Fun with a Message: At these summer camps, ideology doesn't take a holiday

Campers at Florida's Tampa Liberty School travel in cardboard boats across the partitioned classroom, leaving the tyranny of the Old World for the liberty of the New World, where they toss confetti in celebration of the American Revolution. Then boys like nine-year-old Jett Yarborough and his two older brothers sweep up the red-white-and-blue mess as a lesson that freedom carries responsibility.

At the annual Alberta Federation of Labour summer camp, activists' children catch the "Union Express" bus bound for the Rocky Mountain camp, where they are taught the history and merits of unions by "volunteer Sisters and Brothers from the labour movement," boasts a flyer for this year's August camp. And at the first national CUPE Youth Council last year, kids like nine-year-old Allyson Harding put "Get Rid of Harper" on a Sharpee-scribbled list of "What we want to change," and visited Occupy Vancouver, where a protester told the children: "It's not fair that just a few people have everything."

"To some extent this is how you indoctrinate youth — you get them involved in fun activities and you teach them a message on the side," said Troy Glover, a University of Waterloo associate professor and the lead researcher on the Canadian Summer Camp Research Project.

When most Canadians think of camp, they think of hot summer days spent canoeing, orienteering and roasting marshmallows. The Alberta camp, for example, offers all of those things, but it, like a growing number of other camps these days, has something else, too: A clear ideological bias.

Mothers and fathers in Kentucky and Ohio can register their children for Tea Party-inspired programs, and unionized parents can send their kids to labour-federation camps in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, where Allyson's older sister, Rebecca, once listened to a speaker from the Equal Pay Coalition.

There are environmentalist programs such as Camp Eco in Colorado, EcoCamp in Georgia or Ontario's Glen Bernard Camp, where kids "live lightly," use composting toilets and learn "earth education" in a three-storey solar-powered building called Kosmos. There is San Antonio's Summer Camp Humane for children as young as five, where kids learn about the "humane treatment of animals" and help with "service projects to benefit our shelter animals."

And parents who send their eight- to 13-year-old children to master veganism at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary's Camp Kindness in New York, be advised: "The Camp Kindness program includes age-appropriate discussions and activities covering factory farming and animal welfare issues ... [The sanctuary] advocates for a vegan diet as the only diet that is kind and sustainable," the website says.

"Parents want their children to hang out with kids whose parents think like them — it's a natural gravitation," said Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent in Britain. "If you take your values seriously, you'll want to influence your child. This is just an extreme version of that."

Parents who enjoy hockey or the ballet take their children to NHL games or the Nutcracker. Catholic mothers and fathers take their children to church, Jews to synagogue, Muslims to the mosque. Is sending a child to an ideological camp simply an extension of that sort of natural parental influence, or is it inappropriate?

Experts are divided on whether such camps are appropriate for children too young to safely sit in the front seat of a vehicle. Mr. Furedi said not only is there "something weird" about these camps, but they could deepen the societal divisions that already exist. And Mr. Glover said he is simply "uncomfortable" at the idea of camps where children could be ostracized for going against the ideological grain.

"Camp can be very powerful," he said. "In any group environment, it's easy to fall into group think.... Whether we're talking about the Tea Party perspective or the Occupy perspective, it would be very difficult for a young child to be part of that program and espouse different views."

But Kathy Lynn, a leading Canadian speaker and blogger on parenting, said ideological camps can help connect children with their parents by teaching them what is important to their mothers and fathers. There are only consequences, she said, when parents force their children to attend a camp they clearly do not want to attend.

"Sometimes you take a risk — we introduce kids to things they don't like all the time," she said. "But you really just have to pay attention [to how the child reacts]."

Camps that openly teach a particular belief system are not new to North America — there have long been Bible camps, socialist-Zionist camps modelled off the Israeli kibbutz, and even some of Canada's union camps are decades-old. The past year or so, though, has seen the proliferation of new ones, such as the national CUPE program, which ran for the first time last November alongside the union's convention in Vancouver, and the Tampa liberty school.

"[The liberty schools] teach the truth; they teach our founding documents, faith, hope and charity," said Dinah Yarborough, whose three sons, Jett, Blaze and Cotton, attended the Tampa camp last summer and are among the 40 or so children signed up to go again next month. "My eight-year-old son came home thrilled that it wasn't just mom and dad and all the grown-ups who have rights, but that kids have rights, too."

While the libertarian Tampa camp claims to be apolitical — "We don't talk about anybody who is alive today, just people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson," founder Jeff Lukens said — the CUPE program for children aged nine to 14 appears to make its politics obvious.

Kids like Allyson joined the 3,000 union delegates in watching a video tribute to Jack Layton. And at a CUPE Ontario convention a few years ago, children re-enacted a scene where one boy, Noah, plays a worker who is told he will retire with zero benefits. Soon Noah realizes he cannot pay for his medication at the pharmacy and finds himself poor in a homeless shelter. Thankfully for him, it is all just a bad dream because the union had his back: "The union has negotiated that you will get benefits when you retire," declares the union president, played by a child named Tristan.

The kids celebrated by dancing the Macarena.

"Children are over-exposed to partisan political views in the media all the time," said Sandy Harding, Allyson's mother and CUPE's regional vice-president for New Brunswick. "I think the [union program] actually provided a balanced approach.... It's about showing children the reality of what things are like in Canada, what it's like for workers — the struggle."

If you take your values seriously, you'll want to influence your child. This is just an extreme version of that When asked whether the program was political or ideological, Susan Ruffo, the director of union development, said: "It's educational." When offered the above examples, she said, "It's political education."

Ms. Ruffo said there were "no concerns" about taking children as young as nine to visit Occupy Vancouver, where the kids saw a poster that said "Stop the war on the poor/Make the rich pay" and where several protesters were later arrested, because most children had already been to rallies with their parents.

Only unionists' children can attend the Alberta summer camp, said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Labour Federation, adding that the group "makes no apologies for trying to bring information of this nature to the children of union members and activists."

Mr. Glover, the University of Waterloo professor, said he would not send his two young children to an ideological camp — whether left or right.

"Should other people avoid doing so? I think that comes down to the parent's perspective," he said. "How strongly do they feel the need to indoctrinate their children?"

National Post, Friday June 29, 2012

Byline: Kathryn Blaze Carlson

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