Politics and Partisanship in Scouting

Yesterday, along with an estimated sixty thousand other people, I went to the Women’s March in Toronto. It was a wholly positive experience, and it got me thinking.  There’s been some discussion on the BPSA-US “Trailhead” forum lately about the role of Scouts in political activism.  Clearly, it’s a timely question; 2016 was an exceptionally turbulent year in US politics (exceptionally turbulent being the most evenhanded phrase I could come up with to describe it) and 2017 looks like it’s going to be worse.  North of the border we Canadians are hardly immune to the sound and fury which is the 24-hour news cycle… and our nation has its own brand of partisan political turmoil, as well.

And I don’t want to get too deep into the fine details of my political opinions on this blog.  That’s not what this blog is for.  (That’s one of the things my other blog is for.)  But I do think that a discussion of the impact on (and the role of) politics and Scouting organizations in general — and BPSA Scouting organizations specifically — is worth touching on.

First off, I will state for the record that I am definitely a progressive (I avoid using the term “liberal” because in Canada there’s an actual Liberal Party which I almost never vote for.)  I’m left-leaning, pro-union, and openly LGBTQ.  I believe firmly in the need for government regulation, environmental protection, universal healthcare, civilian oversight of the police, reducing income inequality and giving minorities a hand up.  I don’t mind taxes too much so long as we’re getting value for money (and in Ontario in 2016, we ain’t.)  I also believe in responsible gun ownership, holding politicians accountable, supporting veterans, and publicly hanging pedophiles.  I don’t belong to any political party (although I briefly held an NDP membership in order to vote in their last leadership race); instead I carefully examine the issues and candidates in each election (municipal, provincial or federal) and vote according to how their platform and political record matches with my conscience and personal political convictions.  Historically, I have voted either Liberal Party (rarely) or New Democratic Party (frequently.)   During my twenties I was a dedicated social justice and environmental activist, up to and including a couple of arrests at demonstrations.  Now that I’m in my late thirties I occasionally attend demonstrations and donate money to various causes when I can.  I believe in scientific study, support an informed electorate, and despise the wilful ignorance of many in our society.  In short, in most regards I’m what my grandparents’ generation would have called a Progressive Conservative, and what our current generation refers to as an Orange Liberal. (I haven’t changed, as Jim Wright once wrote, the lines have just moved.)

So that’s where I’m coming from when I write this.

Yesterday at the big march in Toronto, I didn’t see any Scout or Guide uniforms or banners.  With sixty thousand people in the streets of Toronto (much less the millions around the world) I have no doubt, none at all, that there were people in the crowd who were in Scouting as youth, and even some who are now Scout or Guide leaders.  There were enough kids in the crowd that I’m certain there were actual Scouts and Guides.  And I’m very, very glad that I didn’t see them in uniform,  because as much as I care passionately about a lot of issues, in this hyper-partisan age I’m firmly of the opinion that Scouting must be non-partisan.

Must.

This is not just theory to me: We have several leaders in our troop whose political opinions cover the spectrum; I’m about as left-leaning as they come, and some of our other scoutmasters are quite right-wing.  We’ve had political discussions among ourselves (although not where the youth can witness it) and I’m well aware that my political background is viewed by a couple my colleagues with a mix of bemusement and exasperation, which is fair enough: I feel the same way about theirs sometimes.  But I think we need to keep it away from the kids, because Scouting must be absolutely non-partisan.  It is not our place as leaders, however strongly and honestly held our personal political opinions may be, to attempt to influence the views and opinions of youth.  Insofar as politics must be discussed with the youth, leaders ought to strive to be as dispassionate and evenhanded  as possible, encouraging youth to educate themselves and make their own decisions.

But.

But… non-partisan doesn’t mean Scouting is apolitical.  “The aim of the Scout training,” in the words of Sir Robert Baden-Powell himself, “is to improve the standard of our future citizenhood… But passive citizenship is not enough to uphold in the world the virtues of freedom, justice, and honor. Only active citizenship will do.”

Improving the standard of our future citizenhood by promoting active citizenship.  If that’s not a political action, I don’t know what is.

