“It’s something big for me,” says Olivier Girard. “I’ve never had a month like that in my life.”
Certainly, he hadn’t. Girard was speaking about the summer (the one just before the pandemic) that he spent as a Leader in Training (LIT) at Quebec’s Camp Nominingue, a boys' camp located north of Mont-Tremblant, Quebec. Leadership programs are typically offered to young people who are 15 and 16, and that’s true at Nominingue. Up until that point Olivier had been a camper, but when he became an LIT, he became something more: mentor, learner, leader. For the first time he had responsibility for others, he had the trust of those he looked up to and admired, and he was playing an important role within an institution that he valued. So, yes. It was big.
While there are different names in different contexts— some camps use Counsellor in Training (CI T), the YMCA camps use Student Counsellor (SC), many use LIT—leadership development programs share a lot in common, both superficially and more substantively. For one, they tend to take place over a longer period of time than typical camp sessions. For Olivier, it was the first time he’d spent an entire month away. At Camp Wanakita, this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of its SC program, the training takes place over two summers. At Camp Muskoka’s LIT, it’s three years; at Camp Kandalore it’s a four-year program. Some include a long canoe trip. At Camp Wenonah, the final year of the leadership program includes four weeks of training then another four weeks as a paid member of the staff. There, as at Camp Kennebec, participants apply to the leadership program, something which confers its own sense of accomplishment. On entering, participants know that someone has seen something in them, something of value, and is willing to trust them with greater responsibilities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they invariably rise to meet that trust.
Key to all leadership programs is safety training, often including lifeguard certification, as well opportunities to guide younger campers. But in every case, it’s more than just that. “They wanted to make us responsible,” says Olivier with a chuckle, but then quickly becoming introspective. “Going on a canoe trip [as an LIT] you were the one making decisions, leading, and orienteering ... it gives you a chance to be more mature.” Grant McKenna, director at Nominingue, agrees. “We want them to grow as individuals ... We want them to grow in confidence and skill; we want them to take some calculated risks, to go a bit beyond where maybe they think their limits are.” Says Rachel of being an LIT at Camp Muskoka, “it helped me gain self-confidence, respect, understanding, and leadership skills that I will take with me for the rest of my life ... I can honestly say that the LIT program made me a better person and a better leader.” Olivier thinks that, too. “It’s an experience that you cannot miss.”
Taking part in a national tradition
In many ways, these kinds of programs trace their genesis to a particular moment, one in 1906 when Taylor Statten joined the YMCA as Boys’ Work Secretary. Rather than a militaristic model—ironically, perhaps, given his formal title—he developed a conspicuously alternative organizational structure for the boys’ programs he developed in his role, one built specifically around opportunities to build social, physical, and interpersonal skills. It was less about work, and more about growth; less about obedience and rank, and more about building empathetic forms of leadership and, by inference, inclusion. It also adopted a flatter leadership model than was found in youth programs to that point, with ranks and authority. Instead, leaders were seen more as we see them today, with different styles, skills, and postures. Success was seen less as task accomplishment and more as personal and social development. “In all of our programs, ones that are even titled with ‘leadership,’ there’s a diverse set of students that are involved,” says Robert Wallis, curriculum lead for Outward Bound Canada. “What we hope to help those students realise is that they all have something to offer.”
It was an approach to youth education and development that, in time, was replicated throughout Canada. Fun is part of it, though challenge is, too. All include three main components: personal growth, social-emotional development, and environmental stewardship. Tripping can be strenuous: weather doesn’t always cooperate and intermittent discomfort is part of the experience. It also presents a wealth of opportunities for young people to become true mentors in the way that Statten most appreciated: leading empathetically, creatively; gaining the trust of others rather than demanding trust from them; and feeling the weight of responsibility. Success in all instances success is less about “I did it!” and more about “we did it!” Participants might climb mountains—that’s literally true of some the Outward Bound leadership courses—but they never do it alone. As such, they gain an appreciation of the power a group can have when personal talents are employed toward achieving a common goal.
Today Statten’s influence can be seen in camps from coast to coast. It’s that distinctly Canadian model, seen particularly in the two that bear his name: The Taylor Statten Camps—Camp Ahmek for boys and Camp Wapomeo for girls—set a kilometre apart on Canoe Lake in Ontario’s Algonquin Park. They’ve been a proving ground for generations of leaders, including two prime ministers. Says alum Justin Trudeau, “For my father, my brothers and me, being campers and counsellors at Ahmek taught us much about nature, about responsibility, and most importantly, about ourselves.”
“Let’s be intentional about that transition”
“The thing that sets us apart is the immersive nature of it,” says Wallis. “When students are on course, they’re on course for 24 hours a day. Any decisions they make are very relevant, because they have to follow through on those decisions.” Unlike other leadership opportunities— such as co-curricular programs or work experience—they can’t go home at the end of the day. “So it’s the quickest kind of ‘fast track’ way to learn these skills because of that immersive nature.”
