Dear Scouts Canada: You have a risk problem…

Jamie McIlroy
8 min readNov 18, 2020


…and I think it’s part of what’s created your growth problem.

The message I’ve been getting from Scouts Canada lately is, “We need to figure out how to grow…”. Enrollment numbers are way down. Competition is rising.

I just finished reading the latest Bylaws Policies and Procedures. I think I see why growth isn’t happening.

Let me explain

When you look at this photograph, what do you notice?

Where is everyone?

Yep, it’s a playground. The equipment is bright and safe and new. There is some form of soft landing to prevent injury.

It’s also empty.

It could be empty for a variety of reasons. Maybe the photographer asked the kids to move along so they could take this photo. Maybe they just sprayed for pests…or maybe it’s not what kids want. Kids might go to playgrounds to take risks, to feel thrilled. To be challenged.

So Scouts Canada, want to grow? here’s somewhere to start:

Accept Risk

You read that and thought, “ummm, pardon?!”

It starts with Policy

Policies are the window into an organizations intent. At best, they’re a clear, concise breakdown of what it means to operate within that organization. At worst, they’re quagmire of bum covering statements designed to keep the organization from getting into courtroom drama. Or worse, to download the legal issues to their staff or volunteers…

One of our Scouters highlighted the The Policy for First Aid and something in Section 4 jumped out at me:

For activities not at the normal meeting place:

That are less than 30 minutes from medical care, at least two first aiders holding current emergency first aid certification are required

That are less than two hours from medical care, at least two designated first aiders holding a current standard first aid certification are required

That are more than two hours from medical care, there shall be at least two designated first aiders holding a current wilderness first aid certification as a minimum

That are more than four hours from medical care, there shall be at least two designated first aiders holding at least a current advanced wilderness first aid certification as a minimum

Interesting…Advanced Wilderness First Aid is now required for all adventures more than 4 hours (not sure if this is by car? by foot? by helicopter). That’s quite a touch, that course.

It’s 40 hours long and costs more than $400.

Wow. A group better be ready to sell a lot of popcorn to cover that. Or, worse (and more common), it comes out of the volunteer’s pocket.

I kept reading, moving on to Swimming. I was stopped by:

At least two aquatic activity supervisors and one water activity supervisor for every 25 swimmers must be on duty, positioned in the aquatic activity area

The minimum qualification for aquatic activity supervisors is the Life Saving Society Bronze Cross

Before beginning a swim period, the safety of the swim area shall be established

Each swimmer must complete a swim test[3] before the activity begins

Participants who do not pass the swim test may still participate, providing they wear a life jacket or PFD

An area shall be established for non-swimmers, where the water is no more than waist- to chest-deep and enclosed by physical boundaries such as the shore, a pier, or lines

Water activity supervisors will be identified to the swimmers prior to the commencement of swimming activities, and suitable attire is to be worn by the supervisors while on duty

The minimum rescue equipment required for a waterfront supervised by Pack, Troop, Company, or Crew is:

A fully stocked first aid kit that meets provincial or territorial requirements

A communication device (e.g. cellular phone or radio) to contact emergency services

A buoyant throwing assist attached to a line that is at least six millimetres in diameter and 15 metres in length[4]

All swim groups must be organized under the paired “buddy system”

If no qualified aquatic activity supervisors are present:

Two Scouters must each have a Life Saving Society Safeguard Award

There must be at least one Scouter present for every eight youth participating in the activity

All swimmers must wear an approved personal floatation device

Ok. That’s asking quite a bit of a group that might just be stopping for a quick dip to cool off. I’ve been at the pool when my kids were doing their certifications…not a lot of 48 year old men sitting in the circle listening to the instructor.

A diligent volunteer is being asked to commit over 100 hours and more than $1,000 to help kids spend time in the outdoors. This volunteer would be a Bronze Cross/Wilderness First Aid certified superstar.

There is a term for a volunteer demonstrating this much dedication: An Employee.

Given these policies, a typical Volunteer has three choices :
1. Comply and get the training and by giving up their (or group) expense and time
2. Ignore the policies and proceed into the back-country
3. Avoid adventures involving swimming or spending time more than 4 hours from Medical Care

Each Scenario carries with it a unique risk:

  • Asking Scouters to comply carries the risk of them telling you to find someone else; the demand for a volunteer role is simply too expensive, time consuming, etc. Fewer Scouters…fewer kids…fewer registration dollars…rinse, repeat
  • Ignoring the Policy introduces the Risk of Scouters hand picking the policies they agree with; policies lose their meaning and weight.
  • Avoiding true adventures carries, in my mind, the greatest risk of all: Mediocre programming risk and declining enrollment. Parents shake my hand at the end of an Adventure, thanking me and the other Scouters for introducing their kids to risk and challenge. I dread the idea of that not being available, of kids spending their time in the park pretending to be interested in latest safe game or craft.

