Editor’s note, Sept. 7, 2023: This story has been updated to include information from a statement from the Cowichan Valley School District that says the district is also cutting ties with Camp Qwanoes.
Summer camps at Camp Qwanoes in Crofton are so popular that more than 500 kids are on a waitlist this summer. The Christian non-profit camp, founded in 1966, also has a long history of being a popular setting for school outings. But this coming year, the number of school trips to the camp may decrease due to concerns around the camp’s policies and inclusivity.
An email statement sent to The Discourse from the Cowichan Valley School District on Sept. 6 said the district will no longer conduct business with Camp Qwanoes. The decision comes after two other school districts announced earlier in the summer that they would also cancel future programming with the camp. On July 19, Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools emailed a statement to the district’s families that said after an investigation into concerns that the camp’s staff agreement is discriminatory, the school board decided to sever ties with the camp. At the end of July, Sooke School District 62 informed The Discourse that it too would not approve any future programming or involvement with Camp Qwanoes.
At issue are provisions in the camp’s staff agreement that list abortion, homosexuality and premarital sex, among other things, as sins and that staff agree to “support, promote and seek to live out the beliefs, values and principles” represented in the agreement. The camp is affiliated with the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches.
Sixteen-year-old Ryland Racicot of Duncan, who initially raised concerns this spring about the staff agreement — which he was asked to sign to participate in a leadership program at the camp — says he was “thrilled” to learn about the recent school districts’ decisions. In contrast, the camp’s executive director finds these decisions surprising and believes the camp is being “misrepresented.”
Three of four pages from the Camp Qwanoes staff agreement that were highlighted by Ryland Racicot and his mother, Sylvia Webb. Provided by Sylvia Webb.
Half-century partnership between Camp Qwanoes and school district ends
For decades, Grade 7 students at many elementary schools in the Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools district have held overnight trips at Camp Qwanoes near the end of the school year. Both the district and the camp say that no concerns about their partnership had been raised prior to this year.
However, in late May, Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools spokesperson Dale Burgos says concerned community members contacted the school district in response to a story, published by The Discourse in April, about allegations by Racicot and his family that the camp’s staff agreement is discriminatory. Burgos says the community members wanted to ensure that all students would feel welcome at the camp.
The district investigated these concerns, including a conversation Superintendent Scott Saywell had with Camp Qwanoes representatives that confirmed the information that had been brought to the district’s attention about the staff agreement, Burgos explains.
The board made its decision in June, within weeks of learning about the concerns, he says. Families in the district were notified about the decision by email on July 19.
According to Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools board chair Greg Keller, the decision was not made lightly. “It was a well researched and thoroughly discussed decision that we came to as a board to sever ties with the camp,” he says.
The camp’s staff agreement is at odds with the district’s strategic plan, Keller explains.
“One of the goals in our strategic plan is creating safe, caring and healthy learning and working environments. Part of that is ensuring that our practices are inclusive of the diversity of students that we have in our district,” he says. “We came to the conclusion that the practices at Camp Qwanoes did not align with that goal or our practice or values of being an inclusive organization.”
Keller says he doesn’t want the decision to come across as though the school district doesn’t support freedom of religion.
“We recognize and honour and acknowledge the fact that there’s many different religious organizations out there and we want to encourage freedom of religion and this is really not anything to do with that,” Keller says. “It’s more about the values we hold to creating inclusive and diverse environments … We want to make sure that we’re aligned with the organizations that we do business with.”
The majority of the feedback the district has received since announcing its decision two weeks ago has been positive, he says. Because Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools values outdoor education and opportunities for students to interact outdoors, Keller says he is hopeful the district will find a suitable new partner for overnight student trips.
“As a board we are happy to support the [2SLGBTQIA+] community where we can to ensure that we’re creating spaces where they feel safe, as well as the remainder of our students and staff population,” Keller says.
An email statement from the Cowichan Valley School District says that after learning about the camp’s staff agreement, the district worked with newly returning principals, vice principals and the district leadership team and validated details from stories about the camp with Camp Qwanoes. The statement says there are no outstanding agreements between the camp and district schools and that there will be no future business between the two parties.