Outward Bound isn’t a camp in the way we typically think of one—cabins by a lake—though it has long defined the concept of outdoor education. Begun in Canada in 1969, it was an early adopter/promoter of some of the things that are very much in the air today, namely providing young people with an opportunity to grow leadership skills, resilience, and grit. Unlike camps, the courses take place across the country, from sea kayaking trips in Clayoquot Sound to 24-day treks into the boreal forest of the Canadian Shield. Participants regularly come away saying they’ve had a life-changing experience, that they’ve learned something about who they are and where they want to go. For a majority, it’s safe to say, it’s an experience that they’ll take with them for the rest of their lives.
“In general, people see outdoor education as lying within the tourism industry or the adventure industry. But we are most definitely a school.” That’s literally true—Outward Bound includes a ministry-inspected high school and can confer high school credits and degrees—though it’s true, too, in the sense that the intention of all the programs is educative. “We’ve always been focused on that education piece. So we use both the technical activities—that kayaking or canoeing or mountain climbing, and the glorious spaces around Canada—they are just the vehicle that we use to build resilience and social-emotional intelligence.”
Which is exactly what the programs have been crafted to do: to help people grow at a particularly important point in their lives. “It really embodies the personal growth aspect of things, and preparing people for the challenges of life,” says Jill Zeppa, director of admissions for Outward Bound Canada. “We’re taking people at really pivotal age ranges, where there’s a lot of transition happening already, naturally, and we’re saying let's be intentional about that transition, because we can do a lot of good if we think about how we want this transition to serve a young person.
And young people might be aware of and intentional about that themselves, but they might not be.” For young people bumping up against the boundaries of their school and social environments, the programs can provide a welcome opportunity to spread their wings in significant, meaningful ways, all within a safe and supportive setting, guided by experienced, expert instructors.
Learning to work together toward a common goal
Leadership can be a tricky term, and it can mean different things to different people. Within the context of outdoor education, it can mean significantly more than you might expect. “Its’ kind of a pretty large bubble that we want to tackle,” says Cam Van Velzen, director of the leadership programs at Wanakita. “We want to teach them about different kinds of leadership. There’s the traditional—one person leading a group of people—but there are other ways of leading.” They include all the quadrants: drivers, spontaneous motivators, relationship masters, and architects and analysts. Most important he feels is “becoming a positive role model, and not just in the camp community.”
That was true for Don McCreesh, who was one of the first to come through the SC program when it was first offered in the early 1970s. For him the experience shaped his personal life, though he feels it also provided an essential foundation for his professional life. “All this executive team building that we do, people ask me where I learned that,” he says.
“Well, I learned it by taking 16-year-olds on canoe trips. The principles are all there: working together, team building, confidence, communicating with people, leadership development.” He went on to leadership positions at the very top of the corporate world and has served as chair and director of the YMCA of Greater Toronto, YMCA Canada, and currently Camp Oochigeas. “People in leadership positions, invariably they came from a camp leadership background,” he says. “Whether it was CIBC or other places I’ve worked, people who have great leadership skills, they learned those skills at camp. It’s like, 10 percent of kids go to camp, but 30 percent of the leaders in business, in philanthropy, had a camp leadership experience.”
The point he underscores is that there are few environments in which young people can access this kind of directed, intentional training. Schools offer leadership positions, say within co-curricular programs or student councils, though too often they don’t confer any real responsibility.
That is where outdoor and camp leadership programs really distinguish themselves. In the case of the Outward Bound trips, that acceptance of responsibility for yourself and the group can be particularly stark. Participants are given challenges along the way, though by the end the group is expected to lead themselves as a new, fresh, strong team that they’ve built over the course of the expedition.
In one case, Zeppa recalled a group that was challenged to navigate the final two days of a canoe trip, getting themselves back to the boat launch on a specific day at a specific time in order to meet the vans. The instructors were there, of course, though participants could only ask them a maximum of two questions a day. “The group has to really work together around the skills and knowledge they’ve built over the course of the trip to decide what’s worth asking the leaders for support with and what they can do themselves.” Otherwise, they were on their own; their fate, as it were, was in their hands. “They come home knowing that the decisions they make are going to translate into what happens to them next,” says Zeppa,
“because that just happened for the last 21 days on the trip. The decisions they made influenced what their next experience was. And then they had to rebound and react to that. ... And I think our program allows people to recognize that they have a choice in the trajectory of their lives and they can make informed choices.”
“ You can be a good leader and a bad leader,” says, Olivier. “My counsellors were good ... they connected with me. We were really close at the end.” For him, leadership is,
principally, about supporting others, “to bring you up when you are down. And always being there for you. And teach you how to do things for yourself, not just do things for you.” As he suggests, a defining feature of training programs is that they are filled with small acts of service— mentoring, helping, coaching—and an awakening to a new role, perhaps even a new sense of self. Participants come to see themselves as members of an institution, gaining a reverence for what the institution represents. They learn to see themselves not as creditors to whom something is owed, but debtors who owe something. As Olivier says, it’s a big thing. “I think it’s an experience that you cannot miss.”
“A huge part of it is self-confidence,” says Don McCreesh. He pauses, letting that thought hang for a moment. Nearly five decades and many professional roles since he was an SC at Camp Wanakita he says, “I can never repay camp for what it gave me.”