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Neveeth Raguthas, 11, and the First Ontario Tamil Scouting Group stop to play a game while hiking in Scarborough. (JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Neveeth Raguthas, 11, and the First Ontario Tamil Scouting Group stop to play a game while hiking in Scarborough. (JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Focus

It's not your Leave it to Beaver Scouts any more Add to ...

"Everywhere we go-o. People wanna kno-ow. Who we a-are," the group of five-, six- and seven-year-olds chanted. As the 30-strong group of Beavers bumbled along the dirt trail in Surrey, B.C.'s Watershed Park this May, their rallying cry echoed that of thousands of Scouts Canada members before them.

But with a twist: "We are the Khalsa, mighty mighty Khalsa." The group had swapped the word "Beavers" with the term for baptized Sikhs.

The Khalsa Scouts, who formed just in April, could represent the way forward for Scouts Canada, an organization scrambling to stay relevant 103 years after its formation. The brown-skinned youngsters meet not in a school gymnasium but in a Sikh temple: Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara. They pledge the "I promise to love God" portion of the original Scout Promise with vigour and also recite Sikh prayers at meetings before they make dioramas of woodland habitats. Most come from families that have never pitched a tent. But they are eager to be part of this symbol, to them, of Canadian society.

Members of the First Ontario Tamil Scouting Group stop to play a game while hiking in Scarborough.

Like its female-only counterpart, Girl Guides of Canada, Scouts Canada has been losing members for decades. As of this week, the organization had 75,999 youths registered in its programs, down 73 per cent from its peak of 286,414 in 1965. Last year, in an action plan drawn up by the Scouts Canadachief commissioner's task force, the organization was presented with an unpleasant fact: If membership continues to decline at the average annual rate it has since 1997, Scouts Canada will be out of members by 2017.

Members of the executive are now re-examining nearly every facet of a program known for campfire hot dog roasts, apple sales in supermarket parking lots, and knot-tying. The stereotype of the Boy Scout hasn't changed much from what it was in the middle of the 20th century. It is best imagined on screen by the roly-poly Russell in Pixar's Up - the inexhaustible do-gooder, always offering senior citizens help crossing the street and unbelievably proud of his badge-covered sash.

Now, Scouts Canada is toying with those long-held traditions. Groups devoted to Canada's diverse cultural and religious communities? YouTube videos on how to set up a tarp? A hockey league?

Jarthuson Jeyakumar, 15, of the First Ontario Tamil Scouting Group, sets up a game for his troop in Scarborough.

"I tell people all the time we're not your father's or grandfather's Boy Scouts. The world has changed and we've evolved with the times as well," says Stephen Kent, the chief commissioner.

This year, Scouts Canada's board of governors set aside $1-million to start a legacy fund, which will be used for new projects. The board has also hired St. John's-based Target Marketing to help it rebrand itself for a fall recruitment campaign.

"A traditional ad for Scouts would say, 'Come have fun, make friends, get outdoors and experience Scouting.' That's all good, but it's not compelling enough," says Mr. Kent, who is a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly.

The organization is repackaging Scouting as a way to grow future leaders. Prominent, influential Canadians will be front and centre in ads that highlight their not-so-well-known Scouting backgrounds. The message? "We build successful people."

For decades, marketing has been a modest affair: mostly just posters at schools and public libraries featuring grinning kids in Scout uniforms.

"It won't be enough to tack a poster on a community bulletin board," Mr. Kent says. "We really have to engage with people through social media, through the Internet, to the places we can reach large numbers."

But as Scout groups dwindle to single-digit memberships or even disband, some are asking whether it is too little too late.

Malaviya Nerumalan, 9 (left), Jathuson Jeyakumar, 15 (centre, kneeling); and Arogena Kaviphakaran, 11 (right) are members of the First Ontario Tamil Scouting Group.

THE ROCKY ROAD

This isn't Scouts Canada's first identity crisis. James Trepanier, a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto, who is writing his thesis on the history of Scouts in Canada, says the organization considered overhauling everything from uniforms to camping in the late sixties, when membership first began to slip.

"There was a number of times they'd do a massive navel-gazing exercise to figure out what they could do differently to bring kids back into the movement," he says. In the end, few dramatic changes were adopted, save for making all sections co-ed in 1992; a departure from their American counterparts, where girls are mostly excluded from Scouts.

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