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Singer-songwriter-raconteur Murray McLauchlan on 4-H clubs

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Eleven-time Juno Award winner Murray McLauchlan recently released Human Writes, his first CD in 15 years. He performs in Carleton Place, Ont., on Oct. 29 and 30, in Canmore, Alta., on Nov. 3, and in Sherwood Park, Alta., on Nov 6.

Where were you raised? Were you a country kid or a city kid?

I was born in Scotland and raised in Toronto. Toronto really didn't extend as far when we first immigrated. We had a house in the country between Eglinton and Lawrence avenues. In those days, you could pick wild strawberries up there.

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What clubs did you belong to as a boy?

I belonged to the junior branch of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists. I was and still am interested in birds and insects of various kinds. We'd go on field trips and collect owl pellets and that kind of stuff and try to put the little skeleton back together. Robert Bateman, the painter, was our lecturer and guide.

What do you know of 4-H clubs?

I know them from visiting country fairs. I associate them with livestock: a prize pig or a prize cow. I know 4-H is really old.

It is. 4-H celebrates a century in Canada in 2013. Its membership – ages 9 to 21 – has been steadily declining over the past couple of decades and its existence is seen as being in jeopardy.

I had no idea. It would not be something I would be surprised by, given the fact that a lot of youth spend a lot of time playing video games and have a shortened attention span.

In response to dwindling membership, 4-H is trying to rebrand itself and distance itself from its agricultural base to better appeal to suburban and urban youth. Do you see this as a positive evolution or an abandonment of its core values?

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There are probably fewer young people in rural Canada and if they are there, they are tending to leave. It is probably a good idea. I suppose the original idea was that it was kind of a community service organization. I think that is what it really was about: getting young people together, focusing them on serving their country and community. It sort of looked a bit more like a patriotic organization than an agricultural one.

Do you think that 4-H is an organization whose time has passed?

No, I don't think they should give up, nor should they be anything less than dynamic, because the world changes. Young people's interests change and what draws them into an organization changes.

The thing about kids is, they clump. It doesn't matter the circumstance that induces them to do so, but if you can get them to clump in a positive rather than a negative way, they'll clump. You'll see high-school kids doing a car wash at the side of the road for charity. They love to hang out and do stuff that they think is making a difference.

I think what 4-H has got to do is make kids feel like they can make a difference by clumping together and having a good time.

But there are many other organizations that do that – the Boy Scouts, for example – that don't have an agricultural base. Should 4-H have to ignore or play down its strong agricultural roots for something more superficial to appeal to urban youth?

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I'll probably get killed for this, but 4-H seems a little hipper than Boy Scouts. Scouts smacks of military organization; you get uniforms, badges and hats and achievement standards, like the military made small.

The nature of the countryside is steady and enduring, while the nature of a city is more ephemeral, fast and flashy. Can 4-H reconcile those two?

I think so: 4-H could be like the Peace Corps for kids. I don't see any reason that if there was a flood, they couldn't marshal the kids to help with sand bags, pick up junk, clean river beds.

But that is getting away from rural …

I don't think they have to, just add to it.

To a city kid, is rural ever cool?

I think rural is cool because the farm kids I've met have been incredibly self-reliant, wise beyond their years and have had a terrific work ethic.

To a typical urban mall rat, "wise beyond one's years" and "terrific work ethic" aren't hallmarks of "cool."

I think if a kid is hanging around a mall with nothing much to do, there is probably a bit of a problem in how they were brought up.

So 4-H should reach out to them?


The organization is nearing its centennial. Say they last another 100 years, will there be a role for 4-H clubs in an age of Soylent Green ?

You mean will they help prepare the old people [as]food? I really have no idea! I'm very hopeful the Earth itself will be around in 100 years and I hope that 4-H clubs will be a part of it.

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