There have been suggestions on Trailhead that Scouting groups should participate in anti-Trump marches, or BLM marches, or raise funds for Standing Rock.  As a progressive I support all those causes.  As a Scout leader, I am firmly against uniformed Scouts engaging in any of those activities, because they could be interpreted as our organizations — and the Scouting movement as a whole — taking a partisan political stance.  And generally speaking, Scouting-age youth are not yet educated enough to make that decision, so it might be seen — and would likely be seen — as the leadership of the organization pushing the youth into that position.  That would only serve to discredit our organizations and harm the Scouting movement as a whole.

If adults or youth (especially older youth) who are involved in Scouting make their own informed choice to attend a political demonstration then they have that right and more power to them.  But they must not be wearing a Scout uniform when they do it.  We are the inheritors of more than a century of Scouting tradition and ideals; we have a responsibility to make sure that tradition isn’t misused, even for what we might see as a good cause.  Scouts marching in uniform would be a powerful political symbol, yes, but we cannot — must not — succumb to the temptation to turn our Scouts into our surrogates in the partisan political struggles of our time.

This might not be a popular opinion, especially with my fellow Scout leaders south of the border.  The BPSA-US is heavily slanted towards progressives in its leadership simply because many BPSA leaders have quit the Boy Scouts of America over the BSA’s appalling institutionalized homophobia.  That slant towards politically progressive leaders lends itself towards a corresponding institutional slant towards a left-leaning organization. Building an organization that promotes “Traditional Scouting For All” might be a political act but it is not a partisan one… and we should take diligent care not to cross the line between the two.  We must vigilantly guard against any tempation to tilt Scouting to one side or the other of political spectrum, especially when that side is our own.  And we especially need to draw a very firm and clear line between partisan political action in our personal lives — action such as marching in an anti-Trump demonstration, as I did yesterday — and involving Scouting itself in partisan political activity.

In fact, I would argue that the current growth of the BPSA and other independent Scouting organizations is as a response to the failure of the BSA and other “mainstream” Scouting organizations to draw that firm line.   The BSA’s official (and unofficial) policies of homophobia, transphobia and promotion of religious indoctrination represent a partisan and reactionary political stance and are a misuse of the tradition of Scouting.  And I’m pretty sure that’s why their membership numbers have been dwindling for years.  Repeating the same mistake from a different, albeit “progressive” angle in alternative Scouting organizations would be short-sighted in the extreme.  We cannot put ourselves in the position to alienate any of our youth.

The stated goal of the Scouting movement is to create good citizens for the future.  Period.  It’s not to teach crafting skills, or how to perform first aid, or to make fire from two sticks, or navigate without a compass, or camp out in the rough.  Scouts learn those things, of course, but they are not the goal of Scouting.  They are the method by which the Scouting movement achieves the goal of developing the character of youth so that they will become good citizens in their time… and we cannot force that good citizenship into the mold that we, personally, might think is right. Trying to do so would only stunt and warp it.  In the end, I think the hardest part of working with Scouting youth will come down to trust: we have to be confident that, having taught our Scouting youth to be self-reliant, community-conscious and responsible citizens, that they will act as such when their time comes.  They have the right to make their own decisions and we owe them the trust that they’ll make the correct ones.

Content yourself with that, fellow Scouters, because that’s as far as we have the right to take it.

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Making a Neckerchief

In our BPSA scout troop we’re having a square-vs-triangular neckerchief discussion among some of the leaders. Square is the “traditional” neckerchief shape (think an oversized bandanna) which was changed to the current triangle shape during the Second World War because of fabric rationing, then retained because it was cheaper.

Since the 9th Welland BPSA is a “new” troop — that is, the troop moved over to the BPSA en masse earlier this year — we’ve got fifty-plus new neckerchiefs yet to make for our Otters, Timberwolves Explorer Scouts, Senior Explorers and Rovers (not to mention the leaders).   Given the number of neckerchiefs that have to be made at once, I can definitely see the argument in favor of the triangular neckers both in terms of materials and time. A square neckerchief, 32″ x 32″ is 7.1 square feet; a triangular neckerchief 32″ x 32″ x 45.25″ is about 3.6 square feet.  That is a lot less fabric to have to buy and work with.

