Up until the mid-1960s, a typical day at Camp Wanakita began as it always had: with a compulsory, camp-wide skinny dip. The camp was still all-boys, and modesty clearly wasn’t at a premium: the campers needed to be clean and, without showers, it was the lake or nothing. That wasn’t specific to Wanakita, of course. At Wapomeo, an all-girls camp, the dock was outfitted with curtains to shield the girls from passing boat traffic.
In some ways, to be sure, camp isn’t like it used to be. While much of the programming of the early days would be familiar to campers today—canoeing, woods lore (ecology), singing, theatre, tennis, archery, arts and crafts—other activities wouldn’t be: boxing, folk dancing, poetry composition, and riflery. As the needs of parents and campers changed, so did camp, often in keeping with the times.
Still, one thing that has remained, and that’s what camping is all about. Eugene Kates, past director of Camp Arowhon once said that “it’s important to let people learn the feeling of doing something well. Kids bloom if you can get them hooked on striving for excellence. And that’s what I think camp should do.”
Camp, from the very earliest days, was about challenge, growth, and identity. “At camp I figured out who I was,” says Jocelyn Palm, longtime director of Camp Glen Bernard. “To me, that’s it. You learn to be independent. I believe children learn to make decisions by making decisions, we just need to let them try. I feel strongly that we have to help young people acquire values that will help get them through life. And camp does that.”
I believe children learn to make decisions by making decisions—we just need to let them try.
Certainly, if there is a consistent commitment to what camp has been throughout its history, that’s it. What kids need—to find out who they are, to gain independence in a safe and supportive environment, to learn how to make good decisions and forge positive relationships, to acquire the values that will help them in life—well, that hasn’t changed either.
The traditions we associate with residential summer camp—the values, the activities, the aesthetics—are in many respects due to the work of one man. If there is a patient zero of the camp experience that is common across Canada today, it’s Taylor Statten. Returning home from the Boer War, Statten joined the YMCA in 1902 and soon became the national Boy’s Work Secretary, a position that included the directorship of Camp Couchiching in Orillia, ON. There he branded himself “Chief,” took the Ojibwa name Gitchi-Ahmek, and added First Nations lore and woodcraft to the programming. He also established the Canadian Standards Efficiency Training program, a series of graded activity levels intended to give children the opportunity and incentive to develop intellectual, social, physical, and religious skills.
Of course there were other youth programs at the time, and some of them, such the scouting movement, were wildly popular. When Lord Baden-Powell published his book Scouting for Boys it became an international sensation. Adventure, resourcefulness, friendship—the values of scouting were clear, and the concept behind it appealed to parents’ desire for structure, consistency and their hope for their children to find a constructive place within society.
What made Statten’s programs unique was the focus that he brought to them. In place of the regimented, sum-is-better-than-its-parts approach of scouting and cadets, Statten built programs around the individual, seeking to develop each child’s potential and to celebrate their individual strengths. Camping in Statten’s hands was about expression, independence, and an appreciation of the diversity inherent in any group. Adventure and resourcefulness were important, but so was imagination, identity, and a close appreciation the natural environment.
In 1916, Statten put his ideas into practice by founding Camp Ahmek, a camp for boys set within the boundaries of Algonquin park. The centerpiece of the camp, then as now, was the stone fireplace in the main hall, one that Tom Thomson helped build, hauling the sand for the mortar that would bind the stones. Pierre Trudeau would sit before that fireplace as a camper, as did all three of his sons both as campers or staff. Justin Trudeau, in speaking of camp, described his experience while giving what is, effectively, a precis of Statten’s initial vision: “[camp] had an immeasurable impact on my family and me. For my father, my brothers and I, being campers and counsellors at Ahmek taught us much about nature, about responsibility, and most importantly, about ourselves.”
Wapomeo, a sister camp to Ahmek, followed in 1924 and, taken together, the two camps provided a model for many, many camps to come that in turn reflected the organization and the values that Ahmek and Wapomeo had demonstrated.
For my father, my brothers and I, being campers and counsellors at Ahmek taught us much about nature, about responsibility, and most importantly, about ourselves.
