Boy Scouts trying to face up to relevancy challenge

By Brock Weir

Over the last 100 years, Scouts Canada has weathered stark changes in the Canadian cultural climate, but as it celebrates its centenary this year, scout leaders are looking at the hurdles they face while heading towards 2107.

The 36th Ottawa Scout Group has been a fixture in the Glebe since 1936.

But this July, the troop will be missing its centennial jamboree in Quebec, a meeting of scout troops from across the across the country usually held every four to seven years.

“To be perfectly frank, we’re not doing a whole lot for the 100th anniversary because we have such a small scout group this year. We only have five kids in it,” says Peter Glover, the Glebe troop leader.

Glover says he has seen the numbers of scout memberships drop substantially in the last 30 years. He estimates that numbers are down to about one third of what they once were. He says he attributes this loss to other factors competing for kids’ attention.

“[Kids today] have a ton more homework than we ever did, so homework is a big thing, and there are so many other activities like organized sports,” he says. “Then there are music lessons, tutoring, soccer…a whole realm of different activities they can get involved in.”

Heidi Vincent, a former guide and current director of communications for Scouts Canada says she shares the concern.

“Certainly our intent is to work on continually increasing membership,” says Vincent. “[Scouts Canada is] a very enriching organization to be involved in. It has a long tradition, but just over time there has been a lot of other organized activities that are available for kids.”

Vincent says Scouts Canada launched what it calls “strategic directions for scouting” last year, identifying important issues to tackle and goals for the next 10 years. These directions include increasing volunteer support, building awareness for the group, and ensuring Scouts Canada remains relevant to Canadian society.

One of the ways the scouting movement can strengthen their relevancy is to focus on cultural diversity and awareness, she says.

“In terms of continuing to be relevant and meet these needs, the reason why scouting is called a movement is that it is continually moving forward with the times, not just remaining a static organization,” she says.

But for the Glebe scout troop, dwindling numbers isn’t their only concern. Finding new troop leaders has been problematic, says Glover.

“The Ottawa 36th hasn’t gone down in numbers so we haven’t been nearly as affected [the decline],” he says.

“We did have a problem with getting cub leaders [last year] and because of that, there were no cubs coming up to scouts and that’s why we’re down to five scouts this year.”

The Glebe Troop offers the “beavers” program, which is for boys and girls between the ages of five and seven, “cubs” for members aged eight to 10, “scouts” for those aged 11 to 14, and “venturers” for teens aged 14 to 17.

Russ Jones, advisor for the troop’s venturers, adds that even though scout numbers are down this year, numbers often fluctuate between troop levels.

“Sometimes you can have a good year, sometimes you can have a bad year,” he says. “If you look at the numbers for instance, we’ve got a very small scout group this year, but we have a huge cub pack and a large venturer company.”

Next year’s scout troop will be much larger as 13 members of this year’s cub pack graduated into the scouts program late last week.

Although Jones and Glover say there is disappointment they will be missing out in some of the main festivities surrounding Scouts Canada’s centenary, they say the celebrations are a great opportunity to re-acquaint the community with what the scouts have to offer.

“I don’t know whether we’re all doing a really good job of pushing [the anniversary] but it’s something we should be using to our advantage,” says Jones.

While Scouts Canada reflects on the roots Robert Baden-Powell planted when he founded the scout movement for boys based on military principles in 1907, Glover says this is a time to look forward and make the public aware of their relevance today.

“I think it is time the public realizes we’re not a paramilitary organization any more,” he says. “There are some very important lessons to be learned in leadership skills and outdoor survival skills to still be relevant in today’s society.”