Koning was able to get two of the shows her family wanted and was put on a waitlist for another.

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« We were lucky, but I think that’s a problem, » he said. “You should be out of luck. It should be something accessible wherever you are in the city and whatever type of internet you have or the number of relatives in a household.

The fight for a spot in one of Toronto’s recreational programs was competitive before the pandemic. Now, it seems the competition has gotten even fiercer.

The city is currently offering 38% fewer programs than in fall 2019, according to data shared by Toronto’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division. Meanwhile, the number of individual spaces available in the city’s recreational programming has dropped by a third, although the city notes that the number of programs and spaces has increased significantly since the spring.

Currently, Toronto offers over 9,800 recreational programs with nearly 103,000 spaces available.

The decrease in programming is even more marked for swimming lessons, which have long been in high demand. Compared to three years ago, the number of swim programs is down 63%, according to city figures. As of fall 2019, there were over 51,000 spots in swim programs. Now there are just over 21,000.

Over the summer, the city blamed an industry-wide shortage of lifeguards and swim instructors tied to certification disruptions caused by the pandemic. In June, Toronto canceled 169 swimming lessons, affecting more than 1,100 people.

As in-person life returns, cities across North America have faced a similar shortage of aquatic staff. Municipalities such as Oakville and Brampton responded by waiving high fees for courses required to become a lifeguard. Toronto chose not to.

But after Local 79 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees asked the city to review the wages of aquatic staff, Toronto raised hourly wages for lifeguards and swim instructors by 19% in July, from 17, $80 to $21.19.

Yet other recreational cuts followed. Last month, the city cut about 540 programs, or about 5% of the fall schedule. Again, the city attributed the move to a lack of available manpower.

About 3,800 people have been affected by the latest cuts, including the eldest daughter of Gloria Watson, whose fall swimming lessons have been cancelled.

Watson has previously encountered problems with the city’s recreation system. In March, she spoke to the Star after all the toddler programs she wanted to enroll her youngest daughter in filled up just three minutes after registration opened in the spring. At the time, she compared the race to find a place to the “Hunger Games”.

“Why can’t we find a better way to maximize the resources that already exist in our communities and create new ones where there are gaps? she asked over email this week.

Although sometimes an afterthought, hobbies shouldn’t be taken for granted, said May Friedman, a professor at Metropolitan University of Toronto’s School of Social Work. She said it is an integral part of a child’s development.

« I learned more in the choir than I learned from anything I’ve ever studied, » she joked.

When public recreation programs are cut, families in low-income communities, who cannot afford private options, are disproportionately affected, she noted. « I think if we cared, we could do better, » Friedman added.

« There are changes we’ve made as a result of COVID that we’ll never change – even though we can’t hide behind it anymore. »

With files by David Rider and Jennifer Pagliaro


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