By the 1950s, summer camp had become an icon of Canadiana, something that has remained true to this day. When Michael Budman went to Camp Tamakwa as a camper, he discovered a culture and an aesthetic that would later become central to the Roots Canada brand, a company he co-founded. When Roots ultimately outfitted the Canadian Olympic teams from 1998 to 2004, there was a little bit of summer camp in the image that Canada, as a country, was projecting to the world.
Certainly it wasn’t just the look that impressed Budman, or indeed anyone who encountered summer camp, but also the values that were represented there: confidence, communication, leadership development, environmental stewardship, and self expression. “The keys to becoming a good citizen are knowledge, caring, and action,” says Jocelyn Palm. “These are important requirements in the wise use of the environment and also carry over into everyday life. Campers learn to share, how to appreciate all types of personalities and cultures, and how to function as a member of the camp community.” When asked why she chose to install composting toilets at Glen Bernard, Palm responded, “if I’m not prepared to be a role model and show kids the technologies that are going to make our environment sustainable, who’s going to do it?”
Since even the very earliest days, functioning as a member of the camp community was promoted as something akin to functioning as a citizen of the wider world. Glen Bernard Camp director Margaret Edgar held weekly talks, and in one in 1928—this was a typical weekly address, not something out of the ordinary—she told the campers that “We are debtors to all the world. From all corners of the earth the gifts of the peoples of other lands are brought to us. We live in a world where the vast distances are bridged by commerce and transportation, by cables and radios.”
“For Edgar,” writes Jessica Dunkin, “camp was a place where girls learned to live in a community with those who were different, an invaluable skill in what [Edgar] saw as an increasingly globalized world.” Again, this from the 1920s—when it comes to thinking locally and acting globally, camps have long been at the leading edge, often providing leadership to those outside the camp community.
While some camps continued to hone a very traditional experience, others built out programming in order to further reflect what some parents and campers were looking for. Themed programs, enhanced facilities, and new ideas came to the fore. Arts, in particular, became a prominent focus, and programs including copper enameling and pottery took their place alongside woodworking and music. Dora Mavor Moore was a drama instructor at Tanamakoon in the 1930s, inspiring a drama program that has lasted the intervening decades. She also designed the theatre that is still used there today. Likewise, Arowhon’s theatre program was begun by actor Lorne Greene when he was a staff member there.
While theatre programs existed at some camps, larger scale and section-wide productions became more common in the 1970s, something that is reflected in the musicals—such as “Free to Be You and Me,” “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”—that remain mainstays at camps across Canada today. Over the years, it’s the camp environment that has traditionally given children a chance to take risks and perform in front of an audience. Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Sam Raimi and Mike Binder all got their starts at camp. (Many camps have starred in movies, too. Meatballs was filmed at Camp White Pine, Indian Summer at Tamakwa, and Disney’s Camp Rock, starring Joe Jonas and Demi Lovato was filmed at Camp Wanakita.)
Into the 1970 and 80s, formal leadership programs were introduced, including two-year student counsellor, or counsellor in training (CIT) programs. These not only served the campers by placing a clear focus on leadership, they also served to augment the staff training already in place. As now, when counsellors begin working with cabins, they’ve effectively had months of training rather than weeks, and they have spent two years looking forward to the responsibilities of leadership.
In time, many camps that had been just for boys became co-ed. In 1969, Camp Wanakita took the idea of bringing camp to a larger audience one step further by inaugurating family camping, adding a week-long session at the end of the summer to allow families to enjoy the camp environment together. The idea had immediate appeal and was fully booked well in advance. Today, the concept is common, with some camps offering family sessions throughout the summer in addition to the traditional residential camp programs.
It was a different, to be sure, but nevertheless is emblematic of something camp had always intended to provide: an important, meaningful experience that you can’t get anywhere else. David Stringer is son of Omer Stringer, the legendary canoeist and outdoorsman, and a director of Camp Tamakwa, the camp his father helped found. There he continues the tradition that his father, and others, put in place all those years ago. “If he could see this third generation of kids tipped over on the side of their canoe, paddling, he’d be thrilled.” David is too, because, like his father, he knows that through camp he’s able to make difference in the lives of children. It’s less about specific skills than it is the sense of mastery. It’s about the confidence that comes with being alone, in a canoe on a lake, deciding where you’re going to go. And then going there.