Speaking to the House of Commons

I recently had the chance to speak to the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development.  It was an amazing experience and the MPs were very engaged.  Here is what I had to say:

“Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of this committee, for having me back to speak about this important issue.

When I was last here, I was telling you that on this, the 50th anniversary of the printing of Silent Spring, we’re now facing a new silence in the wilderness. The peregrine falcon is no longer on the endangered species list, but we are close to losing the sound of children’s laughter from our forests.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that people who spend time in nature are a species at risk and, like the peregrine falcon in the 1960s, it’s the youth numbers that are plummeting. Having a strong connection to an outdoor place is the first step to ensuring any kind of conservation ethic, and it is an essential component of our Canadian identity. We must act decisively to reverse this trend or we will soon find ourselves in the position where it is too late.

In order for us to reverse this trend, we first must understand why it is happening. Research has shown that a combination of fear, a lack of education, and overzealous conservation practices have been the major contributing factors.

Government has a role in reversing these trends. It can implement tax credits to encourage families to take part in programs that bring young people in touch with nature. It can enact a liability shield for adults or groups taking young people on activities in nature. It can partner with organizations like Scouts Canada in delivering quality outdoor experiences in nature for Canadians. It can make it easier for youth groups to take advantage of parks and protected areas.

Across Canada, young people will experience the wonder of the outdoors on their own terms on a Scouts Canada activity. Earlier in this study you heard Mr. Bienenstock speaking of roam rates declining: children are not able to explore the world to the extent they once were; one of the things that we try to do in our programs is create an environment where young people feel confident enough to work together in groups to roam and explore nature without the direct supervision of adults. They work on projects and they camp in tents away from their adult supervisors.

I’ve seen the impact that these programs have on kids: bullying decreases, attention spans are lengthened, and interest in the world around them—and not just the natural world—is increased. You’ve heard about these benefits from other witnesses, so I won’t belabour the point, but nature makes a difference in the lives of young people.

Every summer I’ll get at least one phone call from a parent who is concerned that their child will be abducted by a stranger or eaten by a wild animal at camp. I have to explain that the natural world is a very, very safe place.

I have searched deeply, and I have found only two cases of child abductions from a summer camp in the last 50 years. The chance of a child being harmed by a stranger at camp is incredibly low. These are supervised environments with policies in place that make sure the kids go home with the right people. Natural environments in Canada have one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

Also, negative concerns about wild animals are not significant either. There are less than two fatal bear attacks every year in North America. There have been only 38, total, in Canadian history, but parents ask me about them constantly.

Now, at the risk of overstating the obvious here, a parent who is concerned about her daughter being abducted from a Scout camp isn’t going to let her child roam the local ravines in the city with her friends. I understand that. I am a parent myself. I know that I should let my son roam to develop resilience and a strong conservation ethic, but I get nervous when he’s playing in the backyard, much less in the local park, and I do this for a living, so while these fears are misplaced, we have to recognize that they exist and that we reinforce them in this age of 24-hour news cycles and with the Internet telling us about every time a child anywhere in the world has gone missing or is hurt. Those of us in public roles must be careful to talk about the world as a safe place if we’re going to reconnect people with nature. We have to come from a position of hope.

There’s also a fear of liability. This has left many organizations helpless in regard to taking more kids outdoors.

In the United States, there is a grassroots movement that’s engaging more than a million children each year in nature play in what are called family nature clubs. This program began less than five years ago when one family asked another if they could take their kids to the local park. You have to understand that this required a tremendous leap of faith that they weren’t going to be sued if something went wrong.

We need to make it easier for people to act within the scope of their abilities and not be sued for their actions, in the same way that “good Samaritan” laws protect first-aiders. It should be noted that this kind of law would not remove the need for high-quality risk management protocols, but it would remove the risk to personal property because of a need to defend against a frivolous lawsuit.

I would next like to speak about education. We’ve moved from a place-based model to a classroom-based model in Canada. While curricula guide teachers to teach about Canadian geography and animals, they do not guide how to teach those topics. Great teachers will use experiential methods to allow students to learn about the world, but many will simply tell their students about what they could see outdoors, without helping them experience it, and if students don’t experience their local environment, they’ll not internalize it.

There is a growing body of evidence that supports the value of learning in a natural context. For example, youth who engage in multi-day nature immersion programs graduate from high school at a higher frequency than those who don’t.

