Snapshot of Swimming History in Ontario

August 9, 2021 | Sam

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As the summer heats up, Ontarians cool down in the water! To find out where swimmers of the past made waves in the province, I turned to Digital Archive Ontario. It has over 100,000 digitized photos, maps, postcards and other items related to Ontario's past.

A swimming instructor standing in a pool throws a young child into the water.
Photo from our Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1972. Portion of the caption that appeared in the newspaper: "Swimming instructor advocates drown-proofing children at an early age."

Swimming as sport

While there’s evidence that humans have swum for centuries in spots all over the world, swimming became popular in Western countries in the 19th century. Long celebrated for its health benefits, swimming became more of a focus in sports after this time.

In Canada, swim meets were organized by individual swim clubs like the Dolphin Club of Toronto beginning in the 1870's and the Canadian Amateur Swimming Association (now Swimming/Natation Canada) formed in 1909. You can learn more about the history of speed swimming in The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Beaches, pools and docks became an important part of the public landscape.

The Mnjikaning Fish Weirs

Of course, long before public beaches as we know them today were established in Ontario, waterfronts played an important role in the lives of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.

One example is the Mnjikaning Fish Weirs, located between Lake Couchiching and Lake Simcoe, near Rama First Nation. Designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1982, the fish fence has been in use from about 3300 B.C.E. It is the oldest known site of its kind in North America. The website for the Chippewas of Rama First Nation notes that “the Mnjikaning Fish Fence Circle was established in 1993 by community members and area residents for the purpose of protecting and promoting the weirs.”

Competitions & open water swimming

As swimming became more common in Ontario, competitions increased in popularity. Both open water distance swimming and, later on, swim meets took place across the province. I swam competitively for many years and have fond memories of stepping on to the pool deck at 5 AM!

Two images, one of A painting of people swimming the front crawl in Lake Ontario and the other showing portraits of four swimmers including one listed as from Barrie Ontario
Cover (left) and swimmer profiles (right) for the official programme for the third Wrigley swim marathon at the Canadian National Exhibition, 1928. Toronto swimmer George Young won the first competition organized by William Wrigley Jr. (of chewing gum fame).


Famously, Toronto-born Marilyn Bell — a much better athlete than I am — made swimming cool in the province when she became the first person known to swim across Lake Ontario in 1954. She was just 16 years old.

Swimmer Marilyn Bell crawls onshore in front of a crowd of photographers, while her swim coach holds them back.
Photo from our Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1955. This is Marilyn Bell's English Channel swim, the year after she swam Lake Ontario. Portion of the caption that appeared in the newspaper: "O'Gus Ryder holds crowd back as Marilyn crawls ashore to triumph."


Swimming pools come in all types. They can be family-friendly splash pads for cooling down. Or multi-million venues for Olympic events. There was even a pool at Canadian Forces Base Borden ("Camp Borden") used to train troops during the First World War.

Pool built of wood in remote area with young men in splashing in place and looking on from the side
Photo of Camp Borden from our Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1919. This military base is located about 25 kilometres west of Barrie, Ontario.


In 1925, Toronto became home to what was reportedly the world's largest outdoor public swimming pool. The Sunnyside pool was part of Sunnyside Amusement Park. The pool opened a few years after the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion, a changing station for Lake Ontario swimmers. 


In 1975, the largest pool in Ontario became the newly opened pool in the Petticoat Creek Conservation Area in Pickering. At the time, the 1.4 acre pool was advertised as having enough space for 3,000 bathers! It was six feet deep in the middle and had a dozen lifeguards on duty.

Representation in our historical records related to swimming

You might have noticed that all of the photos above feature people who appear to be white. Many of our digitized items do not necessarily have Black, Indigenous or Persons of Colour (BIPOC) represented. (Learn more about decolonizing archives.)

Historically, BIPOC communities (particularly Black communities) have faced many barriers arising from racism that prevent them from swimming competitively. Athletes like Debbie Armstead, the first Black Canadian swimmer to qualify for the Olympic Games (1980) and a coach for many years in Windsor, Ontario, are celebrated for breaking barriers in the sport. 



As the summer heats up, I hope all Ontarians get a chance to enjoy the water. What’s your favourite local swimming spot?