"Fresh Air for Kiddies": The Fresh Air Camps of Lake Winnipeg

Article excerpt

   If ever you wish to go in for philanthropy;
   if ever you wish to be of real use in the world,
   do something for children. (1)

A Humble Beginning

In a glade of poplars and oak in Norwood Grove in St. Boniface, a tent camp had sprung up in July 1900. In the large open area adjacent, a band of children were absorbed in laughter and play. According to the Salvation Army, who helped organize the camp, they were having the time of their lives during a two-week holiday:

   [The children] were
   pleased and happy
   to get away from the
   one-roomed dwellings,
   in the close city
   tenements, where the
   bright sunshine only
   reaches in a suffocating
   heat; they were glad to
   be free from restraint,
   free to roam where they
   would, restricted only
   by a wholesome terror
   of the farmer's cows
   browsing peacefully
   not far away. (2)


This tent-camp experience on the edge of the city was the culmination of plans cobbled together in the preceding weeks. Winnipeg Mayor Horace Wilson had called a special meeting on 29 June. Lady Agnes Schultz, wife of the late Lieutenant-Governor John C. Schultz, chaired the meeting. Also, present were Rev. Charles W. McKim, perhaps representing the Children's Aid Society; Winnipeg's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Maxwell S. Inglis; federal Lands Inspector E. F. Stephenson; Alderman William G. Bell; Mrs. Major Jennie Southall of the Salvation Army (SA); and several others. Their goal: to organize a fresh air camp for Winnipeg's poor children.

Mrs. Southall, an attractive 36-year-old mother of three with 15 years' experience in Salvation Army social work, had demonstrated remarkable organizational skills. The assembled worthies of the community, therefore, were unanimous that she be given charge of her proposed camp, including the finances and daily operations. The Army was an evangelical church, but already a recognized and trusted provider of social services in Winnipeg.

During the 1890s, fresh air camps for working-class and poor children were becoming numerous in England and the United States, but were virtually unknown in Canada. In a letter to the editor of the Morning Telegram, (3) Dr. Inglis urged serious attention be paid to this problem, because health workers had identified hundreds of cases of city children living in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, and hunger. Prevailing medical opinion pinpointed "bad air" (miasma) as a contributing factor in illness, believing children needed "fresh" air to thrive. Before electricity was widely used, domestic coal- and wood-fired stoves and furnaces made for poor indoor air quality. British efforts to give children a summer country respite away from such conditions began around 1865, (4) and by 1900, fresh air camps and outings were commonplace in Britain, the USA, Australia and New Zealand.


Social historian Sharon Wall suggests that the camps blossomed in Canada after 1920 because their administrators attempted to serve the dual purposes of promoting public health among poor children and fostering social improvement by inculcating middle class values among the poor. (5) Fresh air camps were a manifestation of the growing belief that society as a whole had a role to play in helping its most vulnerable members. Associated Winnipeg Fresh Air Camps' President William Whyte wrote of the multiple benefits of camps in 1939:

   Our [camps] bring health, happiness and
   a knowledge of good citizenship to needy,
   underprivileged children in this community ...
   [and give them] a sorely-needed vacation away
   from the stifling heat of summer. (6)

In Winnipeg, this movement started early in the twentieth century. In July 1900, in Norwood Grove camp, the SA's Mrs. Southall took charge, assisted by four SA officers; a modestly paid, newly graduated Nurse McLeod and her five assistants provided care for sick children. …