Marie Howell’s three sons hoped the summer of 2021 would bring a return to Camp Kindle in Alberta’s Mountainview County to reconnect with other families affected by cancer.
But for the second year in a row, while most day camps are allowed to operate, Kindle is among the camps in most parts of Canada that have cancelled overnight programs amid pandemic shutdowns and continued uncertainty.
Ms. Howell, a 36-year-old single mother, lives in Calgary with Ethan, 11, and eight-year-old twins Jaxon and Ryan. Jaxon was diagnosed with leukemia in 2017, and he is in remission after spending last summer in treatment. In 2018 and 2019, Ms. Howell says Ethan felt a sense of community during his time at Camp Kindle, which is free to “mission families,” which have children with cancer, and children whose parents have the disease.
“It’s just such a magical place,” she says of the camp just northwest of Calgary. “The minute you drive through the gates, it’s like getting an embrace, even when it’s not full of kids. It’s just calm, and serene and beautiful.”
While children across most of Canada this summer won’t be sharing camp stories and experiences in overnight programs, non-profit and private camps alike have been working hard to stay operating and financially afloat — aiming to attract newcomers and ensure stability long after the pandemic ends. They’re taking advantage of government funding, stepping up fundraising, offering online programs and reinventing how their facilities are used.
In late May, Ms. Howell and her sons were treated to Camp Kindle’s summer spinoff Glamp Kindle, a less-roughing-it form of camping. Three mission families at a time are given three-day stays in individual cabins. They get to participate in activities, with COVID-19 safety protocols such as physical distancing, mask-wearing and handwashing in place.
Everyone “just loved it. You just pack your own food and clothes and show up, and have a good time with your family,” Ms. Howell says.
Camp Kindle is owned and operated by the Kids Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta, a non-profit charity that also runs day camps, which Ms. Howell’s twins have enjoyed as well. Mission families participate at no cost, largely due to donations, fundraising and the renting of cabins and facilities, says Christine McIver, Kids Cancer Care’s founder and chief executive officer, based in Calgary.
“Our main way of maintaining Camp Kindle has been renting the place out, but we can’t do that right now,” she says. “We’ve also applied for any provincial or federal grants we qualify for, and that is a real departure from our normal operations.
“As a charity, we can still fundraise by telling people we’re doing our online program and still doing Glamp Kindle, and our families are still being well supported.”
Each province’s COVID-19 situation is different and constantly changing, but as of early June, New Brunswick, Quebec and recently British Columbia, were allowing overnight camps under strict safety protocols. Ontario and Alberta are among provinces with reopening plans that could see stayover camps allowed to operate later in the summer.
But for some camps, it’s too late. “The entire process of getting started for the next summer season starts in the fall,” says Stéphane Richard, president of the Canadian Camping Association (CCA), which has about 1,000 member camps.
Camps tend to start hiring in February, employing some 70,000 young people each summer, but the uncertainty has prompted a lot of them to make other plans, he said in an interview from Saint-Antoine, N.B.
CCA research indicates about a million young people take part in Canadian camps annually. Seventy-five per cent of camps are non-profit, while 25 per cent are private, with both “financially in a very challenging spot,” Mr. Richard says.
A CCA survey of member camps in fall 2020 found that 30 per cent might be at risk of bankruptcy by the end of December, 2020, for missing one summer season; in the event of a two-summer layoff, that figure rose to 60 per cent.
Since the survey was conducted, government funding assistance programs have helped many at-risk camps, “but they’re mostly based on expense reduction and don’t make up completely for loss of revenue,” Mr. Richard says.
In recent weeks, even day camps were closed in Manitoba because of increasing COVID-19 case rates.
“Our overnight camps have been closed since March, 2020. That is more than 15 months of little to zero income for these camps,” says Kim Scherger, executive director of the Manitoba Camping Association, which has 35 accredited member camps.
In an e-mail, she says each camp faces set costs, including insurance of upwards of $25,000 and property taxes of $20,000 to $50,000 per year. MCA members are largely surviving through donations, government funding, private loans and creative fundraising.
In British Columbia, some camps offer adult backpacking and hiking trips, says Lauren Marutt, program co-ordinator for the B.C. Camps Association, which has 60 members.
For a second summer, Kawkawa Camp and Retreat, a Christian camp in Hope, is operating a campground where families can park their recreational vehicles (RVs) onsite, Ms. Marutt says.
“Some of our camps are also bringing their programs to the nearest city centre to run day programs so kids can still have a little bit of a camp experience,” she adds.
In Ontario, Camp Kandalore in the Algonquin Highlands shifted its overnight programs to later in the summer when there was no definite provincial timeline for reopening. Normally, the camp’s overnight fees start at about $1,620 for a one-week stay for kids aged 6 to 11.
”We have just recently shifted our programs and are currently working with our parents to re-register their campers for this summer” for overnight programs starting later in July if allowed by the province, says Janice Greenshields, director of the traditional camp, which is especially popular for its canoe trips.
This will mark the second summer Manon Delorme and her husband won’t be able to register their daughter Gaelle, 15, and son Sasha, 12, at Kandalore. Before the pandemic began last year, it had been their overnight camp of choice since daughter Emi, now 19, first attended when she was six.
“Emi has had three birthdays since she finished camp, and before that, she celebrated all her important birthdays in camp,” Ms. Delorme says.
Camp Couchiching in central Ontario cancelled its overnight programs in early May. But the non-profit camp has already raised over half of the $200,000 targeted in a fundraising campaign thanks to alumni, parents and outside donors. It’s also pivoting to offering family experiences such as cottage rentals, says its website, which adds: “COVID has knocked us down, but we will rise again.”
Ms. McIver has high hopes Camp Kindle will open its site to all families in 2022. “Once COVID is over, we suspect we will slip back to regular operations, and we will be renting Camp Kindle out again.”