Longlong Cao, 15, arrived in Mississauga from Hunan, China, in 1996 with his father Johnson, mother Aiqing Zlaang and sister Fei-fei. The closest experience to camp in China: heading out to a park with his extended family to cook a meal outdoors. It didn't take long, however, for the Caos to hear about Canadian camps.
"We usually hear about it from friends at school," Longlong says. Fei-fei had her first camping experience the winter after arriving in Canada. At her school, the older grades eagerly anticipated five days at Pioneer Camp, near Port Sydney, Ontario.
Fei-fei was introduced to wilderness survival skills and learned how to identify animal tracks in the snow.
Longlong eased into camping at a community centre. One March break, he went along with classmates to a drama camp, and soon found himself on stage in a production. Another time, he attended a sports camp. Later he signed up for a weeklong computer camp. "Those were all fun because you meet new people, but I don't think I would have gone without (my friend)."
When Longlong reached the senior grades, he, too, got a chance to go to Pioneer Camp. He remembers "snowshoeing and hiking in the snow — and the food was okay." When he joined Scouts Canada, he discovered the fun and challenge of camping in four seasons. "I think camp lets kids do some things they never did before — and get away from parents," he says. Like Timothy Goodwin, he can see himself sending his future kids to a camp program.
Camp, Geoff Park of Camp Summit says, is "one of those perfect venues to immerse a child into Canadian culture . . . to really get them learning about Canada, in terms of the love of the outdoors. It opens the doors to these experiences, especially if schools have to cut back on outdoor education."
Even when some recent immigrants learn about camping, not all are eager to embrace it, says Larry Bell, founder of Camp Robin Hood in Markham, Ontario. In his experience, some parents focus on preparing children for success, rather than offering them experiences or recreation during vacations.
But camp is educational, too, Bell points out, albeit under less pressure than school. Moreover, "our camps teach social skills."
Dr. David Malkin of The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto says even when camps are geared to children with specific medical conditions, new Canadian families can be reluctant to let children participate. "It's more difficult to persuade them," he says. In the end, "they come to camp, but it's an educational process" to persuade the parents.
On the other hand, Bell says, new Canadians are keen to become counsellors. Future health professionals, educators, social workers and psychologists seek early experience as camp staff. As a result, the counselling corps at Camp Robin Hood is "very diverse," Bell says.