On the other hand, one of our scout leaders made himself a square neckerchief: It looks fantastic and will doubtlessly be very useful.  Having gotten used to a wearing the incredibly versatile and useful shemagh on hikes, I decided this week to follow his lead and make one for myself.

First:  I had to get the fabric.  Our troop neckerchief is a blue and green plaid; in fact we use the official tartan of Nova Scotia since it looks good, is commonly available, and won’t be randomly changed by a fabric manufacturer for no good reason.  (The old neckerchiefs were solid yellow: handsome enough against the uniform, but apparently they’d show sweat-stains and dirt clearly and immediately, which is hardly optimal for a garment being worn by active youth.)  The triangular neckerchiefs being made by the group are made of a light 100% cotton version of the Nova Scotia tartan, which we’ve bought by the bolt in order to accommodate the large demand for neckerchiefs.  Which also means we’ve bought out the local Fabricland’s supply, which in turn meant that either I had to cadge a meter of it from the group (not really an acceptable option for what’s essentially a personal project) or find an alternative.  Fortunately, the Nova Scotia tartan was also available in a “London Brush” — still 100% cotton, but a heavier, almost flannel fabric.  I grabbed a meter of that during their pre-Christmas 50% off sale for about $10, which is about twice what the lighter cotton would cost.

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Which is is the first and probably strongest argument against using the traditional square neckerchiefs, at least for now:  At $10.00 a necker (on sale) compared to the regular price of about $2.50-$3.00 a necker (half the cost per metre divided by half the material per neckerchief), the heavy flannel square just isn’t an economical option for the troop.   Even using the lighter, less expensive fabric to make square neckers instead of triangular ones means double the cost of the triangular ones, as well as the additional time necessary to hem four sides of a square (not to mention making four mitered corners)  rather than three sides of a right-angle triangle; I was willing to make an effort in a “one-off”, but I genuinely suspect that a production line of dozens would drive our volunteer tailor mad.

It was quite a fiddly project, at least for someone as unused to sewing as I.  After washing the yard of fabric, I cut the fabric down to a square 34 inches on a side.  Then, under the direction of my wife, our sewing expert, I sewed a line of guide stitches along each side about 0.5 inches in from the edge.  Then I folded over the fabric at the guideline and ironed it to make a crisp line.  Then I folded it over the line so that the ragged edge was folded entirely within the fabric, ironed it again to make a second crisp line, then turned it over to the wife to do the tricky mitered corners.  Once they were installed, I pinned the edges of the fabric down along the ironed lines to completely enclose the ragged edges and sewed down the hems to make a neat and fray-proof edge.  Then I trimmed the loose threads from the sewing, and hand-stitched our sponsor’s badge to one corner.  This whole process took an entire evening from start to finish.

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A problem with using the “London brush” fabric is what the heavier thread does to the pattern: both the light cotton and the heavier flannel use the officially mandated colours and proportions but in different thicknesses of thread, which makes the pattern a different size.  The flannel fabric, simply put, has bigger squares.  It doesn’t actually look bad compared to the lighter cotton — they’re both clearly the same tartan — but it’s a noticeable size difference.  This might matter in terms of uniformity, or it might not.

And of course, this is just a bigger neckerchief.  Despite having the same general footprint, once the square neckerchief is folded over to make the triangle, the fabric is thicker and warmer and of course there’s twice as muchThis means my square neckerchief is a lot bulkier than the triangular ones.  That’s not really an issue when you’ve got as much acreage to cover as I do, but the youth — especially the physically smaller youth like the Otters and Timberwolves — would be swimming in the thing.

The added weight of the flannel cotton fabric also means the neckerchief is warmer on my neck than the plain fabric one would be.  This thing almost feels like a scarf — so much so that I suspect I’ll be using the flannel neckerchief as a “winter necker” and making myself another square neckerchief out of the lighter cotton once it comes back in stock.

