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Truth: Acknowledging Scouting History in Canada

Two things can be true at once. Scouts Canada members can BOTH be proud that throughout our history, some youths have benefitted from discovering new skills, developing as leaders, and gaining confidence and resilience AND we can acknowledge that the intent and origins of Scouting has and continues to cause harm for youth from Indigenous and other equity-seeking communities.

Acknowledging the complexity of Scouting’s history and traditions and the colonial framework from which it was developed does not mean canceling or demonizing Scouts Canada. It means revealing truth so that we can authentically apologize and work towards co-creating a new framework based on values of reciprocity, trust and respect that will benefit all youth, from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences.

Over the last year, Scouts Canada has worked with Indigenous Advisors and two Canadian Historians, James Trepanier, Curator, Canadian Museum of History and Kristine Alexander, Director of the Institute for Child and Youth Studies, University of Lethbridge to uncover the difficult truths behind the origins of Scouting in Canada, the colonial framework from which it was developed and the intent of its program, specifically as it relates to Indigenous youth. These historians have reviewed archives of speeches given by Scouting leaders, newspaper articles, published magazines and handbooks both in Canada and the UK. 

We’ve curated some of the important information we’ve learned. To learn more, we will also share a list of resources as well as the full interviews.

Why is truth so important? Aren’t residential schools part of our past?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report published in 2015, recommended specific actions to establish and maintain a mutually respectful relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. It outlined steps to be taken; awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour. To this day, many organizations, including Scouts Canada, and governments have not yet taken all of those steps.

It makes us feel better to think that residential schools were in the past. And Scouts Canada’s involvement in residential schools is history. As we have been told and have learned, the past informs the present which in turns creates the future. Residential schools inflicted inter-generational harm that is still felt today. We can’t change the past, but we can acknowledge our role and humbly apologize, and commit to actions that will co-create a better future.

What was Scouts Canada’s role in residential schools?

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report states “For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”

Although it can be easier to think that only governments and churches took part in actioning that policy, all Canadians, and organizations, including Scouts, played a role. The Scouting program was used as an extra-curricular activity to help “teach” Indigenous youth, who were taken from their communities, “about the land” that their families had lived on for hundreds of years, and to erase Indigenous culture to assimilate Indigenous youth into a colonial version of what Canada’s culture should be.

How did Britain, Colonialism and Baden-Powell’s Views Shape Scouting in Canada?

Scouting in the early 20th Century was tied to its British roots. Many of the early Scouters immigrated directly from England and were familiar with the program and how it was developed and growing in England.

Baden-Powell often spoke about his two lives; the first half of his life being a man of war and the second half of his life focusing on peace and the development of British youth to be future citizens of the British empire.

During a Canadian tour in 1923, both Lord Baden-Powell and his wife Olave (leader of the Girl Guide movement) noted during a speech given to Girl Guides that the Scout and Guide movements were “particularly useful in the schools for Red Indian children, just as [they] had also proved useful in a like manner on the West Coast of Africa and in Baghdad.”*

By interpreting some of Baden-Powell early writing, it did seem like he initially didn’t intend to start a worldwide movement. From the first camp on Brownsea Island, the goal of the program was to create strong, moral boys who would help reinforce the dominance of the British Empire.

Although Baden-Powell is an important figure in Scouting. It is important to understand the context of the British Empire and the structures and laws put in place to protect its power and dominance in the early 20th Century.

These structures and laws were also established in organizations like Scouts as a product but also in support of prevalent views at the time.

How did Scouting evolve from the early 20th Century to the mid-1900s? How did that evolution continue to impact Indigenous communities beyond residential schools?

By the 1950s and 60s Canada was emerging as a nation, trying to distinguish itself from its colonial roots by appropriated Indigenous culture. Scouting in Canada was no different. There are many examples in newspapers and guidebooks of Scouts Canada promoting a westernized version of what was viewed at the time as Indigenous culture and what made Canada unique from the British Empire.

This view coincides with expansion into the North of Canada. Although the practice of removing Indigenous and Inuit youth from their communities into residential schools continued, a shift of policy emerges where Scouting is seen, from a colonizer’s perspective as a program that can help promote some facets of Inuit and Indigenous culture.

In light of Scouting’s history in Canada, how do we move forward in the spirit of Reconciliation to build authentic relationships with Indigenous and other equity-seeking communities?

The TRC summary report says it best “Reconciliation is not about “closing a sad chapter of Canada’s past,” but about opening new healing pathways of reconciliation that are forged in truth and justice. We are mindful that knowing the truth about what happened in residential schools in and of itself does not necessarily lead to reconciliation. Yet, the importance of truth telling in its own right should not be underestimated; it restores the human dignity of victims of violence and calls governments and citizens to account. Without truth, justice is not served, healing cannot happen, and there can be no genuine reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada”

Over the last few years, Scouts Canada has been researching its past and working towards building trust with Indigenous communities. We share this truth with you now and invite you to learn more through the various resources provided. In the fall of 2023, Scouts Canada will apologize for the inter-generational harm we inflicted on Indigenous communities, and humbly hope to co-create concrete actions that demonstrate a cultural shift within the Scouting movement in Canada.


*Quoted in Kristine Alexander and Mary Jane Logan McCallum, “A Structural Pandemic: On Statues, Colonial Violence, and the Importance of History (Part II),” Active History, Dec. 3, 2020.