Written by: Carl Hiehn
Since 1969 Outward Bound Canada has been focused on providing students with wilderness adventures that cultivate resilience, leadership, connections and compassion through inspiring and challenging journeys of self-discovery in the natural world.
New courses and programs are designed in response to student interest, program demand, and our drive to continue developing innovative and year-round programming. Through this framework, programs have evolved from 21-day wilderness adventures to include a variety of shorter and longer urban and wilderness courses.
In 2010, this framework helped identify a demand for youth outdoor adventures with lower financial and travel barriers for families in Canada’s largest urban centres. These challenges proved especially true for students residing in Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods.
“There was the opportunity to step back as an organization and ask ourselves what are we doing, who are we serving and how are we serving them,” says Marika Chandler, Ontario Program Director. “We are more and more urban as a country and a globe. And 21-days in the wilderness can be more and more extreme for people.”
To address this and better serve families in the GTA, a new arm of programming would be developed and delivered that would meet our mission and emphasize accessibility.
After studying barriers to entry (including flight costs and program length), then Toronto Centre Program Director, Lindsay Cornell, and other key individuals, launched a new urban program at Evergreen Brick Works, a non-profit urban green space located in downtown Toronto.
“By bringing our programming into an urban environment, we were able to make the accessibility high,” says Lindsay, recounting the initial launch.
Toronto’s urban programming officially kicked off in March of 2011. Interest was immediate and programs began developing in collaboration with Toronto-area schools.
Rob Wallis, Principal and Education Manager, emphasizes how the role of outdoor education differs in this new urban programming as compared to its role in other school programs.
“I think the M.O. at mainstream schools is ‘we’re going to be in a classroom and every so often we’ll get outside.’ But, I feel at Outward Bound we're on a whole other level. Our M.O. is to be outside and if we absolutely have to, we’ll learn in a classroom.”
Rob also emphasizes how the urban program impacts and inspires students to go further. He loves seeing students learn the basics of camping in an urban setting and then potentially take on one of our longer courses, such as a 21-day wilderness adventure.
After seeing success in Toronto, programming was expanded to other urban centres across Canada, launching in Vancouver, B.C. and just this past year in Hamilton and the surrounding region.
In some cases, programs now begin in an urban setting, allowing students to get their feet wet in a familiar environment before transitioning into a more traditional Outward Bound experience.
A great example of this urban-wilderness mixed-style of programming is our new 15-day Ontario Cultural Discovery program, running August 7 - 25 for students aged 16- to 19-years-old. Participants will earn a high school credit by spending five days in Toronto’s Brick Works to lay out the foundation and expectations of the course, before travelling to Ontario’s beloved Temagami region for several days of hiking, paddling and camping.
Lindsay, Marika and Rob all agree the benefits of urban programming are varied and vast; the most common thing they hear from participants is their sense of wonder and awe in response to the beauty of Canada’s urban green spaces.
“A lot of people write on the feedback forms about how amazing and beautiful Toronto actually is and how easily accessible these beautiful spaces are,” says Rob.
Marika agrees, adding, “Toronto has some really cool spaces and after the program it feels different to be in those spaces.”