Girl Guides Outside

Girl Guide camp, circa 1913. Source: Girl Guides of Canada

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The third instalment in the Not Your Day Job series.

My mother in her Guides uniform, 1976.

When one thinks of Girl Guides in Canada, images of the blue uniform, sashes and badges, and the infamous mint-chocolate cookie campaign come to mind. Another iconic image of Canadian Girl Guides is “May Camp,” the annual gathering of girls at all levels of the organization during the May long weekend. During May Camp, girls from each province meet at one provincial location for a weekend of tent camping and spending time outdoors. This is usually the biggest event of the year for Canadian Girl Guides, and speaks to the central role that environment plays within this organization.

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I’ve been involved with the Girl Guides of Canada for much of my life in one capacity or another. I was a girl member of Sparks, Brownies, and eventually Guides from the ages of five to twelve in Nova Scotia. I returned to Girl Guides as a Sparks unit leader while in my undergraduate program, and most recently as a Guides unit leader while I was completing my PhD in Alberta. My experience acting as a Girl Guide unit leader had me frequently (and rather unexpectedly) drawing on my knowledge of environmental history.

My Girl Guides group in 2000. Image by M. Morrison.

By way of background, Girl Guides of Canada is an “all-girl” social club which formed in 1910 in Canada, following its popularity in England. The organization welcomes girls from ages five to seventeen through various branches based on age (Sparks, Brownies, Guides, Pathfinders, and Rangers).[1] The history of Girl Guides itself speaks to some of the barriers to gaining knowledge, skills, and experience in nature that young girls faced in the early 20th century. Beginning in England in 1909, Girl Guides was an outgrowth of the popular Boy Scouts, formed in 1908, when a group of girls asked Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell if they could join in. Baden-Powell agreed to form a female version of the Boy Scouts called Girl Guides. However, the structure of Guides differed from Scouts in gendered ways. For example, where Boy Scouts Patrol (small sub-groups in each unit responsible for taking attendance, collecting dues, and other “housekeeping” tasks) names were those of wild animals, Guide Patrol names would be names of flowers.[2] In the early years of the organization, Girl Guides spent more time empowering young girls to “be responsible citizens” where Boys Scouts spent most of their program developing skills in nature.[3]

Guiding Promise:
I promise to do my best,
To be true to myself, my beliefs and Canada
I will take action for a better world
And respect the Guiding Law

Even when I was a child in the ‘90s, I recall noticing differences between the activities I did with my various Guiding branches and the activities boys in my class reported doing in their various Scouts groups – an experience that has been further explored in academic writing.[4] Even so, I have fond memories of my experience in Guiding as a child. What stands out the most to me about my time as a youth member is not the musty legion where we’d have our weekly meetings, or the songs and rhymes we repeated at weekly meetings, but the opportunities that Guiding gave me to learn skills and acquire knowledge about the natural world. While I grew up surrounded by ocean and forests where I spent countless hours playing and walking, I didn’t grow up in an “outdoorsy” family (I remember one family hike growing up!). Girl Guides was my first real encounter with tent camping. My first time sleeping outside under the stars happened at a Brownie camp; Guides was the avenue through which I spent significant amounts of structured time “in nature.”

My sister in her Sparks uniform, 2008. Image by author.

Perhaps volunteering with Girl Guides is not so unexpected a place to find an environmental historian. My time mentoring girls, particularly with the older Guides group, has given me ample opportunity to reflect on both past and present gender roles and gendered ideologies when it comes to outdoor recreation. Being a unit leader has meant that I can work toward ensuring the inclusion of young girls and women in activities that continue to be coded as “male.” Over the years I have been involved in organizing activities like camping weekends, hiking, and snowshoeing, hands-on lessons on ecology, and tree planting. The organization moves beyond addressing gender barriers in outdoor recreation. It involves girls with STEM through active learning at unit meetings and special programming at science centers, and provides girls with opportunities for travel both nationally and internationally.