Because I do plan on using the square necker.  Despite the added cost, I like having the versatility of the square neckerchief for outdoors work; as anyone who’s used a shemagh can tell you, it’s such a useful item of kit and it’s pretty clear that a 32″ x 32″ neckerchief will have many similar uses.

I also really like the way the square neckerchief bulks up around the collar, especially on someone my size: it feels more secure, solid and comfortable than the triangular design.  And it just plain looks good: If we’re doing old-fashioned Scouting, then part of me feels we ought to be be using the old-fashioned uniform which includes the neckerchief worn over the collar.  Using the square neckerchief reinforces the over-the-collar rule; it’s just too chunky to be worn any other way.

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But I’m glad I shouldered the added expense myself:  Sure, it was only ten bucks, but it’s not fair to expect the troop to subsidize my personal experiment with a different neckerchief design… especially considering the current burden of time and resources outfitting dozens of people with the new-pattern neckerchiefs.  In the long run, though, I hope we can move to the square design, at least for the leaders and maybe the Rovers:  For someone working hard in the outdoors, the 32″ x 32″ square neckerchief is just such a practical design, despite the added expense.

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Studying for my Tenderfoot Badge

So… I’m studying for my Tenderfoot badge.  Apparently in the BPSA the leaders have to earn this badge right along with the youth.  I have no idea if this was a thing when my dad was a Scouter in Scouts Canada (or for that matter, my granddad), but right now, in the BPSA, it is.  And I’m scheduled to take my Tenderfoot examination on Tuesday night, in front of the whole troop.

Since I’ve joined the 9th Welland a couple of months ago, we’ve had several of the boys — and one Assistant Scoutmaster — take their Tenderfoot tests.  A couple of the youth have had to take more than one try at it, which we reassured them wasn’t a problem — the Scout Promise starts “On my honour I promise to do my best,” not “I promise to be perfect,” after all.  But I’d really like to get it in one go in front of the youth… partly to serve as a good example, partly for the sake of my own pride.

So I’m studying hard for my Tenderfoot badge.  Interestingly, I remember most of the requirements from when I was last a Scout, back in the late 1980s.  And I mean I remember it — I’m word-perfect in most respects, which is pretty good retention a quarter of a century later.   I also know the history of Scouting, of course; and the promise and motto which are pretty much the same promise and motto that I learned back then; the Scout Salute, Sign and handshake are the same (as are the three points of the Promise they represent); how to fold and break a flag hasn’t changed from how we did it in back in 1st Blenheim Twp, although not having to do it at the top of a 30-foot flagpole is helpful (you did not want the toggle to come loose from the halyard when breaking the flag all the way up there); and of course I’ve already made a hiking staff this year — although I’m also making an”official” Scout staff along with the youth.   The big things that are getting me, however, are the knots and the Scout Law.

My trouble with the knots is simply lack of practice — aside from the reef knot and the bowline, I generally don’t use most of them often.  A round turn and two half-hitches is easy — the name of the knot tells you what to do.  The clove hitch is a pretty simple knot once you’ve got the knack of it.  The sheet bend is also pretty easy with practice.  The less said about the sheepshank, however, the better.  I’ve been amusing my wife the last week or so by carrying around a meter of scrap paracord in my pocket and tying knots with it whenever I’m sitting still.

The Scout Law has been a bit stickier.  It’s not the same Law I learned when I was a Scout in the 1980s: when I was a youth in Scouts Canada the Law had been modernized to a short (and easy to remember) seven points:  A Scout is helpful and trustworthy, kind and cheerful, considerate and clean, and wise in the use of his resources.

In BPSA-ON, however, we use the original ten point law as laid down by Sir Robert Baden-Powell:
1) A Scout’s honour is to be trusted.
2) A Scout is loyal.
3) A Scout’s duty is to be useful and to help others.
4) A Scout is a friend to all and a brother to every other Scout.
5) A Scout is courteous.
6) A Scout is a friend to animals.
7) A Scout obeys the orders of their Parents, Patrols Leaders, or Scoutmaster without question.
8) A Scout smiles and whistles under all difficulties.
9) A Scout is thrifty.
10) A Scout is clean in thought, word, and deed.

