Summer Camp a decolonization platform (proposal)

Goal: Use camp as a ready-made platform to acknowledge and teach youth about historical and contemporary Indigenous communities (more specifically the Atikamekws, whose territory we occupy) — give our campers more knowledge than what school provides them with, and create a space in which it would be safe for Indigenous campers to attend camp.

Facts on camp Ouareau

  • Founded in 1922 by two anglophone school teachers, at a time when the vote for women in Québec was still more than 20 years away: their original intention was to provide young women an experience of nature before marriage.
  • In the 1970s, an English-French linguistic program was introduced: staff now speak two days in English, two days in French and bilingually on Sunday. Camper population is 50% anglophone and 50% francophone [more].
  • Camp Ouareau is unplugged, meaning that campers do not have access to electronics (phone, computer, electricity). Staff have restricted access during their off hours, and music and videos are sometimes used during certain specific programs.
  • Population at camp is predominantly 'white'. Staff mostly range from 17 to 25 year olds, and are usually in cegep or university. Around half of campers are from outside of Québec, and at least ⅛ from outside of Canada. [full website]

Here is a 20 minutes overview of what 2 weeks at Camp Ouareau look like: (password: 95years)

importance of camp

Summer camps have the ability to be key players in youth development, and have been proven to be a great site of informal learning.

The Canadian Summer Camp Research Project has shown that camp provides development in:

  • "Social integration and citizenship: Access to a wider social network with closer bonds to more friends and/or staff and with other camp alumni through shared experiences
  • Attitudes towards physical activity: Participates in more physical activities within home, school, and community contexts
  • Self-confidence and personal development: More flexible, resourceful, and self-aware, thereby better able to deal with life's challenges
  • Environmental awareness: Leads a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle, reduces ecological footprint, and encourages environmental responsibility
  • Emotional intelligence: More balanced and self-aware, thereby capable of empath and relating to others on an emotional level"

[taken from Camp Research Project: Purpose, Findings and Practical Applications]

History & Assessment

Summer camps in general have a history of coopting Indigeneity as associated with the concept of 'nature' in opposition to that of 'urbanity', the former being seen as a positive force to counter the negative influence of the latter on youth development. Though sometimes subtle (making dream-catchers in arts, using beads to count team victories), other practices are more obvious and actively propagate an outdated and oppressive vision of Indigenous cultures. Practices such as splitting camp into opposing 'tribes', ceremonies involving 'headdresses' and 'peace pipes' or 'Indian circles' are particularly problematic.

Historically speaking, Camp Ouareau followed the general tradition of most camps founded in the 1920s. Though we currently do not have access to written accounts, archival photos reveal camper ceremonies in full 'Indian' regalia, including headdresses, council-like ceremonies and costumes. Such ceremonies slowly ceased around the mid 1980s, apparently due to a general discomfort voiced by more progressive staff members.

Until 2013, Camp Ouareau still divided its campers into two tribes known as Iroquois and Algonquin which, in a way, followed Québec's educational curriculum which tends to speak of Indigenous nations within this essentialist dichotomy of rivalry. Moreover, the leaders of each teams were called 'chief', 'little chief' and 'little runner'. Although a reflection was already under process, the directorial team was reluctant to simply do away with 'tribes', especially following a conversation with an Indigenous leader who questioned the ease with which white settlers 'erase' Indigenous nations' presence.

The first step towards actively acknowledging a specific Indigenous history at camp came with the change from 'tribes' to team. Research established that Camp Ouareau stands on unceded Atikamekw land. The Atikamekws being one of the few Indigenous nations whose language survived colonization, we decided to name our teams after Atikamekw terms signifying important natural landmarks at camp, namely 'Mountain - Matanak' and 'Lake - Sakhikan'.

Pre 2013 cheers

Post-2013 cheers

These new teams were accompanied by a brief explanation as to why Camp Ouareau believed the names should be changed, as well as an acknowledgement to the Atikamekws; more specifically speaking of the enduring nature of their language, as well as of their six seasons (which we felt was particularly pertinent due to the weather experienced in the Laurentian). 'Chief', 'little chief' and 'little runner' were also changed to 'captain', 'junior captain' and 'éclaireur'.

