The tragic drowning of a personal support worker at a group home in East Gwillimbury, Ont., on Feb. 12 has sparked outrage among current and former staff at the home.
They said Ashiru Awoyemi should have never been assigned the task he was carrying out when he died at the bottom of the facility’s pool.
The 50-year-old immigrant from Nigeria had worked at the facility north of Newmarket for the last three years.
Colleagues said he had been sending money to his wife and four children back home, anxiously awaiting the day when his sponsorship would be approved and he could bring them over to live with him in Canada.
They said he was the joker on the home’s staff; always laughing and having fun. But Awoyemi was also known as a hard worker and one of those guys who would never turn down a work assignment. It’s a trait some co-workers and their union feel led to the tragic outcome on February 12.
Awoyemi was allegedly asked to supervise a client, reported by co-workers to have a history of violence, at the facility’s pool.
The first worker management asked, Jack Johnson, said he refused but that Awoyemi agreed to do it even though he’d be alone with an allegedly violent man and with no lifeguard present.
Also, all flotation devices had been allegedly stored away because the pool was locked down in November due to the pandemic.
“I told him, ‘Hey, don’t go,'” recalled Johnson.
“And he’s like, ‘No, no problem, I’ll do it, I’ll be back soon.'”
Johnson sighed loudly recalling that memory. After a while, having not heard from his friend, Johnson said he called Awoyemi and got no answer. When he went to the pool to check on him, he found the client in good condition, but Awoyemi had drowned.
York Regional Police investigated and labelled the death accidental. They said the entire incident was caught on camera and that there was no violent altercation. They did not elaborate further on how the PSW ended up under the water.
New Leaf’s own health and safety policies and procedures guide, in its general pool rules, states that “a minimum of two staff are required in the pool area at all times, one of which must be a competent swimmer.”
Police confirmed Awoyemi was the only staff member there and his co-workers said he could not swim.
“We will be pursuing action around the breach of policies for sure and trying to ensure that we are supporting the family of the deceased as well as ensuring that our members are getting the support that they need,” said SEIU’s Jennifer Wilson, the union rep for staff at New Leaf.
She claimed Awoyemi’s death follows several other workplace safety-related complaints by New Leaf staff over the years.
“There have been concerns around shortages of staff. Sometimes there are individuals supported that are a two-on-one, which means there are two staff for one individual and there are times when workers are working short and that’s putting them at risk.
“There have also been health and safety concerns around clients’ behaviour.”
Wilson described staff at the home as “heartbroken” and said management has encouraged them not to speak to reporters, citing a clause forbidding it. While she said she worries those who come forward publicly may face retribution for doing so, Johnson remains defiant.
“I’m not worried about anything,” he told Global News in a phone interview.
“I’m going to speak the truth and only the truth and I’m going to respect my late colleague … My company doesn’t care about me. They don’t care about anybody!”
Global News contacted the executive director of New Leaf multiple times for comment but did not get a reply by the publication deadline.
The Ontario Ministry of Labour confirmed it is in the midst of an investigation into Awoyemi’s death.
Meanwhile, friends and family said they want justice. They’ve also launched an online fundraiser to help his immediate family in Nigeria pay for the funeral.