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Leisure It's Not Your Leave It To Beaver Scouts Any More


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
“Everywhere we go-o. People wanna kno-ow. Who we a-are,” the group of five-, six- and seven-year-olds chanted. As the 30-strong group of Beavers bumbled along the dirt trail in Surrey, B.C.'s Watershed Park this May, their rallying cry echoed that of thousands of Scouts Canada members before them.

But with a twist: “We are the Khalsa, mighty mighty Khalsa.” The group had swapped the word “Beavers” with the term for baptized Sikhs.

The Khalsa Scouts, who formed just in April, could represent the way forward for Scouts Canada, an organization scrambling to stay relevant 103 years after its formation. The brown-skinned youngsters meet not in a school gymnasium but in a Sikh temple: Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara. They pledge the “I promise to love God” portion of the original Scout Promise with vigour and also recite Sikh prayers at meetings before they make dioramas of woodland habitats. Most come from families that have never pitched a tent. But they are eager to be part of this symbol, to them, of Canadian society.

Like its female-only counterpart, Girl Guides of Canada, Scouts Canada has been losing members for decades. As of this week, the organization had 75,999 youths registered in its programs, down 73 per cent from its peak of 286,414 in 1965. Last year, in an action plan drawn up by the Scouts Canada chief commissioner's task force, the organization was presented with an unpleasant fact: If membership continues to decline at the average annual rate it has since 1997, Scouts Canada will be out of members by 2017.

Members of the executive are now re-examining nearly every facet of a program known for campfire hot dog roasts, apple sales in supermarket parking lots, and knot-tying. The stereotype of the Boy Scout hasn't changed much from what it was in the middle of the 20th century. It is best imagined on screen by the roly-poly Russell in Pixar's Up – the inexhaustible do-gooder, always offering senior citizens help crossing the street and unbelievably proud of his badge-covered sash.

Now, Scouts Canada is toying with those long-held traditions. Groups devoted to Canada's diverse cultural and religious communities? YouTube videos on how to set up a tarp? A hockey league?

“I tell people all the time we're not your father's or grandfather's Boy Scouts. The world has changed and we've evolved with the times as well,” says Stephen Kent, the chief commissioner.

This year, Scouts Canada's board of governors set aside $1-million to start a legacy fund, which will be used for new projects. The board has also hired St. John's-based Target Marketing to help it rebrand itself for a fall recruitment campaign.

“A traditional ad for Scouts would say, ‘Come have fun, make friends, get outdoors and experience Scouting.' That's all good, but it's not compelling enough,” says Mr. Kent, who is a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly.

The organization is repackaging Scouting as a way to grow future leaders. Prominent, influential Canadians will be front and centre in ads that highlight their not-so-well-known Scouting backgrounds. The message? “We build successful people.”

For decades, marketing has been a modest affair: mostly just posters at schools and public libraries featuring grinning kids in Scout uniforms.

“It won't be enough to tack a poster on a community bulletin board,” Mr. Kent says. “We really have to engage with people through social media, through the Internet, to the places we can reach large numbers.”

But as Scout groups dwindle to single-digit memberships or even disband, some are asking whether it is too little too late.


This isn't Scouts Canada's first identity crisis. James Trepanier, a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto, who is writing his thesis on the history of Scouts in Canada, says the organization considered overhauling everything from uniforms to camping in the late sixties, when membership first began to slip.

“There was a number of times they'd do a massive navel-gazing exercise to figure out what they could do differently to bring kids back into the movement,” he says. In the end, few dramatic changes were adopted, save for making all sections co-ed in 1992; a departure from their American counterparts, where girls are mostly excluded from Scouts.

For committed Canadian Scout leaders, it has been a discouraging time. In June, when Scout leader Garnet Hall took his fledgling group of Scouts camping at Anglin Lake, three hours north of Saskatoon, he scavenged for kindling, built a fire and set up camp with heavier issues on his mind: How many camping trips were left? How many weekly meetings? How many years could the group survive?

Mr. Hall had been burned before. In 2008, he spent much of his after-hours time from his job in plastics production, planning and executing activities for a Cubs group of four. The group shut down that year – more than half a century after it was formed – because leaders weren't able to provide engaging programs with their limited resources.

It's a long way from 1907, when the original Scouts was founded by Robert Baden-Powell, a lieutenant-general in the British Army, along with Canadian naturalist writer Ernest Thompson Seton and Daniel Carter Beard, an American social reformer, and boys couldn't sign up fast enough.

Scouts was conceived as a way of putting the manliness back into men, pale from factory work and city life. Solution: Introduce them to the wilderness at a young age. Lord Baden-Powell wanted to imbue the troops with the Victorian and military values learned in the army: a commitment to God, country and personal rectitude.