'Proud to be' video shown to campers to introduce them to part of our reasoning for changing from 'tribes' to teams. This video was part of the mobilization for a change in the Washington Redskins football team name.

1st act of decolonization - Challenges & considerations

Although alumnae still sometimes question the change, camper and staff reactions were fairly positive, and very few of them question the team names three years in. However, certain challenges have emerged, which we are hoping to address.

  • Spelling: Staff often misspell 'Atikamekw', 'Sakhikan' and 'Rotin' (the name of our staff team, meaning wind). This may seem of little importance to staff, but due to the power structure between white settlers and Indigenous nations, it becomes a type of thoroughly unnecessary micro-agression.
  • History: Since the initial change, staff and campers have become more and more oblivious to the origins of the names of the teams, somewhat defeating its initial purpose.
  • Pervasiveness: Although 'Iroquois' and 'Algonquins' have mostly disappeared from camp vocabulary, terms such as 'tribal paint' or 'tribal games' are still frequently used.
  • Participation: The name change was done mostly without consultation with the Atikamekws, except for a brief phone conversation explaining our motives, and an email exchange to confirm the spelling and pronunciation of 'Sakhikan' and 'Matanak' with a representative from the Centre d'amitié autochtone de Lanaudière.

Next steps

Following the acknowledgement of some of the challenges of our first attempt at respectfully recognizing Indigeneity at camp, and after critically reviewing "Playing Indian and other settler stories: disrupting Western narrative of Indigenous girlhood" by Indigenous scholar Sandrina De Finney, and "Notes on Camp: A Decolonizing Strategy" by camp counsellor Amanda Shore, specific frames emerged in which to build programs designed to introduce campers and staff to the notion of decolonization through experiential or informal learning sites:

  1. Acknowledge the skewed perspective Indigenous History is framed in within the Québec educational rhetoric.
  2. Bring forth contemporary examples of Indigeneity in order to reframe the 'inevitable genocide' discourse often accompanying discussion of Indigenous Nations.
  3. Focus on the Atikamekws as specific Nation amongst many in order to challenge the presumption of a homogenous culture shared by all First Nations

Staff Training

Staff training lasts a minimum of 10 days. Topics covered during this training range from age-group behaviours, conflict intervention, fat-talk and community living. A workshop about colonization, its history and impact, and contemporary Indigenous presence would be a key part of the decolonization process.

Optimally, a period of discussion would follow a workshop led by an Indigenous leader specialized in decolonization. However, if unable to hire or invite a speaker, the use of the Wapikoni Mobile Studio videos might prove fruitful in instigating a reflection process, particularly due to their youth-centered approach which echoes Ouareau's mission.

Indigenous Speakers

Inviting Indigenous speakers to lead workshops with our staff and possibly our campers would serve three purposes:

  1. Educate staff and campers on Indigenous issues
  2. Actualize the contemporary existence of Indigenous people
  3. Begin a relationship with Indigenous organizations

I've already contacted a few organizations, and though some of them responded, none are currently available to lead workshops. I am however still at the beginning of my research. Other organizations I think might be interesting are:

  1. Centre d'amitié autochtone de Lanaudière: more specifically their youth group who have already worked on an awareness workshops against racism.
  2. Tourisme Manawan: Touristic organization offering guided stays at the Manawan Reserve.
  3. Manawan Reserve and Council website

Note: A camp director I contacted suggested I google 'indigenous speaker for youth canada', which brought forth the issue of tokenization and erasure of systemic discrimination: a lot of the speakers that come up are incredibly talented and somewhat unusually accomplished, or even what one could call 'motivational speakers'.

Implicit norms

Evaluating implicit norms at work (such as eating fish sticks on Fridays, a relic of our Christian past) during different activities at Ouareau, will allow us to question and address the environment that fosters and propagates such behaviours. Here are some examples to consider at first:

'Tribal': Ouareau games are a particularly sensitive sight to continued colonial practices. The term 'tribal chief', 'tribal game' and 'war paint' are still sometimes used, even by brand new staff members, pointing to some sort of legacy which we were trying to avoid. The use of the paint itself are an important facet to the excitement surrounding the game, but might also need to be deconstructed. Ouareau games being such a huge and seemingly organic part of camp, but also holding a specific history of racism, it is imperative for us to continue to question its foundation and execution.

