Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Boy Scouts and the British World: Autonomy within an Imperial Institution, 1908-1936

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Boy Scouts and the British World: Autonomy within an Imperial Institution, 1908-1936

Article excerpt

The surge of renewed interest historians have shown in the British Empire in the last several decades has been accompanied by an effort to place the colonies of settlement (or dominions) back into imperial history. Scholars have attempted to demonstrate how integrated the dominions were within the imperial system, as part of a "Greater Britain," or "British World." (1) One of the most fruitful aspects of this field has been the chance to explore how dominion citizens understood their place in the Empire. It has been suggested that imperialists in the dominions hoped to create a Better Britain, taking the best of "Britishness" and applying it to new geographies. (2) But how did these "Better Britons" relate to the imperial centre? How did they view their place within the British world? One strategy for examining sentiment toward the Empire in the dominions is to trace the interactions between dominion and metropole within unofficial imperial institutions. After all, social institutions, however informal, were often the strongest form of imperial networks. (3) The Boy Scout movement is a good example of this type of informal institution, and is explored here through its transatlantic relationship between Canada and the United Kingdom. Despite the British origins and imperial overtones of the Boy Scout program, the movement acted less like an imperial imposition than it did as an outlet for Canadian autonomy. The leadership of Canadian Scouting did not deny the existence and usefulness of a British world system, but it did attempt to articulate a more prominent, autonomous role for Canadians within that system.

The Boy Scout program was founded in 1907 by Robert Baden-Powell, a veteran of the Boer War. The program was designed to instil Baden-Powell's vision of "good citizenship" in Britain's youth: a quasi-militaristic combination of active self-sufficiency, patriotic duty, and good-natured fellowship. The program had a wide appeal, and quickly expanded beyond Britain, where it was modified and adapted. In Canada, as in the other dominions, the Boy Scouts (and its counterpart, the Girl Guides) caught on quickly.

The imperial aspect of the program was hard to ignore in the early years. (4) Baden-Powell himself was a larger-than-life spokesman for Empire, ever since his actions during the Boer War shot him to fame as the hero of the siege of Mafeking. But to what extent could Canadians relate to the sort of imperial mythology Baden-Powell represented? Did Canada have an imperial identity of its own? The unsettled and contestable state of dominion identity in the interwar years is apparent in the ways in which the Canadian Boy Scouts negotiated their imperial position. Despite the program's decidedly non-Canadian provenance and character, the Boy Scouts in Canada took on national (not to mention local and regional) prejudices and values. Far from being a monolithic pillar of imperial unity, the movement echoed the diversity of opinion found in imperial relationships. Kristine Alexander makes a similar observation about the Girl Guides, suggesting that attempts to create an inclusive sisterhood often ended up being exclusionary in an imperial context. (5)

Race and class both shaped the ability of Canadian Scouts to be accepted. Baden-Powell originally intended the movement to include British children only. Other European youth were quickly accommodated as well. In Canada, Baden-Powell hoped that the Scout movement would ease the assimilation of Eastern European settlers and French Canadians into a British community. But those same invented traditions and values that created a sense of community for British settlers simultaneously denigrated non-British identities. (6) Indigenous peoples were excluded altogether, and in this way the Boy Scouts were indeed a colonizing institution. It was not until the early 1930s that Baden-Powell changed his mind, and began actively campaigning for the inclusion of Indigenous Scout groups, particularly in India and South Africa. …

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