By the mid-sixties, Scouting was fully entrenched as part of family life. Bungalows lined tidy suburban streets, a Chevy Impala was parked in every driveway and the Beatles topped the charts. “Soccer mom” and “Facebook” were not yet part of the cultural lexicon, but Scouts was a major draw for middle-class boys, as personified in the TV hit Leave it to Beaver; 10-year-olds registered because friends did.

News anchor Kevin Newman is a case in point. He enrolled in 1966 at seven years old in Montreal. “I liked the campfire, I liked the songs, I liked all that,” he recalls. “I was what they called at the time a ‘Sixer' – you had a number of stars. It was paramilitarisitic. I maxed out on the stars so I was pretty proud of that.”

He left the group four years later when he was a Cub Scout. “I was an asthmatic kid so I never, like, did much. ... The tents were all musty and I would just end up wheezing all night.” Later in life, he realized that “its value for me was in setting goals and achieving them,” but, at the time, “I just wanted the pretty badges.”

Fond memories prompted him to enroll his son in Scouting in 1993. Though the pack was still all boys, most of the leaders, by then, were women. “I found myself wondering, ‘Where are the men? Why aren't they as involved as the mothers seem to be?' ”

Parents started distancing themselves from the organization when cases of sex abuse cropped up in North America, Australia and Britain. Convicted sex offender Brian Durham – who had been pardoned – managed to get past an RCMP background check and register as a volunteer with Scouts Canada in the early nineties. In 2001, he pleaded guilty to assault and a host of other offences against 20 children he came into contact with as a Scout leader.

As wholesomeness gave way to rebellion, and parenting evolved, Lord Baden-Powell's reputation suffered. He “emerges as a martinet and cult leader and Scouting as a dangerous exercise in introducing children to an authoritarian ideal,” wrote Robert B. Carson, in 2005, in The Missing Link. Another scandal erupted with news reports about Lord Baden-Powell's alleged association with the Hitler Youth.

By the start of the new millennium, being a “good Boy Scout” was an insult and total registration of members and leaders had dropped below the 200,000 mark for the first time in more than 50 years.


Last fall, Crystal Medlock's Cub group in Hope, B.C., met for a “Bring A Friend” night. They played tug-of-war and dodge ball and then huddled by the LED fire to sing camp songs and eat s'mores. It was reminiscent of the activities Ms. Medlock, 33, participated in when she was in Girl Guides in the eighties – until the boisterous group of 45 kids moved into the sprawling gymnasium and brought out the video-game consoles.

“It was a balance,” Ms. Medlock says. “We weren't glued to TVs. ... Why not? What's wrong with change?”

Most members in her group earned the Computer Badge this year when they built functional computers from scratch.

But, even with this open-mindedness, one of the biggest challenges is to keep kids engaged beyond the Cubs section. For 2008-09, 22,931 kids were registered in Beavers (ages 5 to 7) and 24,806 in Cubs (8 to 10), and 14,867 in Scouts (11 to 14). Membership drops even more sharply after that: Only 4,952 teens registered in Venturers (14 to 17) and a mere 703 in Rovers (18 to 26).

With the rise of skateboarding, martial arts, organized sports, all with much stronger funding, Mr. Hall notes, how can Scouts compete? By the time a young man has turned 11, especially in urban centres, popular culture, Facebook and the ubiquity of violent video games are more tempting than “personal rectitude.” Loyalty to God and country is quaint, and earning a badge for compass skills is archaic for youth who grew up with GPS and Google Maps.

“It's hard to get kids today to get involved in a community activity that doesn't involve technology,” Mr. Newman says. “Maybe Scouting is a victim of that youthful trend.”

A testament to Scouts Canada's dusty perception of kids is that MP3 players, cellphones and video games still remain on the “Will Be Confiscated” lists for Scout camps.

In April, the Boy Scouts of America introduced a video-gaming badge to mockery and even suspicion that the announcement was a prank. But Mr. Kent and other leaders are reconsidering gadgetry and screen time.

But it seems Ms. Medlock has found that sweet spot of technological integration – her group is one of the fastest-growing ones in the country. Given that Hope is a remote town of about 6,200, it makes sense. Chilliwack is an hour's drive away. The dance school in town closed this year. There's hockey. Soccer on Saturdays. That's it.

In a throwback to the sixties, Scouting has exploded in Hope in the past two years. “They love to pick up garbage,” Ms. Medlock says. “In a pinch, we'll go on a garbage cleanup and have a contest and whatever group gets the most garbage gets to pick the game. They think that's fantastic.”

She grew up with Guides and her husband with Scouts and now they're roping their kids into the tradition. In many Canadian communities, Scouting is a multigenerational pastime. But as the population becomes more diverse (this spring Statistics Canada projected that by 2031, about 25 to 28 per cent of Canada's population would be foreign-born), Scouts Canada can't count on family recruitment and nostalgia much longer. Whereas, in Surrey, the Khalsa Scouts “haven't heard about it in their families,” Rapinder Kaur, 41, a co-ordinator, explains. “They weren't camping in India. They weren't rock climbing.” As such, they're thrilled over trips to parks.