Which is a lot more to remember… and I’ve never been particularly good at rote memorization.  But I’ve got to get it down right, because if I expect our Explorer Scouts to know the Scout Law — much less follow it — I need to know it too.

So it’s been memorize, memorize, memorize.  I’ve actually taken to writing and re-writing it out longhand, as a way of helping me get it down.  It’s a study habit that got me through Ancient Greek 105 in my second year of college, I figure I ought to be able handle ten simple points in the same language (let alone alphabet) with that technique as well.

Update 14/12:  I got my tenderfoot badge, first try.  I did all the knots perfectly and only stumbled a bit on the law and promise.

A Better Shoulder Knot

As an Assistant Scoutmaster in a traditional troop, I’m entitled to wear a red “shoulder knot” as an indicator of rank.   The problem is… I find the available shoulder knots, which are usually held on with a safety pin, to be aesthetically displeasing.  Not that I mind the “bunch of ribbons at the shoulder” look — I think that’s a quaint and traditional touch worth reviving.  It’s the damned safety-pin that drives me nuts.  Add to that the fact that shoulder knots weren’t only for leaders — traditionally Scouts would wear shoulder knots in their patrol colours.  They were everywhere in traditional Scouting, so if we’re resurrecting that tradition, too, I’d like to see a sturdy and smart-looking shoulder knot rather than one which is obviously just pinned on.

I’ve done some research into how shoulder knots were made back in the early days of Scouting, and I haven’t been able to find much.  As far as I can tell, they’ve always been made of ribbon or strapping in the appropriate colour but there’s no indication of how they were attached to the uniform: I suspect it was something that was shown to the Scouts but never considered important enough to write down and therefore was lost to the record as shoulder knots fell out of general use.  My current theory (based on old photos) is that the shoulder knot, if not merely safety-pinned on, was attached to the base of the uniform’s shoulder strap with a simple basting stitch… a semi-permanent addition which would require cutting or unpicking the stitches if and when a Scout or Scoutmaster switched patrols or got promoted.

So I had this idea for a better removable shoulder knot, using 550 paracord. It took about 30 minutes of work, but I think it turned out well.

For this project I used red poly ribbon purchased from Michael’s at a width of 1.5 inches.  I cut off two lengths of a bit more than 10 inches, placed them one on top of the other and folded them over the middle, then pinned them closed and stitched the ribbon about half an inch below the fold to make a sort of “tube”

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I hand-stitched it with threads taken from a length of embroidery floss, but with a sewing machine it would be the work of a few seconds.

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Once the stitching was complete, I removed the temporary safety pin and cut a length of paracord in the appropriate colour; I used approximately 20 inches of red 55o paracord.

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I laid the ribbon on a stiff piece of card two inches wide — the same width as the shoulder straps on my uniform shirt — to use as reinforcement while I tied my knots, holding it in place with a simple spring-clamp I happened to have in the shop.

I ran the paracord through the ribbon “tube” until I reached its midpoint, and brought each end around the back of the card in either direction. I then brought the working ends around the front and tied a tight square knot.

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Next I trimmed (and scorched) the tag ends of the paracord down to about an inch and quarter on either side of the square knot and shoved them back into the tube from either side to finish off the knot.

Carefully removing the card, I put a couple of basting stitches into the backside of the ribbon, taking care to run them through the paracord to hold the tag ends in place.

I then trimmed the ragged ends of the poly ribbon and scorched the ends very slightly with a flame, in order to prevent fraying. Depending on the material your ribbon is made of, this is obviously an optional step.

I slipped the paracord loops on the back of the ribbon over my shoulder strap with the square knot displayed outwards, and voilà!  A very neat-looking shoulder knot with a decorative — and literal! — knot holding it together showing no hint of a safety pin.

I don’t know how well it’ll hold up, but I suspect it’ll be at least as sturdy as the existing ones.

Update 10/12/2016 — The shoulder knot seems to be holding up well, so I made one for one of the other assistant scoutmasters in the 9th Welland, and immediately created a demand from the other assistant scoutmasters.  I’ve made two more, and used up my original order of ribbon, but I suspect from the admiring comments that we’ll be grabbing more in various colours; our scouts have just picked their patrols and will be needing shoulder knots soon enough.

