You may laugh when I tell you this, but I was a Boy Scout.
In fact, my entire family was involved in the Scouting movement in one way or another: my father was a Scouter, my mom and sisters were heavily involved with Guiding; my maternal grandfather was a Scoutmaster back in the 1960s, and so on. I was, quite literally, raised in Scouting. I started in Beavers and went all the way to Rovers. My last Rover camp was in the spring of 1997, and I moved away to college in September of that year. Much of my childhood and teen years — Cubs through Venturers — was spent as a member of the 1st Blenheim Township troop. Shortly after I moved away I learned that Scouts Canada had “modernized” the curriculum for Scouting, followed closely by the news that 1st Blenheim Twp. had shut down for want of active membership and leadership.
Almost twenty years later, I’ve been considering getting involved with Scouting again. I’ve lately taken up hiking and general bushcraft as a hobby and a way to keep in shape and I’ve been enjoying re-discovering the skills I’d learned, as they bring back happy memories of my years in Scouts. You see, 1st Blenheim Twp was in many ways an extremely old-fashioned Scout troop — rather than being held in a church basement or community hall, all our weekly meetings were held at Peace Haven Scout Camp (which was closed and sold off by Scouts Canada in the early 2000s) and our program was based largely on old, 1940s, 50s and 60s-era Scouting manuals rather than on the less outdoors-oriented program that our contemporaries were using. Outdoorsmanship, orienteering, fire lighting, rope and axe and knife skills were all emphasized in a way that — in retrospect — I now understand was an extremely unusual throwback to the Scouting of previous generations.
I cannot emphasize enough the impact that Scouting has had on me throughout my life, often in ways that I only came to fully understand years later, and now that I’m at a stage in my life where I’ve settled down somewhat the notion of returning to Scouting and giving back to a new generation has a strong appeal. With my return to hiking and general outdoorsy-stuff, I started thinking about getting back to the Scouts and began researching what was going on with Scouts today.
As part of my research I looked at the current state of Scouts Canada, particularly as it exists after the “modernization” efforts of the late 1990s, which of course I missed during my almost-twenty-year hiatus from Scouting. While I strongly approve of Scouts Canada’s LGBTQ-positive stance and the adoption of a co-ed structure, frankly I wasn’t otherwise excited about the current state of their program. It just doesn’t seem to include any of the things I enjoyed as a boy, and it seems to wholly lack the formality, discipline and structure that I now understand was a formative part of my upbringing.
As for the current administrative culture of Scouts Canada… well… I don’t think I would be a good fit in the organization as it exists today. From the outside looking in, there seems to be an enormous emphasis placed on fundraising and comparatively little emphasis on teaching the youth skills and discipline. Certainly I find the current cost structure of Scouts Canada to be extremely discouraging — $200 per child per year, plus uniform, plus camping costs, plus weekly dues, plus et cetera, which when totaled-up can mean a rather significant barrier to a low-income family wanting to enroll their child in Scouts… a problem which is only exacerbated if that family has more than one child. I was one of five kids that my family had in Scouting or Guiding, and if the annual cost had been that steep then we simply would not have been able to pay it… nor would several other families in our community.
Prohibitive costs, a money-oriented administration made of paid bureaucrats, steadily declining numbers, an organization that has repeatedly “reorganized” itself in the twenty years since I stopped being involved, steadily dropping membership numbers and a current program that, in my opinion, doesn’t reflect the Scouting that I knew growing up, much less what my grandfather would have recognized… much less what Sir Robert Baden-Powell would have recognized.
After a lot of reading and soul-searching, I was forced to come to the conclusion that Scouts Canada is just not Scouting anymore… which was was an unexpectedly strong disappointment for me. To be clear: I know several people who are still involved with Scouts Canada, especially in local leadership positions, and I don’t include them in that assessment — I’m sure on a local level there are plenty of people who are doing the very best they can with what they’re provided, but generally speaking I feel like the organization as a whole has lost its way.
So, despairing of the current state of Scouts Canada I did a Google search of “old-fashioned Scouting”…. and thus did the BPSA come to my attention.
The Baden Powell Service Association was founded in Canada in 1998 as a response to the “modernization” effort and the increasing costs of maintaining the growing bureaucracy of Scouts Canada. Allied to BPSA organizations in the UK (which started in response to similar “modernization” efforts) and in the USA (which started as a backlash against the Boy Scouts of America’s notoriously homophobic policies), the BPSA member-organizations declare themselves adherents of “Traditional Scouting.” They’ve adopted a program based on Scouting “as it would have been during the lifetime of Sir Robert Baden-Powell.” Actually it’s mostly based on Scouting as it was during the 1950s and -60s, which was something of a golden age in terms of membership and participation. Like Scouting during that era, the BPSA refuses to have paid staff, relying entirely on volunteerism in order to keep organization local and cost to youth and their families at the bare minimum. Unlike Scouting during that era, they welcome LGBTQ people, atheists and agnostics, and are co-educational.
Rather than being affiliated with the World Organization of Scouting Associations (WOSA) as Scouts Canada is, the BPSA is affiliated with the World Federation of Independent Scouts (WFIS) and maintains an official policy of “goodwill and co-operation with any other Scouting organization of like minded intent” in accordance with the original Fourth Scout Law: A Scout is a friend to all and a brother to every other Scout.
