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youth programs

Girl guides camping along the Credit River in Ontario, in 1913. The Girl Guides of Canada is marking its 100th anniversary this year but membership has dropped.The Canadian Press

Camp Wa-Thik-Ane was any outdoor enthusiast's dream, sitting in a quiet forest miles from the main highway and next to a little lake perfect for canoeing and fishing.

But even the idyllic Laurentians could not shield Quebec's last Girl Guide camp from indifference. After 84 years of sing-a-long campfires, the Girl Guides have shut down summer programming at Wa-Thik-Ane. Only 30 girls attended last year.

The Girl Guide movement founded 100 years ago to foster outdoor and leadership skills is shutting Canadian camps and selling off land to ease a financial crunch caused by a steep, long-term membership decline.

Faced with years of deficits caused by the camps, including a $1.3-million shortfall in 2008, Ontario's Girl Guide council has shut down 16 camps and will sell millions of dollars worth of property over the next 18 months, some of it in prime vacation spots.

A camp in British Columbia is facing a major tax bill and possible closing. Similar stories are playing out in the United States, where dozens of camps have been closed and put up for sale.

Guide leaders in Quebec have said they have no plans to sell the valuable real estate near Morin Heights, 70 kilometres northwest of Montreal, but former participants lament that it's only a matter of time.

"Sadly, someone will buy the land, knock it down, put up a bunch of condos," said Kelly Yale, a 43-year-old accountant who was both a leader and camper at Camp Wa-Thik-Ane. "It's just the way of the world."

Marnie Cumming, the Ontario Girl Guide commissioner, said money was not the only factor in the decision to unload nearly half of Ontario's 33 camps. Guide membership in Canada has fallen to just over 90,000 from 230,000 in the early 1990s.

"We really had a huge overcapacity," Ms. Cumming said. "All across the country, we're looking at our camps and really trying to analyze to make sure we're making the best use of our resources."

Scout and Girl Guide leaders say they are fighting an image problem as a dusty vestige of another time, along with an explosion in the number of youth pastimes.

Ms. Yale, who could never persuade her adult daughter to join, said the Girl Guides haven't adapted to modern childhood. Girls raised in daycare would rather run around a soccer pitch than participate in the group activities typically reserved for the youngest Guides, she said. `

"My daughter was more of a sporty kid, less of a tap-dancing-arts-and-crafts kind of kid," Ms. Yale explained.

"By the time you're five now, you've spent a lot of time in groups, you've probably made 2,000 snowmen, along with every other little kid craft. By the time you're six, you're in swimming lessons and gymnastics five times a week. When you get to the age where the Girl Guides really get into the fun stuff like camping and canoeing, it's off your radar."

Scouts Canada has also been quietly peddling their land across Canada since the 1990s. Like the guides, the scouts have promised proceeds from sales will mainly go into remaining camps.

Liam Morland, a troop leader and critic of the sales, said 44 properties were sold or had leases terminated since the late 1990s.

Mr. Morland, scoutmaster of the 21st Waterloo Scout Troop, started a website years ago dedicated to giving fellow leaders a tool to find new camp options. His site became a kind of camp sale watchdog in 2004, when the bulk of the massive Scout selloff took place.

The most controversial sale among Scouts may have been the $1.25-million sale of about a quarter of the Haliburton Scout Reserve.

"The thing that really burned people about that one is it was basically the premier camp in the whole country," Mr. Morland said.

Scout leaders also point out that Scout and Girl Guide land was often bequeathed, donated or purchased at a fraction of the cost, thanks to generous sellers.

With Girl Guide and Scout enrolment basically flat in the past couple of years and showing signs of future growth, the selloffs "basically set us up so we can't grow," Mr. Morland said.

"Once the land gets sold, there is no way we can ever get it back."