 

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Treasures

I took the opportunity this week to go through my old scouting stuff which has been sitting in one storage unit or another for about twenty years.

First I discovered the remains of my wool campfire blanket, which clearly provided meals for many generations of moths; the dozens of patches were salvageable, the blanket… not so much. I’ll be sewing them onto a new camp blanket over the winter, and spent several happy hours spreading them out over an old army surplus blanket I have, thinking about how best to arrange them and remembering all those old camping events.

Second was my old Scouts Canada uniform — or rather the very last uniform shirt I wore, since the colours changed and a teenage boy is hard on clothing in any case. I likely went through three or four in my teen years, both green and beige. This particular shirt still has my old red Rover epaulettes on it, my link badges (all four — Beavers to Cubs, Cubs to Scouts, Scouts to Venturers and Venturers to Rovers) along with twelve years’ worth of service bars and a Religion-in-Life patch. My troop and district patches are also still on the sleeve. Although I wore this shirt at the age of eighteen it does not, I am forced to admit, still fit me twenty years later. (The shirts I outgrew would have gone to my younger brother or may have been given as hand-me-downs to other scout families, likewise with my old berets or hats. My folks were rural and very unsentimental about some things.)

Then my old First Blenheim township neckerchief (or rather, two of them, one of which I suspect rightly belongs to my younger brother) in royal purple and gold with a Lions’ Club sponsor patch. A rather plainer red neckerchief with a “CJ’93 Participant” patch on it.

A collection of woggles: a generic leather Scouts Canada Cub Scout woggle; a hand-painted and rather battered “Hathi” woggle made of a loop of electrical wire embedded in a plaster-of-paris elephant; a metal woggle from CJ’93; and most important of all, a hand-carved wooden woggle in the shape of a winged foot for Mercury the messenger — a gift from Scouter Red Haymond after I was picked by my Akela to be the one who presented him with a lifetime achievement award.

My old Fieldbook for Canadian Scouting, dated 1990. A Canadian Scout Handbook, dated 1968. A 1977 BSA Field Book. My old Cub Book, dated 1986 and bearing the handwritten inscription “Presented to Paul Matisz on the occasion of his investiture by the 1st Blenheim Twp Group Committee, November 16/87“.

My old swiss army knife in its leather belt pouch, a gift from my father when I earned my BP Woodsman badge; with a bit of WD40 and some careful sharpening the knife is now as good as ever; I have hopes that treating the dry and stiff leather with mink oil will restore the pouch.  A cut steel Scouts Canada belt buckle, sans belt.  My old lensatic compass, bought at army surplus (a Coghlan’s knock-off so cheap that the thumb loop is installed upside-down.) A set of Canadian military nesting cutlery marked “Wallace 1966”. A tarnished brass ring, purpose and origin unknown. An empty old plastic film can with a bit of sandpaper glued to it, intended for strike-anywhere matches. A plaster-of-paris baseball mitt, one inch wide. A leather lanyard with wooden beads and the crumbled remains of a feather.

Treasures beyond price.

Back To Scouting

I think it’s safe to say I grew up in Scouting: I was one of five kids and we were all in Scouts or Guides; my mom was a Guide leader and my dad, after both his sons joined Scouts, became a Scouter himself.  My maternal grandfather was a Scoutmaster back in the 1950s and 60s, and I remember how proud he was when I was invested as a Scout.  I went from Beavers all the way to Rovers, and attended my last Rover meeting about a month and a half before I left home for college.

Our troop — 1st Blenheim Township — met every Saturday morning, usually at Peacehaven Scout Camp.  This meant that our experience was a bit different from the school-gym/church basement evening scout troops of our contemporaries.  Our scouters adopted a very old-fashioned approach to scouting, with heavy emphasis on outdoor activities, bushcraft and woodsman skills.  The single most important milestone for every boy in our troop — without exception — was earning our BP Woodsman Badge and the right to carry a knife on our belts and matches in our pockets, a point of considerable pride when you’re ten or eleven years old.  (The BP Woodsman was the 1980s-90s version of the Tenderfoot Badge.)

