It’s an institution almost as old as Canada itself. For well over a century, summer camps have been welcoming children to lakes and woods and teaching them everything from how to tie a square knot to how to do a J stroke, not to mention giving them the chance to experience the magic of a loon call over a lake or the sight of a moose and its calf. That experience, however, is under threat because of COVID-19 and the necessary cancellation of Canadian camps this summer.
The vast majority of summer camps—roughly 80 per cent—are not-for-profit and about one-third of the camper population is from economic disadvantage and/or a vulnerable community, says Stéphane Richard, president of the Canadian Camping Association (CCA), which has appealed to the federal government for funds to help out camps. What this means, he says, is that close to a million children missed out this summer on the chance to enjoy a safe, stable environment dedicated to their self-growth and sense of community and another two million with school programs and outdoor education.
“Camp offers a powerful experience,” says Katie Ritter, a camp alumnus and mom of two campers who were devastated when this summer’s camp experience was cancelled. “Camp is an experience of things that are not part of the September to June routine,” says Ritter. “It can form how a person feels about the outdoors, how they feel about themselves. They learn that they can take risks and try new things.” Ritter wonders if it’s not only this summer’s camp experience that has been lost but whether camps themselves are under threat.
It’s a fear shared by Joe Richards, executive director of Pearce Williams Summer Camp and Retreat Facility, near Lake Erie. Most of the campers that attend Pearce Williams are subsidized via fundraising and many are referred by children and family services. Even the outdoor education programs that Pearce Williams, a registered charity, offers in the non-summer months haven’t been able to run, effectively eliminating any chance for Pearce Williams to generate additional revenue. “Our entire income stream was cut to nothing,” says Joe Richards. What’s more, he and other camp operators have no idea when they might reopen.
Canadian camps are among the one per cent of businesses that have remained closed in Stage 3, leaving them unable to recoup any of their losses. And yet, explains CCA’s Stéphane Richard, most camps spent roughly 40 to 50 per cent of their annual revenue getting ready for the summer that never happened. “Even if we were allowed to open [now],” he says, “it’s neither here nor there because summer is over. On average, 85-90 per cent of revenue comes from the summer months.”
Mark Diamond, vice president of the Ontario Camp Association, says the situation for camps is dire. “We just did a recent survey [of camps] and, as bad as I thought it was, it’s worse. It’s not just a matter of supporting jobs and businesses, it’s a matter of dealing with the future of our youth across the nation.”
According to a survey, CCA president Stéphane Richard says 30 per cent of Canadian camps will likely declare bankruptcy this year, a number that he expects to grow to 60 per cent by next year. He worries too that those properties, some many decades old, will be swallowed up by private enterprise, such as condo developers.
Those like Ritter who have benefitted from camps or simply recognize the value they offer young people are urged to contact our MPs and MPPs and voice concern. “I wish more kids had access generally,” says Ritter. “Camp is a special place.”
Diamond says that both the Ontario and federal governments have been doing a great job of listening to camp operators’ concerns and his hope is that they will move forward with funds to ensure the survival of as many as possible but we can push them toward that by voicing our concern.
“The reality is that the majority of camps in this country serve underserved youth, kids who live in poverty,” says Joe Richards. “How many camps will be around? I don’t know. I know that we will not all survive.”