Controversial Wasaga Beach Billboards Toned Down

Man behind billboard campaign will tweak his message to appease local businesses

How is it possible the world’s largest freshwater beach doesn’t have lifeguards? A water safety advocate in Wasaga Beach has been asking that question for 21 years.  John Watt was fed up with waiting for an answer so he purchased some billboard space along Highway 26.

He says reaction to the controversial billboards is split 50/50 with some local businesses complaining the billboards will scare away tourists. With that in mind, Watt paid to remove the (Multiple Drownings) wording from the billboards by August 1’st.

Watt hopes will help spark some change, especially now with the drowning death of ex-NHL’er Ray Emery, the incident involving a 12-year-old boy in Barrie and the fact it’s National Drowning Prevention week.

He thought the Town would bring back the lifeguard program after the Province handed over Beach Area One and Two, but council voted against it.

“It’s been 21 years, I needed to shake these people up. People don’t care about the dead bodies being pulled from the water”

Mayor Brian Smith has long said the town should bring back the lifeguard program – which is estimated to cost $240,000 for Beach Area One and Two. Watt was optimistic, “I thought with the Mayor’s support this thing would get done, but he doesn’t hold all of the votes on council.”

Approximately 15 people have drowned in the two decades without a lifeguard program in Wasaga Beach.

Billboards Garner Mixed Reaction

Most of the positive feedback comes from tourists visiting from Michigan, New York State, and Quebec. Watt says these people were absolutely shocked there were no lifeguards. The negative reaction mostly has to do with how the billboards could potentially hurt tourism.

Watt calls it “irresponsible” and chalks it up to short term thinking by a handful of residents. He says on August 1st the billboards will no longer mention (Multiple Drownings) – which he hopes appeases concerned business owners.

Brain Damage Caused from “Near-Drownings”

One thing Watt says never becomes part of the conversation is “near-drownings” which can leave people with significant brain damage. He estimates a half-dozen or so near-drownings each summer at Wasaga Beach.

Back in 2010 Watt was requested to submit a report to Ontario’s Chief CoronerDr. Lauwers regarding beach safety and preventing drowning deaths in Ontario. He talked about the life-long impact of near-drownings and how important lifeguard programs are.  Full Report Here

” Near drownings never get reported or talked about” 

He hopes the billboards put pressure on Wasaga Beach town council before more people suffer. Melissa Haskett is one of those. She lost her son Zack after he drowned at the mouth of the Nottawasaga River. Like Watt, Haskett is now an advocate to bring lifeguards back to Wasaga Beach.

Here in Ontario, the National Lifesaving Society says around one per-cent of water-related fatalities happened under lifeguard supervision. Across Canada close to 500 people drown each year, but rarely while under lifeguard supervision.