It's the same story for the First Ontario Tamil Scouting Group in Toronto, which, despite being around for four years, has never treated kids to an overnight camping trip (parents don't support that part of programming – co-ed sleepovers are a no-no).

The adaptability of the program (a big difference between Scouts and Girl Guides) means that in the Tamil group, kids get excited about the outdoor activities while their parents delight over the stealthily inserted lessons in Tamil 101, program co-ordinator Santhuru Durairasah says.

Scouts Canada groups offer programming in 19 languages, including Tagalog, Estonian, Farsi, Urdu and Creole. Ethno-specific groups are scattered across the country, launched by members of Filipino, Vietnamese, Syrian and Egyptian communities, to list a few. Many are in major cities, where enrolment is low.

The Scout's Promise, which seems outdated to many Canadians because of its references to a “Duty to God,” is a welcome tradition for the Jewish, Muslim and Sikh Scout groups in Canada.

Blending Scout activities with lessons in Sikhism comes naturally to Ms. Kaur and Khalsa Scouts leaders. “We're doing the nature walk ... [and] we talk about creation as well. We say we should preserve [the land] because it's important for us as humans as a natural resource, but we add in that we also believe that God created this world,” she says.

At one meeting each month, the leaders share a story about a Sikh prophet or guru that relates to the Scouting unit the group is studying at the time, such as cooking or service. “The challenge for us is to modify our programs and to make them welcoming and engaging for populations that we traditionally haven't connected with,” Mr. Kent says.

Scouting strikes the perfect balance between imparting “back home”-style lessons of discipline (pressed uniforms), respect for elders (following leaders and volunteering at retirement homes) with what they see as the common, pastoral traditions of the Western world: developing wilderness survival skills.

Both Ms. Kaur and Mr. Durairasah say Scouting is, if nothing else, a way to keep Sikh and Tamil kids out of trouble. “We wanted to keep the kids in the right direction. We didn't want people getting into gangs or any other violent things,” Mr. Durairasah says.


Mr. Hall, whose son is in a different Scouting group than the one he leads, has supported Scouts Canada his whole life. While he wishes all parents would volunteer time as leaders, he doesn't want the role of leader to be a chore. “It's a struggle to keep my numbers going,” he says. “Us, as unpaid volunteers, ... it is our responsibility to basically prove to the parents that their kids are getting value out of the organization.”

In Scouting's heyday, leaders were men who had gone through the program themselves and felt a duty to continue their service. Today, volunteers like that are an anomaly. Many, as Mr. Kent says, are parents with children in the programs. Between work, errands and caring for other children, few have time to do more than drop their kid off and pick them up from a Scouts meeting.

When Ms. Medlock and a team of other parents in Hope tried to revive a Cub group that had shut down eight years earlier, it took two years to get it off the ground.

“The first year we started up, we had a real hard time,” Ms. Medlock says. The group introduced an unpopular measure: If you wanted your kid in Cubs, you had to volunteer to lead at least two meetings each year. Parents griped that it was a major commitment.

To be a volunteer leader means going through a vetting process (interview, reference checks and a police record check) and a basic-level training course. In a remote community such as Hope, taking basic training in a nearby city can swallow a whole weekend when transit is considered, Ms. Medlock says.

Ms. Medlock credits the overdue online training courses, launched recently, for turning the group around. While the Fundamentals of Scouting is a one-day program, higher levels of optional training take several days and have classroom and outdoor components.

With e-training, Ms. Medlock says, “we've got more leaders than we'd ever need.” Officially, they only need one leader per six members, but dozens are on standby, she says.

Despite all these moves to modernization, Scouts Canada's track record has made a pessimist out of Mr. Hall.

“Personally, I feel that head office is there one time a year and that's to collect our fees that we never see a single cent of,” the 32-year-old says. Membership fees average $175 for the year and $60 of that is forwarded to the national office.

Scouts Canada's numbers – members and leaders combined – have gone upin the past two years, but only slightly: 7 per cent in 2008 and about 3 per cent in 2009. That flicker is enough for Mr. Kent. He wants to double membership by 2015.

The $1-million legacy fund will pay for the fall recruitment campaign and a new technology strategy, which will include an online badge tracking application for members and a Web video series of camping how-tos. Those funds will also pay for a redesign of uniforms and may even be used to start a Scouts-specific soccer or hockey league.

The organization has about 300 campsites across Canada, but in recent years, it has sold off some of its land to raise supplemental funds. This spring, it sold a 2-per-cent-chunk of its Haliburton Scout Reserve in Ontario for $1.25-million. Mr. Kent hopes to bring in more cash when the group launches a national alumni program next year that encourages the millions of former Scouts in Canada to donate to the organization.

“I think for far too long we've been hiding out in community halls and church basements,” he says. “I really believe we've turned the corner and there's a resurgence happening.



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