“Our Board of Education, and the entire school district, very publicly, repeatedly and consistently stand beside members of the LGBTQ2+ community and oppose discrimination and marginalization at every opportunity,” the statement says. “This includes embedding these beliefs in the board’s Policy 25: Identity, Belonging and Connection; participating in events like Duncan’s Pride Parade and publicly calling out and countering hateful rhetoric in our community.”
Camp Qwanoes ‘saddened and surprised’ by school board decision
In an email response to questions from The Discourse, Camp Qwanoes executive director Scott Bayley says Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools informed the camp in late June of its decision to cut ties. However, he says the camp was not informed that the school district would be making a public statement and sending out an email to all the families in the district.
“We were both saddened and surprised by their decision and the way they communicated it,” Bayley says. “It was quite a shock that a publicly funded school district, from which many of our campers and staff come, would take such a hostile position and approach against a non-profit Christian camp, especially since we have worked so well together for decades without incident or problems.”
Bayley reiterates that the camp welcomes campers of all backgrounds to attend, and treats everyone equally — despite the staff agreement identifying homosexuality, among other things, as sinful and requiring staff to support principles in the agreement.
He says he would have liked to have been able to review the school district’s communications because he says what went out “misrepresented” the camp and its partnership with the school district. He says he emailed late last week his concerns about this to Superintendent Saywell and is awaiting a reply.
When asked to elaborate on how the school district has misrepresented the camp, Bayley says he preferred to share this directly with the district, but provided one example to The Discourse.
The statement from Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools emphasizes the district’s commitment to providing a “safe and inclusive” space and experience for students and school community members. Bayley says that as a result of safety being referenced in the statement, many parents have contacted the camp to ask if a camper safety incident had happened and was hidden. Bayley says he wishes the district would have noted in its communications that no safety incidents have happened and no complaints have been made during any of the school group bookings.
Bayley says Camp Qwanoes is a safe and inclusive place where campers and guests of all backgrounds and beliefs are treated as equals, reflecting unconditional love for everyone that is based in the camp’s Christian faith.
“If SD68 [Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools] believes that their students will not be safe if they come to a place run by people with different beliefs, does this mean they feel their school is less safe if there are teachers and students with beliefs different than their own? Does their stance reflect a safe and inclusive school system? Will Christian students or ones from other faiths going into their classes this fall be safe? Are Christian parents welcome as partners in their schools?” Bayley asks.
The Discourse reached out to Superintendent Saywell to get a response to Bayley’s questions.
“The school district continues to recognize the diversity and deeply personal nature of religious beliefs,” Saywell says. “It is important to note, the school district’s decision to end its partnership with Camp Qwanoes is not about bias against Christians. In fact, we have long standing partnerships with other Christian camps and religious groups that remain in good standing,”
Saywell adds, “The decision is based on the camp’s requirement for staff to sign an agreement that contradicts the district’s commitment to valuing diversity, as highlighted in the SD68 Inclusion Policy and supported in Administrative Procedure 347 – Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. As a public school district, it is essential for us to ensure that our partner organizations are committed to providing a safe and supportive environment for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or beliefs.”
Bayley says the camp has received a mix of positive and negative feedback after The Discourse article came out in April, with the majority expressing support. He says he appreciated the conversations he had with people in light of the article, whether they were supportive or not.
According to Bayley, who has been with the camp for 34 years, the current staff agreement has been in place for more than 25 years. He says that since the article came out none of the more than 250 people who have served on staff at Camp Qwanoes this summer withdrew or expressed concerns about the staff agreement.
Families withdrew around 10 children from camp this summer in response to The Discourse article, Bayley says, while noting this represents less than a quarter of one per cent of Qwanoes campers.
“In some cases when a family read the article and wanted to withdraw their child, after a conversation with us they decided to allow them to still come,” he says.
Former camper says he wouldn’t change a thing about his decision to out the camp’s staff agreement
The Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools board had already made its decision to sever ties with Qwanoes but hadn’t announced it to the public yet when local father Jared Qwustenuxun Williams posted on Facebook about why he chose to pull his child out of the summer camp. Qwustenuxun says he made the decision to do so after having a two-hour conversation with Bayley that “just kept going around in circles.” His post has been shared on Facebook more than 1,300 times and received more than 1,100 comments.
