Mooney's Bay Park too dangerous to toboggan: city review

A large crowd tobogganing at Mooney's Bay.  (Ashley Burke/CBC - image credit)
A large crowd tobogganing at Mooney's Bay. (Ashley Burke/CBC - image credit)

The city of Ottawa has determined Mooney's Bay Park is unsafe for tobogganing and will be installing "robust temporary seasonal fencing" to deter people from sledding there this winter.

An 11-year-old girl died tobogganing on a hill in that park last December. Nearly eleven months later, the city has concluded a comprehensive review of the hill and has issued 10 recommendations it hopes will prevent similar tragedies.

On the afternoon of Dec. 27, 2021, Josée Abi Assal had joined some family members to go sledding for her first time. They'd only just arrived in Canada from Lebanon that summer, and she'd been excited to play in the snow.

Emergency crews were called to the hill at Mooney's Bay, along the Rideau River, after her sled crashed into a pole. The girl was rushed to CHEO, the region's children's hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

The family told CBC that Abi Assal had been riding a sled with her brother and a cousin when, halfway down, it spun 180 degrees and hurtled toward a cluster of metal sign posts.

Josée's mother, Marie-Lou El-Kada, said her daughter's spine was severed in the impact with one of those posts.

The hill was originally approved as an official city sledding site in 2007, but over time, accidents and injuries prompted a series of site inspections. In 2017, the hill was officially closed to tobogganing.

2021 review — before her death — didn't find ways to improve safety

In the summer of 2021, just months before Abi Assal's death, city risk specialists and recreation staff reviewed the hill's hazards.

Dan Chenier, the city's general manager for recreation, cultural and facility services, wrote in a memo to council Wednesday that the city tried to mitigate risks and make it reasonably safe for sledding.

"Staff concluded that there were no additional mitigating measures that could be implemented to significantly improve safety, and the decision was made to continue to keep the hill closed for sledding," he wrote.

The memo was only shared publicly on Friday.

Submitted by Nicolas El-Kada
Submitted by Nicolas El-Kada

After the child's death, the city installed barricades, signs and padding for trees, while also upping its safety messaging online and on site. The city says bylaw officers were deployed to the hill to dissuade people from sledding.

The city launched a review of the hill by an external consultant. It concluded in January 2022 that due to the steepness and size of the hill, as well as a number of hazards found at the bottom, no part of the hill "offers an acceptable level of risk for sledding use."

The regional coroner conducted her own review and made five recommendations.

Celeste Decaire/CBC
Celeste Decaire/CBC

Subsequently, a comprehensive review was conducted by the city, which ended with 10 recommendations being made.

All recommendations have been, or will be, implemented for the winter sledding season, except amending the city's parks and facilities bylaw, which needs to go before council.

The 10 recommendations are:

  • Issue a "no sledding advisory" during periods of inclement weather.

  • Amend the parks and facilities bylaw, permitting sledding only in designated areas of municipal parks.

  • Develop standardized protective measure equipment, products and materials for enhancing safety.

  • Undertake an annual review and refresh of sledding hill information on GeoOttawa and the city's website.

  • Implement comprehensive protective measures at unapproved hills where sledding is known to occur.

  • Conduct annual inspections for all approved hills.

  • Create a descriptor system for sledding hills on the city's website that indicates the quality of the hill and provides observations on conditions and perils to be updated following annual inspections.

  • Install robust temporary seasonal fencing at Mooney's Bay hill to discourage sledding.

  • Partner with Ottawa Public Health to create an annual safe sledding marketing campaign.

  • Deploy helmet use signs at all approved sledding hill locations.