The Journey to Reconciliation in North American Summer Camps

A place to return – for over a century, residential summer camps have been seasonal homes to millions of kids across North America. Camp represented a return to nature, drawing kids away from their urban lives to weeks of freedom from parents, school, and home responsibilities. In the same years, urban-raised Anglo children were beginning to spend their summers at camp, and Indigenous children were being stolen from their homes and taken to residential schools as part of a cultural genocide to eradicate Indigenous communities in Canada. Following the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015, Canadian summer camps have begun reflecting on their origins and traditions, which are largely influenced by Indigenous culture.

Summer camps in North America historically have had a common theme of “playing Indian” that relied on stolen Indigenous symbolism and traditions. Through costumes, programs, and campfire practices, non-Indigenous people adopted and romanticized stereotypes of Indigenous life, consequentially reinforcing the erasure of Indigenous people as well as their colonial realities. Much of this symbolism no longer remains in summer camps today. However, the historical implications of colonial violence still echo in camp names, imagery and common camp lingo.

As a white-Anglo student at McGill who grew up going to camp and continues to work at a camp, I acknowledge my limits within discussions around reconciliation and do not intend in this article to make demands regarding specific actions of reform. I hope to emphasize the need for camp leadership to reflect on their history and responsibility to the Indigenous communities around them and look for steps forward. 

Camp Wapomeo from Above” by Mike Last is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed

‘Indigenous’ Camps, Settler Schools

‘Traditional’ sleepover camps—camps that bring to mind wood cabins, swimming, and canoeing, reminiscent of The Parent Trap or Camp Rock—originated in the late 19th century, and became popular in the early 20th century. Primarily found in Ontario and the North-East United States, their emergence coincided with the incorporation of America, a period of increased leisure time for children as child labour laws became more restrictive and compulsory education years were increasing, camps provided a space to reconnect with nature where kids could ‘reconnect’ with the values of “frontier life” after concerns of city life causing their overcivilization

The emergence of summer camps coincided with the beginning of the residential school system in Canada, which was part of a greater attempt by the Canadian government to erase Indigenous communities and culture. Indigenous students were punished for practicing any part of their culture in these schools. At the same time, non-indigenous children were sent out of their industrialized homes to nature, where they appropriate that same culture. The coexistence of summer camps during this harmful period of Canadian history underlines the need for introspection regarding the history and origins of the summer camping industry and how it affects each and every Camp.

Calls for Reconciliation

The TRC was created in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. During its tenure, it was tasked with uncovering the extent of the damage from the Residential Schools by engaging with survivors and their families and creating a historical record of the system. At its close, the Commission released 94 calls to action for reconciliation between Canadians and Indigenous people, as well as a final report about the legacy of residential schools.

Dr. Glen Coulthard, a professor at the University of British Columbia of Political Science and Indigenous, argues that colonial politics are fixed on the idea of recognition that is associated with reconciliation. He says that recognition is really subjection under colonial views: the efforts of Indigenous people are being dampened by colonial discourse, and negotiations between the Canadian state and Indigenous peoples will always be on colonial terms unless Indigenous peoples find more effective methods of engaging with Canadian legal and political systems in respect to Aboriginal rights. These include the construction of alternative skills and social relationships among Indigenous communities in place of previous colonial relationships to loosen internalized colonialism.

Dr. Coulthard’s ideas can be applied to how reconciliation can be achieved in the summer camping industry. The recent reconciliation movement puts a focus on righting Canada’s colonial “past” and its “legacy” and that it is this past that continues to negatively impact Indigenous peoples. Dr. Coulthard, instead, recognizes a colonial presence as a root of the mistreatment of today’s indigenous peoples that is not being addressed. In his 1952 book, Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon addressed the continued hand of oppressive forces in the post-colonial world, whereby reconciliation would require discussion rooted in an “actional” existence towards change from the colonized versus a “reactional” existence.

Actional Reconciliation

While you will struggle to find any camp in Canada that does not share some form of land acknowledgment on their website or in summer programming, for many, that is where reconciliation ends. A survey completed for the Canadian Camping Association found that many camp directors were aware of contemporary Indigenous issues and the harms of cultural appropriation in camps but that there was no consensus on how to address them. Many directors, however, reported they were keen to establish connections with local communities and implement programming in tune with Indigenous tribal authenticity.

One example is Camp K, renamed in early 2022 from its former name, Camp Kummoniwannago, a play on the phrase “come on, I want to go.” Indigenous co-founder of a Land Back Camp on the same lake, Bangishimo Johnston, spoke about how uncomfortable they were in that shared space as a decolonial community. Another camp that changed its name is YMCA Camp Waabanaki, which was previously known as Camp Wabanaki until early 2023. The new name was recommended by a local elder as part of a greater collaboration in reconciliation with the local Indigenous community, and fittingly means “a new dawn day.” Similarly, Camp Ooch, formerly known as Camp Oochigeas, changed its name in acknowledgment that they used Oochigeas (the name of a Mi’kmaw and Maliseet modern fairy tale heroine) without the permission of Indigenous peoples. Despite these changes, some camp directors, especially from privately owned camps, have explained they can not change various Indigenous-inspired elements, specifically the names of camps and cabins, because of tradition.

YMCA Camp Willson parade float
YMCA Camp Willson parade float” by David Lucas is licensed under PDM 1.0 Deed

Changing harmful costumes, names, and symbolism perpetuating stereotypes is a step in the right direction, but still more can be done. Examples of actional decolonization include moving away from “Indian lore” as a stepping stone for activities and lessons, dismantling settler programming in favour of indigenous programming and promoting their implementation by specifically Indigenous educators. A camp that is undergoing such steps is the Taylor Statten Camps. Since the early 1900s, they have held Council Ring ceremonies, full of Indigenous cultural elements and adaptations, such as headdresses, drum circles and burning tobacco bundles. In the 1970s, efforts were made by the camp to eliminate offensive and questionable practices in partnership with Indigenous peoples; however, it was not until the 2000s that changes were made. The camp made an effort to involve First Nations in operations, including hiring Indigenous teachers to make the Council Ring ceremony more culturally appropriate, better-educating staff about reconciliation and local Indigenous history and practices, and retiring problematic elements of the ceremony, such as the use of the headdress.

Today, spending your summer at camp is regarded by many as part of the “Canadian Identity.” However, it is not possible to reflect on memories at summer camp without recognizing the social inequalities upon which it was built, concurrent with colonial violence in residential schools. While Indigenous elements were likely not implemented with malicious intentions, their continued existence at camps today is representative of the enduring presence of settler colonialism in North America. This era of reconciliation in the camping industry is an important time and opportunity for not only camps but other ‘classic’ Canadian institutions to reflect on their place in colonial history as a starting point for further actional decolonization.

Edited by Juliet Morrison.

Featured image: “Ymca wanakita canoes” by Conner Behan licensed under CC0 1.0 Deed.