The lessons from a great summer camp experience are invaluable. You learn about what’s important in life: family, friendship, honour, standing up for what you believe in, and acceptance of people with different views. You can’t spend a month with a group of eight people and not find yourself in disagreement at times, and you have to work your way through it. You have to reach deep into yourself and ask, what are my values and who do I want to be?
I’ve become who I am thanks to summer camp. It’s part of Canadian culture to enjoy the outdoors in the summer, but camp is more than that. It teaches you about life, leadership, integrity and confidence. It inculcates authenticity.
Canada has a rich tradition of summer camps we’ve enjoyed for decades. My father and his brothers went to Kilcoo Camp north of Toronto near Algonquin Park. My first summer at Kilcoo was in 1984 when I was nine. I was a skinny, sports-obsessed kid from a middle-class family who went to public school in Ottawa. Many campers were privileged private school kids from Toronto, and sometimes I felt like an outsider. I recall a tough moment when I announced to my mother, during the mid-July visitors’ day, that I wanted to come home.
She replied if I still felt the same way in a few days, write a letter. There are always going to be moments of separation anxiety, being away from family, or of isolation when you’re left out of a group. But a great summer camp has leaders who know how to establish a culture of inclusion. Kilcoo Camp’s leadership excelled in this regard. Two days later I wrote a letter to my mother. I wanted to stay.
With every month at camp, my transition from boy to man was nourished. The first summer I spent as a leader-in-training at 17, we were asked if anyone wanted to help lead a month-long white water canoe trip in the Yukon. It was to be an intense and difficult journey and I wasn’t confident I had the experience to manage. In an out-of-body experience, I felt my hand going straight up into the air to volunteer.
We paddled up to 125 kilometers a day on wild rivers. When you paddle alongside a bear trying to swim across the river, or watch a pack of timber wolves on a ridge above the campsite, you know you’re in Canada’s great outdoors. There was no way out except to press an emergency button to signal for our country’s military to rescue you. As a teenager, the experience was transformative.
Some kids found they were beyond their physical capabilities; others thrived. All of us reflected on our vulnerability as human beings and on the importance of working as a group. In other words, we grew up.
That trip inspired me to become an environmental lawyer. I went on to lead several other lengthy canoe trips in remote Canadian landscapes. I’ve never lost that instinct; one of the first things I organized as a Member of Parliament was a 25-kilometer trip down the Ottawa River with 150 constituents, community leaders and local students. It was a day-long adventure with 6 war canoes and various other boats provided by Paddle Canada. The camp spirit lives on in my constituency politics.
Paddling is part of who we are as country. As Canadians reflect on our 150th anniversary in 2017, the canoe and traversing our rivers and lakes are foundational experiences in the Canadian psyche and an important part of our heritage. This is core to the camp experience.
Summer camps today are flourishing. Four million Canadian families send their kids to camp. Camps are becoming more ethnically diverse. This has changed from when I attended in the 1980s and 90s. Diversity reflects the shifting Canadian demographic and has been embraced by camp institutions.
All children deserve a chance to go to camp. And I hope all parliamentarians reflect the values of the camp experience.
(Editor’s note: the author is Liberal MP for Pontiac, Que., and former director of the Ecojustice Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law)