In response to the creation of the BPSA in Canada, Scouts Canada has sued them repeatedly, first to prevent them from using the name “Scout”, which the court allowed on brand-protection grounds — they aren’t allowed to call themselves the Baden-Powell Scouts‘ Association, which is the name the organization uses in the UK — and then to prevent them from referencing Sir Robert Baden-Powell, which the court quite rightly threw out. Repeated lawsuits and threats of legal action seem to have occurred since, frequently over online domain names. From what I’ve been able to glean from the internet and various archived forums, the current Scouts Canada administration is very hostile to and mean-spirited about the BPSA: They maintain an official policy that the BPSA are not Scouts, should not call themselves Scouts and have outright forbidden all Scouts Canada members from interacting with the BPSA on pain of expulsion. No BPSA member is allowed to use Scouts Canada equipment or permitted to be on Scouts Canada property, Scouts Canada members cannot attend the same events, and so on.
Yeah, that’s not exactly the Scout spirit that B-P would have wanted and I can’t say it’s impressed me very much. In fact, that was the final nail in the coffin in terms of my opinion of Scouts Canada: I might not like their program very much, especially compared to the active and old-fashioned Scouting of my youth, but it’s the administrative culture that’s the real deal-breaker. From what I can see, this is just petty territorial piss-posting and it’s not the sort of behavior I would expect from an organization supposedly dedicated to the high deal of fostering the development of the nation’s youth into responsible, self-reliant citizens.
(My read on the BPSA’s view of all this is that there’s a lot of hurt feelings but a definite sense they’re in the right, with just the slightest overtone of smug self-righteousness… although that’s less grating to me than it might be because I’m pretty convinced they’re the ones behaving like grown-ups in this situation.)
Anyway, last week I took the plunge and contacted the local BPSA troop here in Welland. The local Scoutmaster (they use the old titles and uniforms along with the old program) called me back in very short order and gave me an invitation to come out to a meeting or two in order to get a feel for their group… and I got a bit of their backstory: Apparently the entire 9th Welland, from Beavers to Rovers, quit Scouts Canada in June and moved to the Baden-Powell Service Association en masse as a response to the now-unsupportable cost of membership. A few dozen families, which included all the leaders and more than fifty youth, quietly made a unanimous decision and switched over as a community.
According to the Scoutmaster (and this is admittedly hearsay) Scouts Canada fought them tooth and nail, up to and including spamming the families of the kids in the unit with misinformation and outright falsehoods, threatening legal action and even trying to convince their sponsoring church to take away their meeting space (I guess that last didn’t work out, since the minister doubled-down on the congregation’s support.) When it became clear that the 9th Welland — now calling itself the 9th Welland Traditional Troop — wouldn’t be dissuaded, they were forced to turn over all their resources, money and gear, up to and including the kids’ neckerchiefs. The Scoutmaster tried to put as nice a face on it as possible but between his tone of voice and the slight but obvious hesitations where he was carefully not saying things, I got the distinct impression of real emotional distress. I certainly wasn’t going to press him about it on short acquaintance — I’d imagine the insiders’ view is pretty grim and half a year is hardly time for that sort of wound to scab over.
I will admit that I’ve had some pangs of worry about taking on this responsibility in the face of so much hostility by Scouts Canada, but in the end I don’t suppose their attitude matters: If the current administration chooses to behave that way, then in the end it’s on their honour, not mine. And to everyone’s credit it does seem that both sides have tried to keep the tumult away from the youth who are, after all, supposed to be the ones who receive the benefit of Scouting, whomever provides it.
So I’ve committed to trying out the Baden-Powell Service Association’s interpretation of Traditional Scouting. I’ve looked into the available resources through the BSPA-ON website, as well as readings from BPSA-USA and BPSA-UK, and I’ve come to hope that the BPSA might manage to combine the best of the old approach to Scouting with the best of the new. They’re co-ed, they’re LGBTQ-positive (especially BPSA-USA, which is vehemently pro-LGBTQ) and they make accommodations for non-religious and alternatively-religious people in ways that WOSA-affiliated Scouting organizations have stubbornly rejected for decades.
In addition, and I strongly approve of this, the BPSA’s policies and leadership training places maximum emphasis on protecting youth: no one wants a repeat of the tragic abuse scandals that plagued the BSA and Scouts Canada during the 1980s and 90s. I’ll have to pass a police check and provide four personal references to even become a volunteer with the local group, much take leadership training. All adult interaction with youth is under the “two deep” rule that I’m familiar with from the SCA: two non-related adults, minimum, at any time in any given situation involving youth. Leadership training in the BPSA is touted as being to the same — or better — standard as that of Scouts Canada… a fact perhaps unsurprising considering that most BPSA leaders in Ontario are ex-Scouts Canada.
So in preparation for this new adventure, I’ve done what Traditional Scouting has done and gone back to the source material. Happily, the BPSA provides a free online library of the original documents of Scouting, from Baden-Powell’s original Scouting For Boys on up, plus decades of commentary and resources, all in PDF format. Reviewing this material, I find myself getting more and more excited for this Tuesday night’s meeting. I’m really hoping that this works out. I enjoyed Scouts so much as a boy, and it was so important to me, and I thought that part of my life was gone forever: now I find that I should be able to participate in Scouting again and, hopefully, be able to give something back… a notion which has an appeal that’s surprisingly strong.
But there is one thing I’m not going to compromise on: First and foremost, I’m going to make it clear to the local leadership that I’m an LGBTQ person and that, while I won’t make a big deal about it, neither will I hide that fact. If there’s an LGBTQ service patch or pin or something I can wear on my uniform I’ll make earning it my top priority, so that any LGBTQ youth I work with know they’ve got a role model and someone they can talk to: gods know my teen years would have been a lot happier if I’d had someone who could have done that for me. I know the BPSA has an official policy of being inclusive, but sometimes the reality on the local level might be a bit less open-minded. Best to address the issue right off the bat, and explain my reasoning behind it, which I think is entirely fair.