Racicot and his mother Sylvia Webb read through those comments as well as others on social media posts about The Discourse’s article. Webb says it has been “awful” to read about bad experiences people had at the camp that were related to the camp’s values, beliefs and principles.
It affirmed their decision to step forward, Webb says. “The biggest part about this is now it’s out in the open and it’s important that people are informed.”
Webb says she and her son have not received much negative feedback for raising the initial concerns about the camp’s staff agreement.
“It’s brought us a lot closer to some of our friends,” she says. “And it’s definitely changed some friendships as well – there’s a few of our friends that feel frustrated that we brought this up because [they say] ‘it’s just a camp.’”
Webb says that her response to this is to present a scenario of a coffee shop offering the perfect cup of coffee but then it’s discovered that a portion of the proceeds go to something abhorrent such as child trafficking.
“You wouldn’t drink the coffee,” Webb says. “Even if you think ‘oh, it’s just a camp it doesn’t matter,’ it does because you’re funding that belief.”
Racicot, who enjoyed his five summers as a camper at Qwanoes before being invited to participate in a leadership program that required him to sign the staff agreement, says he wouldn’t change a thing about his decision to come forward.
“I have a lot of people that are very proud of what we have done, especially a lot of parents,” Racicot says. He and his mom say they are going to revisit whether to file a complaint about the camp with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.
Racicot says he is disappointed that there hasn’t been any changes on the website, after Bayley said in April that the camp was going to review its website and look for ways to “provide even greater clarity.” At the time, the camp’s staff agreement was not available on the camp’s website, but it could be found online through searching for key words in the agreement. After the article was published, that link was taken down.
When asked about this, Bayley says that even before the article came out, the camp had already set a goal to refine the staff agreement, but because they’re in the middle of a busy summer, the camp hasn’t had time to make changes to the website.
“As a Christian camp that is part of many churches, we have always sought staff and volunteers who share similar beliefs and we will continue to do the same. These beliefs include that we are to love and accept everyone. There are some tweaks that we will make to our staff standards for the sake of clarity, but the core beliefs will remain the same,” Bayley says. “Once it is tweaked, we will then decide the best way to communicate it.”
Sooke School District follows suit
On Friday, July 28, Sooke School District 62 sent The Discourse a statement from interim board chair Amanda Dowhy explaining that they will not be approving further involvement with Camp Qwanoes. The statement says the district is “committed to creating safe, accessible and inclusive learning environments.” The district emphasizes that it is important for students and staff to feel a sense of belonging in order to grow and succeed.
“Our Board of Education supports and seeks to partner with organizations that share our values and commitment to creating safe and inclusive environments for all. We were recently made aware of some of the core values that Camp Qwanoes holds for leadership and staff and they do not align with those of the Sooke School District,” the statement says. “In light of this new information, future programming or involvement with Camp Qwanoes will not be approved. It is paramount that the organizations we associate with value diversity, equity and inclusion and put in the continual work of ensuring their environments are safe and accessible for all school community members.”
Bayley learned about Sooke School District’s statement from The Discourse and says that nobody from the school district has contacted the camp about any concerns.
He says that his response to the statement is similar to his previous reply regarding the Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools decision.
“We believe that people with different beliefs can still get along and enjoy a great time together — it happens all the time at Camp Qwanoes, and this is what we teach our campers and staff,” Bayley says. “It seems this may be needed more than ever in a world that likes to take sides and treat people as enemies who believe something different.”
Webb says she recently emailed her concerns to Cowichan Valley School District in hopes that they will reconsider their partnership with the camp. According to Cowichan Valley School District board chair Cathy Schmidt, because the board isn’t in session and the director of communications has been out of the office, the district has not yet been able to look into the matter.
“By Ryland saying no, and then wanting to take it further, it kind of creates a ripple and creates a wave,” Webb says. “At the end of the day it will create the change that’s needed for our community and for everyone.”
The Greater Victoria School District, Saanich Schools district, and Queen of Angels School did not return requests for comment from The Discourse about their partnerships with Camp Qwanoes. Caleb Summerfelt, governor of Rotary District 5020, which sponsors the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards for Grades 8 to10 students held each fall at Camp Qwanoes, says he is unable to comment because he is not familiar with the concerns.