I’d submit to you that the loss of this shared knowledge is one of the biggest issues facing Canadians today. Students who don’t know the birds in their neighbourhoods will not notice that they are missing. Students who are not in touch with the land will not notice that droughts last longer or that winters had heavier snowfalls in the past. It’s a massive problem that in classrooms across Canada students can describe the problems of polar bears drowning in the Arctic but can’t tell you what fish live in the local ponds or the colour of a robin’s egg.

In 2008, the Oxford University Press announced that they were removing nature words from theOxford Junior Dictionary because they weren’t being used in classrooms. I’d ask you to consider how far society has gone, knowing that the word “beaver” has been removed from one of the standard dictionaries used in elementary school classrooms across Canada.

I’d like to move on to health. In many jurisdictions, in response to childhood obesity, students take part in daily physical activity programs. These programs haven’t worked. A 2009 study found no impact on obesity in 15 separate studies conducted around the world. Studies on organized sports have found the exact same thing. In fact, the rise of childhood obesity has exactly mirrored the rise of organized sport in Canada. I’d hesitate to stretch the causality of that number too far, except to say that the growth of sport in Canada hasn’t helped this epidemic. Outdoor programs help, because they encourage unstructured play in the outdoors on an ongoing basis.

It’s time for government to treat programs that engage young people in the outdoors in the same fashion as sports programs are treated. A tax credit similar to the child fitness tax credit should be extended to programs that engage young people in nature. A tax credit of this sort would serve to get programs like Scouts Canada back on the menu for many families.

It’s also time for the government to work more closely with programs that are making a difference in the conservation sector. While great work has been done in Parks Canada’s Xplorers program, the My Parks Pass program, which was only used by about 6,000 students across Canada last year, has not had the same kind of return on investment. The My Parks Pass program would be much more effective if it were expanded to allow members or organized groups free access to Canada’s national parks and historic sites. Currently, organized groups do not use these resources to the extent they should because of the cost.

Allowing more access would permit members of organized programs to be in these areas more often, and they would become advocates for them. It’s worth knowing that studies show that many adult users of parks first visit these areas as part of an organized youth group. In other words, no-charge passes become a no-cost marketing tool to expand the use of the parks. In the long run, they will expand park revenues.

We also need to learn how to collaborate across sectors and replicate successes. There’s an opportunity for charitable groups to engage more young people in the outdoors. Scouts Canada has been working with the Palisades Stewardship Education Centre in Jasper to replicate the programs that have been developed at Scout camps across the country. We need to build more partnerships like this to create both short-term opportunities for service, such as learn-to-camp programs, and also longer-term opportunities, such as a summer service corps of young adults who would be embedded in national parks. They would be able to help people in the park do camping stuff and would communicate with friends back home using social media.

One of the hard lessons those of us in the field are learning is that in order to make our programs relevant to neophytes, we have to use a limited amount of technology in the field. Digital photography has been found to have a strong ability to bridge the gap between worlds, as have certain apps. If we’re going to connect people in any meaningful way to the outdoors, we need to ensure that we’re not turning people away with a dogmatic “no technology” approach.

A second hard lesson we must learn is that the look-but-don’t-touch philosophy toward outdoor areas has left millions of people disconnected from the very land that’s been protected for them. When I think about how we treat conservation in this country, I’m reminded of the words of the Five Man Electrical Band: we “put up a fence to keep me out or to keep Mother Nature in”. There are certainly good reasons for that in some terrain, but there are other areas where it would be acceptable for young people to roll rocks back to see what’s underneath or to skip stones in the local pond.

In a recent article David Sobel, from Antioch University in the States, wrote that our overzealous protection of some areas and telling people that they should look but not touch are creating a generation of people who are not as connected as they should be to the natural world. It’s ironic that when we look at the long view, our protection schemes may actually be damaging the lands we’ve aimed to protect.

In closing, I’d like to invite you all to spend a day at a Scout camp in the near future to see what a program that engages young people in nature on their own terms looks like. Most of our youth come from urban areas, and after some time in the woods, they come to view those areas as their own. We believe that the best practice for engaging our youth in conservation projects is to ensure that they first learn to love the land by spending time on it. Then they will become stewards of it.

Thank you.”

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2 responses to this post.

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