The organization does not have a clear definition of how it frames “nature” in 2019, though one can infer an understanding of “the environment.” For example, the “guiding law” states that one aspect of Guides is to “protect our common environment,” a commitment indicated through program badges focused on recycling, tree planting, ecology, conservation, botany, and animal care. Kristine Alexander’s Guiding Modern Girls discusses some of the organization’s emphasis on the natural world in the 1920s and 1930s as connected with health and femininity (and masculinity). Particularly, the outdoor skills girls acquired through Guiding were meant to maintain aspects of appropriate female behaviour (though, as Alexander argues, in reality they offered opportunities for girls to push past these gendered boundaries).[5] In the 2000s it seems that the organization has moved beyond the focus on crafting femininity to increased female inclusion in activities historically perceived as masculine.

Edmonton River Valley, 2016. Image by author.

At all levels of Girl Guides, girls earn badges for completing certain curriculum. Some of these badges are completed together as a group but girls also have the option to choose badges to work on at home that reflect their interests. Throughout my time as a Guide leader in Alberta, I couldn’t help but notice that nearly every girl selected at least one environmentally-themed badge to work on. What’s more, they always seemed to have a desire to learn more about why things are the way that they are (a historians dream!).  I unexpectedly found myself actively sharing my knowledge of environmental history in Guiding activities. For instance, we organized a day at Fort Edmonton Park – a living history museum which highlights the different uses of the area from 1846 to 1929- where the girls got a private tour of the park followed by a few hours of snowshoeing on the park’s trails along the North Saskatchewan River. Our day spent at Fort Edmonton provided opportunity for an impromtu discussion with the girls about the various uses of land in the Edmonton River Valley. We talked about the fur trade, the relocation of the original Fort to its current site for park development, and what it means to recognize that the park is located on Treaty Six territory. While snowshoeing, we had a chance to talk about the different ways we think about “nature,” and how human ideas about nature have changed over time. Considering these girls were aged nine to eleven, I didn’t want to lecture them about the complexity of the concept of nature – “trouble with wilderness” style – but instead asked them to share their own ideas. I was impressed at the thoughtful insights they shared about their ideas of what “nature” means: responses ranged from physical ecosystems, to something to use, something to protect, and how the natural world plays a role in our daily lives.

An Overview Map of Fort Edmonton Park indicating the park’s four historical themes. Image courtesy of Fort Edmonton Park.

Gendered perceptions of outdoor recreation have changed since 1910. In 2019, there are more girls and women participating in outdoor recreational activities, but barriers of accessibility and income level remain. Girl Guides is not a perfect organization, and critics have pointed out some of the organization’s shortcomings, but what I have noticed throughout my time as a Girl Guide leader is that involving girls in outdoor activities provides an opportunity not only for them to connect with the environment but also to develop confidence in spending time outdoors, to form positive relationships with each other and with the natural world, and to spark an interest to learn more. My time mentoring and observing girls’ interactions with the natural world has also shaped some of the ways in which I think about my research and teaching work, and has prompted me to ask more historical questions about the intersections of gender and environment of myself and my students.


[1] Girl Guides of Canada, “Who We Are”
[2] Dorothy Crocker, All About Us: A Story of the Girl Guides in Canada 1910-1989 (Girl Guides of Canada, 1991); Tammy Proctor, Scouting for Girls: A Century of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (Oxford: ABC Clio, 2009); Kristine Alexander, Guiding Modern Girls: Girlhood, Empire, and Internationalism in the 1920s and 1930s (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018).
[3] Robert Baden-Powell, Scouting for Boys a Handbook for Instruction for Good Citizenship (Oxford: OUP, 1908).
[4] Sharon Wall, The Nurture of Nature: Childhood, Antimodernism, and Ontario Summer Camps, 1920-1955 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009); Karen Warren, “Preparing the Next Generation: Social Justice in Outdoor Leadership Education and Training,” in Journal of Experiential Education 25,1 (March 2002): 231-238.
[5] Alexander, Guiding Modern Girls, 109-140.

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Heather Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary's University. She is interested in the intersections of environmental and Indigenous histories, histories of Indigenous and Settler Relations, and mining history, particularly in the Canadian North. You can connect with her on twitter @heathergreen21.


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