I understand now, as an adult, that our scouters were bucking the growing trend in Scouts Canada by focusing on traditional scoutcraft at a time when it wasn’t being encouraged.  The mid-90s “modernization” push was still building up, and while we were an unusual scout troop — even at that age we were dimly aware of it — our scouters tried to insulate us from the growing friction that was beginning to develop between their nonconformist approach and the growing bureaucracy of the national organization… a friction would later lead to several very good scouters quitting the movement, and the eventual dissolution of 1st Blenheim Township.

Despite the eventual fate of my troop (and the closure and sale of Peacehaven, a place which every boy in that troop loved and which hit me unexpectedly hard) my scouting experience was without exaggeration among the most formative aspects of my youth, and a touchstone of stability during my tumultuous teen years… although of course I didn’t understand that at the time, and I wouldn’t have appreciated it if I had; teenage boys not being the most introspective of creatures.

One of the reasons my teen years were so rough probably won’t surprise very many people in the BPSA: at about the same time my peers and I were starting to notice girls, I was also starting to notice boys. Since this was the early 90s and we didn’t have cable, I was pretty confused about this state of affairs, which was exacerbated by a devout Catholic upbringing. I was dimly aware that there were Dangerous Perverts who were called “Gays”, and that being gay was a Very Bad Thing and acting upon my Dangerous Temptations would be a Mortal Sin (thanks for nothing, Father Terry.) The notion of being bisexual wasn’t even discussed. I had no openly LGBT peers, no openly LGBT role models, and in fact had very little idea of what being LGBT meant. This made for a lonely, confusing and eventually miserable adolescence (and set me up for some fairly stupid relationship decisions in my early twenties.)

Scouts, Venturers and Rovers was a shelter against that misery. Sure, I might be a Secret Gay Monster, but I could hike five miles and light a campfire with a single match, so obviously I wasn’t a complete sissy. At a time in my life when I was confused and frightened by a lot of stuff inside myself that I couldn’t tell anyone about, I reveled in the comfort of certainty: Being secretly gay didn’t change the way to safely handle a knife or lay a fire, it didn’t change how to roll a bedroll or organize my hiking pack, and it didn’t reduce by an inch the distance we’d have to paddle before setting up camp.

Of course, all things had to end: I left Rovers, moved away to college, found a boyfriend (who turned out to be a bad call), got unwillingly outed as gay, went to university, found a girlfriend (who turned out to be another bad call for different reasons), came out of the closet as bi (which was even less fun the second time around), had a string of short relationships, dropped out of school, worked for a few years, went back to school, met my current partner and — in a stroke of completely uncharacteristic good fortune — convinced her to marry me. In short, I lived my life.

And through all of this I missed scouting… but as an openly LGBT person I figured that door was closed forever.

In retrospect, of course, I was doing Scouts Canada a major disservice. There was so much bad press about BSA’s appalling anti-LGBT policies through the early 2000s that it tended to tar all scouting organizations with the same brush: as well as being co-ed and to their considerable credit, Scouts Canada had adopted and maintained an LGBT-positive position all through those years. Had I just looked past my assumption that LGBT people weren’t allowed in Scouts, I might have been able to get back into it quite a bit sooner.

The impetus which brought me back to Scouting happened this past spring: I came down with kidney stones. As anyone who has ever had the experience will attest, this was a case of middle age being Definitely No Fun. In the aftermath, my doctors decreed that I would have to be more careful about salt, hydration and alcohol intake and that I needed to lose weight and be much more active. I’d let my outdoor activities fall by the wayside as I got into my thirties, and since we had just moved to the Niagara area, complete with its extensive nature preserves and gorgeous geography, I decided to start hiking again. My partner bought me a set of hiking boots as a birthday gift, and I started day-hiking around the escarpment, especially on the Bruce Trail and in Short Hills Provincial Park. I dug out my old camping gear and rehabilitated what I could, in the process began rediscovering the old skills that I’d learned in scouts, and learning new ones from the substantial hiking and bushcraft communities online.