Here’s a scenario:

Our Troop wants to hike to Jewell Bay. It’s on the West side of Barrier Lake in Kanananaskis. This is a 3.9 km hike, modest difficulty (read: easy). It’s a formal back-country campground with tent pads and a fire ring. It’s lovely spot and a great introductory campground for younger Sections. I do not believe you could extract a youth to the cars and find medical aid in less than 4 hours. We are in Advanced Wilderness First Aid territory.

Right away, our Troop can only proceed if 2 of our 4 Scouters hold their Advanced Wilderness First Aid certification.

After hiking 4 kms in June, the Troop look out across that blue, refreshing mountain water…the perfect remedy for backpack sweat. For the Troop to go swimming, two of the Scouters require Bronze Cross certification. That’s almost 60 hours and $600 more (each) for 2 Scouters

Our Bronze Cross Scouters couldn’t attend this camp so…what can we do?We’re now asking youth who may have spent years taking swimming lessons to put on the PFD they’ve lashed to their pack to float around. Which, as you can guess, would never happen. We’re not bringing PFDs on a back-country hike.

So the option is to either:
a) Tell the youth they can’t swim
b) Ignore the policy and swim

or, put another way:

a) Risk mediocre programming
b) Risk of Scouter now breaking a policy

Pick your poison Scouter, which Risk brings with it the greater Reward. Sadly, it’s ignoring the policy and proceeding with the swim.

Ok, if you’re still with me, here’s my point.

(It’s not “Grrr, Scouts Canada is bad…they hate fun and love policies”. Not at all. )

What I’m getting at is: Accepting Risk is the best way to grow Scouts Canada

“Wait…you mentioned Growth earlier…but this feels much more like a complainers story…let’s get to your point Jamie”, you think.

Ok, here it is.

Removing risk:

  • Removes a big part of what draws kids to Scouting
  • Doesn’t happen through certification
  • Isn’t as important as you might think

Kids enjoy Risk

I’ve volunteered with Scouts Canada for 8 years. I’ve worked with kids aged 8–15 and they all share one thing in common; they thrive when being challenged in a situation they deem risky. I think I know why. Exposing them to risk is a way to show they’re trusted. By the time we’ve arrived at a lake or 10 km into the back-country, they know I trust them. They know I trust they’ll do their best, they’ll make mistakes and that’s OK. The value of the experience and what they learn from their mistakes is amplified in what these policies deem a risky situations. There’s a great article in Psychology Today breaking down why kids cherish risk. It helped me understand why safe looking playgrounds seldom have hoards of kids playing on them…

Being Certified Doesn’t Always Make You an Asset

I have my Red Cross Wilderness First Aid certification. It comes with a nice booklet and the course gave me a chance to meet James Tucker, a fantastic Scouter and first aid resource. With every passing day, I remember less from that course and that makes sense. I don’t ski patrol, I’m not in Search and Rescue. I work at a desk and acid re-flux tends to be the biggest risk in our office. In the two years certified, I’ve helped a youth who hurt his wrist at camp (diagnosis: homesick), a nice pair of folks I happened upon at a fender bender (course of treatment: talking to them until the ambulance arrived) and a man having a seizure outside Westbrook Mall (I almost needed medical assistance in dealing with the surge of emotion and adrenaline). Prior to being certified, I would have fared as well (or better, no expectations…) just using common sense with these folks. My fellow Scouters have done as much or less during that time (the lone exception being Erwan Oger, a ski patroller). Thomas Welch wrote a great piece for NOLS, Controversial Issues in Adventure Programming¹. Welch contends there is an incorrect assumption that the average layperson can learn, retain and execute medical procedures in the back-country. I fully agree. For Scouting, it’s about Cuts and Burns. We’ll leave appendectomies via Leatherman and a thermarest repair kit for the television audience.

So, How Risky Is It Anyhow?

You’ve been reading for quite a while so I’ll answer first and explain below.

Answer: Less risky than you think

NOLS compiled their Injury Rates from 1998–2007. Perhaps I’m biased; I think NOLS are best in class when it comes to this stuff.

I would argue the frequency would be even lower for Scouts/Cubs/Beavers. The natural supervision that comes from working with younger kids would likely bring down the number of slips, trips and falls. Look at that table again. That’s less than 1 incident per 1,000 program days for a high adventure program.


It’s time for Scouts Canada to promote the idea that kids in the program will be participating in a risk-managed environment. This is not risk-free nor should it ever be. They should encourage Scouters to take chances and, in doing so, grow.

Allow Scouters to build their skills within the program; foster this sense of adventure.

Most importantly, dismiss this notion that certifications will somehow mitigate actual risk.

Remember this…Scouts Canada?




Jamie McIlroy

Husband and Father. Wilderness First-Aid Certified. Terrible at tying knots. I play Squash. I like things that Trade. Leafs fan. FRC and Scouts Canada