Coming Together: An Idea That has Been Brewing for a Long Time
For the past 60 years, many Canadians have dreamt about creating an umbrella organization that would represent the many practitioners and organizations that promote the enjoyment and integrity of our incredible natural environments.
Throughout the years, several groups have banded together to address issues of risk management standards, access to crown lands, shortage of trained staff and negative public perceptions towards outdoor activities. However, most of these initiatives were short lived, as they lacked the resources and support necessary to tackle complex issues.
In the early 2000’s, a terrible accident in Rogers Pass (British Columbia) claimed the lives of 7 high school students, and another the lives of 2 Calgary students on a hiking trip in California. These tragedies had ripple effects on the whole outdoor community, negatively impacting many stakeholders.
New regulations appeared, some school boards were canceling their outdoor programs, service providers were being questioned about their policies and outdoor leaders were facing more and more challenges.
One Organization Takes a Stand and Makes a Generous Offer
In the fall of 2008 Kurt Kinnear, the Director of the Outdoor Centre at the University of Calgary, approached Albi Sole to see if he would consider spending a large portion of his Outdoor Centre hours moving forward the idea of a national organization that would promote low-risk education and activity in outdoor environments. Over the next six years the rest of the Outdoor Centre team supported this work by filling in for Albi so he could do this work.
Albi began the process of consulting local and national stakeholders. This consultation process revealed that:
Many people across the country saw the need for action.
There was a need to create national initiatives that would support providers of outdoor activities.
There was a need to create a national certification process for beginner outdoor leaders.
The need was obvious, the energy was present, the resources were available, and the time was now.
November 22nd 2008
On a clear and windy Saturday, twenty-one leaders representing K-12 public and private education, post-secondary education, summer camps, outdoor experiential education, certification bodies, adventure therapy, land managers and outdoor enthusiasts came together in Calgary to discuss the challenges and propose solutions.
The founders decided to create a nationally incorporated organization called the ‘Outdoor Council of Canada’/ le ‘Conseil canadien de plein-air’. To ensure the Council would be focused on serving the interest of the wider community the ‘owners’ would be individual practitioners. The mission of the council would be to promote and enable accessible education and recreation in the outdoors.
Full of hope, this group of volunteers set out to create the necessary structures that would support the growth of such an organization.
The First Successes
In less than 18 months, the OCC had already reached key objectives. The first Annual General Meeting was successfully held, a board was elected and the Curriculum Committee was created. This committee, composed of outdoor experts living throughout the country, was responsible for the development of courses for entry-level outdoor leaders.
In May 2010, the first version of the Leadership Level 1 course was run with a small group of outdoor practitioners. This course, built upon the shared wisdom of decades of outdoor experience, offers a simple, yet comprehensive package highlighting the most important practices to be an effective outdoor leader.
Over the next year the course was honed and improved. This inspired the creation of the Field Leader program, a series of six courses that provide leadership training in hiking, paddling, navigation, equine, winter and overnight trips. Over the next five years, the Field Leader courses would be delivered by more than 150 instructors to more than 1200 outdoor leaders across the country.
Since its inception, the Field Leader program’s flexible and unifying concepts have played an essential role in developing a common language across the country and setting the foundation for the development of a strong outdoor community.
More Than Just Courses, the OCC is About People
Little by little, this small group of outdoor leaders grew far and wide. Motivated individuals created strong regional groups in British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia and the Yukon. Organizations such as the Canadian Wildlife Federation, the University of Québec at Chicoutimi and Hike Nova Scotia saw value in the OCC and became active collaborators.
None of this growth would have been possible without the direct and active support of the Outdoor Center at the University of Calgary. For 7 ½ years, the Outdoor Center respected its commitment to the OCC. Eventually, Albi retired from the Outdoor Center and dedicated himself fully to the growth of the OCC. We wish to extend our deepest gratitude to the Outdoor Center. Their essential financial support was paramount in our early years.
Now, the OCC is still growing very fast with increasing interest form Ontario, Québec and Newfoundland. Discussions with other organizations are ongoing. The OCC is constantly looking for concrete ways in which it can work with others to promote high quality experiences in the outdoors. Discussions include joint course delivery with other organizations, as well as organizing events with partners such as Outward Bound, the Association of Experiential Education, the Duke of Edinburgh Award and Cape Breton University.
Although the future is impossible to predict, we have reasons to be hopeful. Much has been done since November 2008, and much remains to be done. It is with renewed excitement that OCC members and staff are working at rewriting the story of how we go outdoors in Canada. With all the challenges and successes ahead of us, the only question that matters is; will you be part of that story?