'Savage': The innocent use of the word 'savage' in recent years to refer to 'impolite' behaviour points to at worst the perpetuation of a negative discourse surrounding Native culture, and at best, the invisibility of a power structure that makes such use problematic.

Flag Raising: Every morning, campers and staff gather around the flag pole in order to sing the anthem and raise the Canadian flag. This symbol of patriotism might seem innocuous (though fairly potent in the Québec setting), but one might wonder if it doesn't serve to legitimize the idea of Canada as settler's land, whose belonging is free from contestation. A disclaimer akin to "We give thanks to the Atikamekw Nation upon whose land we've gathered here today" might be interesting here, but more so if the idea is introduced by campers themselves.


WEBSITE: The Atikamekws are currently mentioned on our website within the context of our two teams:

"Campers stay on the same team for the entirety of their session at Ouareau, either Matanak ("Mountain") or Sakhikan ("Lake"). These names were chosen from the Atikamekw language (for the Native Canadian tribe that once inhabited the land that Ouareau is on) to honour the beautiful natural environment that surrounds us. "

Changing "Native Canadian (...) once inhabited" to the 'Native Nation whose land Ouareau stands on' would be a subtle yet efficient way to suggest the acknowledgement of unceded land.

AGE GROUPS: Two of our current age groups (Dekopi and Chipka) are named after what we were told were 'Indigenous words' for 'hug a tree' and 'top of the mountain'. In fact, it seems Dekopi is a nonsense word (or a misspelling of a type of coffee bean), and Chipka is a deformation of 'Chipko', an Indian (as in from India!) movement against deforestation. Though we recently dispelled the notion amongst staff and campers that Dekopi and Chipka were 'Indigenous' words, it would be interesting to go through a process similar as to how we renamed our teams.

CABINS & TENTS: Just as with our age groups, some of our cabins and tents have a dubious naming history. Changing or contextualizing their use would be an important step in decolonization.

  • Haida: Named after the Indigenous Nation on whose land part of British Columbia stands on.
  • Owaissa: Possibly a reference to a word meaning 'blue bird' in The Legend of Hiawatha.
  • Wigwam: A type of abode used by certain Native Nations.

Camper activity

Campers have previously shown great interest in gathering to discuss 'serious' topics such as feminism, leadership, slut-shaming and body image. Campers aged 11-13 have specifically requested activities giving them the opportunity to talk and explore their opinions on specific topics.

Leading a discussion with campers on how to approach the idea that Camp Ouareau (and a lot of North-America) stands on unceded land — which could be introduced with the projection of a 'treaty map' (such as the one available at — would allow campers to begin a process of reflection. Notably, since a lot of material on 'Indigenous History' is taught in Secondary 3 and 4, campers would then arrive at school with a different perspective on the material that they might be able to introduce to their classmates. More specifically, these workshops could occur during the daily free activity time, where campers are free to decide where to go.

Of course, these initiatives come from the mind of a white settler woman immersed in the camp environment, and they may very possibly have some misbegotten impacts. For instance, as an isolated gesture, using Atikamekw terminology for our teams or age groups could be seen as a form of appropriation, although I hope that the soon-to-be all encompassing framework within which we are hoping to operate would make it not so. Moreover, it is important for us to remember that decolonization remains a process which demands a continued questioning of practices.

As can be noticed, a lot of what I am proposing to do relies on using content that has already been put forward, such as speakers or the wapikoni studios. This is partly on purpose, as to recognize that the experience of Indigenous people is best expressed by themselves.

A final aspect to consider is the possibility of reaching populations that might not inherently be attracted to or interested in Indigenous struggles. Just as Camp Ouareau 'keeps its feminist agenda' slightly under the rug, I believe there is value in 'allies' quietly embracing progressive viewpoints while still having access to a broader segment of the population.

Created By
Émilie Trudeau

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.