Quite literally rediscovering old skills, in fact: One of the handier items in this quest was my old 1960s-era Canadian Scout Handbook, found in an old box with my uniform shirt, my neckerchief, a couple of woggles and the moth-eaten remains of my campfire blanket (all the badges were untouched, which I suppose is a testament to the unappetizing qualities of nylon.) The other quite useful item was the internet, a source of so many bushcraft and scouting resources that (as usual) I’ve come to wonder how we all did without it. And with all my re-reading, I looked into Scouts Canada again, found out that there’s no reason why I couldn’t be a volunteer, and began investigating their current program as a first step in the process.

And then, to be frank, I was rather disappointed: A lot of the old scoutcraft skills have fallen by the wayside or been bound up in red tape, so much so that they’ve had to develop a complicated “Canadian Path” program to organize badge-earning; instead of being central to the program the patrol system has either been abandoned or severely sidelined; hell, even the Scout Law has been re-written. It’s great that LGBT people are welcome, even encouraged, to take up leadership roles but I feel like the discipline and structure that I found in scouting and which was so formative for me is no longer there. Worst of all is the current cost of their program, which I view as prohibitively expensive and likely to serve as a deterrent for the poorest families getting their kids involved in scouting. On top of that, Scouts Canada seems to be afflicted by a fully-developed bureaucracy in it’s late-stage, metastatized form, seemingly more concerned with liability insurance and fundraising than with mentoring and encouraging youth — not an environment in which I am likely to thrive.

Disappointed, and rather discouraged, I ran one last Google search on “traditional scouting”… and found the BPSA. This is very much scouting as my grandfather would have known it: a return to Sir Robert Baden-Powell’s original vision of molding youth into self-reliant, responsible citizens, but with the added strengths of co-ed, non-religious and pro-LGBT policies. In the US, the BPSA’s start seemed to be largely rooted in rejection of and resistance to the BSA’s anti-LGBT policies; in Canada it was very much a response to the ever-increasing expense and bureaucracy of the national scouting organization. From my — admittedly introductory — read on the situation, regardless of the reasons behind their foundation, both organizations are growing steadily due to the strengths of the Baden-Powell’s original program.

I was very fortunate, during my research into the organization, to discover that a new BPSA troop had started up just around the corner (almost literally so: I can walk to meetings.) The 9th Welland Traditional Troop was formerly a well-established Scouts Canada troop that made the decision, as a unit, to move over to the BPSA as a cost-saving measure for the families. They’re currently trying to navigate the transition from a “modernized” Scouts Canada troop to a traditional scouting troop, complete with lots of outdoor activity and scoutcraft skills. Fortunately, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for it, from the youth and the leaders both, and we’re not far from a couple of well-established and very helpful traditional scouting units in Burford and Cambridge. I’ve been out to a few meetings and have begun the process of becoming a leader — at this point my application paperwork and mandatory police checks are underway — and I think I’ve got both a lot to learn and a lot to offer, if I have the chance.

Which is one of the reasons why I’ve joined Trailhead. Given the history of BPSA US, I have to assume I’m not the only LGBT person on this forum. I’m hoping that, by drawing on the experiences of scout leaders across North America, I can learn to be the best scout leader I can possibly be. I’m not worried about the scoutcraft — I know how to handle a knife safely, and how to lay a fire, etc., and probably I’ll be able to teach others these things, but what I want to learn is how to be an effective role model, LGBT or otherwise.

Because one of the things I really, really want to do, what I think is important that I do, is to be an openly LGBT scout leader. Not in an in-your-face sort of way, but in a matter-of-fact sort of way. I want the youth to see me as a leader and (hopefully) a mentor, who happens to be LGBT. Because statistically speaking, some of them are going to be like I was 25 years ago: young, becoming an adult, and LGBT. If I can help provide them an example of a positive and yet non-confrontational role model, perhaps I can help normalize LGBT people for a new generation of scouts. And if some of those scouts are LGBT and struggling with it, like I did as a youth, then maybe they’ll know there’s someone they can talk to about it.

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