As a new crop of Girl Guides start their year, I’m sifting through my own Guiding memorabilia – and throwing it away. It’s a bittersweet moment of liberty from the badges which were both my finest preteen achievement and lifelong albatross.
My moment of reckoning happened by chance. I overheard a conversation about Girl Guide cookies and searched for ordering information. I hadn’t looked at the program since I aged out in the early 1990s and was blown away by what I saw. Guides are now urged to “Just Be” – just be adventurous, just be yourself. It’s a message I could have used during my tenure and it jolted me into reexamining badges I’ve cherished for 30-some years.
My troop leader was a difficult woman who relished the chance to demonstrate her sharp tongue. In an environment where conformity mattered more than creativity, I began my rapid pursuit of badges. I pursued them with relentless zeal, starting with the hostess, baker, and gardener emblems. Tidiness, utility, and conformity were my lodestars as I earned Guiding’s highest honour, the All Round Cord. I anxiously hoped my accomplishments would save me from scorn, but I didn’t always succeed.
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One night, a young woman from another country (possibly the former Swaziland or Kenya) visited our troop. As part of her presentation, she prepared a traditional meal. Her dish of tender meat and spicy sauce was a culinary lightning bolt to my young mouth. I was so awestruck by the rich, fragrant food that I forgot all the manners expected of a hostess badge recipient. I couldn’t help but loudly proclaim “It’s so good!” after every delicious bite, an annoying keenness that was met with derision. My effusive conduct and the accompanying rebukes still fill me with shame to this day.
As I confront my complicated memories of the Guiding moment, I’ve learned that I’m not alone. Calgary-based professional communicator Joanna Farley recalls: “As a disabled immigrant in a small town, Girl Guides was my one opportunity to interact with other girls outside school. Looking back, I’m concerned about the lack of diversity, the focus on perfectionism… But Guides was my safe space to make friends while learning about my capabilities.”
Halifax-based writer Stephanie Domet was an enthusiastic Brownie before progressing into Girl Guides. Her positive experience ended abruptly when a Guiding leader took her aside and said that she should “consider whether Guiding is for you.” Domet internalized that she was “just too much” and lost a program she greatly enjoyed. She says: “I like cooking and I like doing things in the garden and really hands-on things…,” she says. “And so I (otherwise) would have gone back because I like learning stuff.”
Sholeh Alemi Fabbri, a Toronto-area content producer with Good Measure Productions, also struggled with the leadership in her troop in the late 1980s. “Success is based on the leader,” she says. “I quit Guides because all my leader did was smoke and we hardly earned any badges.” Katie Lewis, a speechwriter in Vancouver, also knows just how much influence a leader can wield over programming, but in her case, with a much different outcome. “Guiding gave me a love of camping,” Lewis says “So much of the experience is based on the leader, and I was really blessed to have some incredibly wonderful ones.”
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Today, badges based on traditional gender roles are out and a commitment to science, technology, engineering and math subjects, feminist principles, and building confidence is in. Girl Guide parent Christina Myers says that her daughter’s Surrey, B.C., troop is extremely welcoming, adding “It has been a huge social connection for my kid, who has never had a lot of friends in her own school.” Pamela Bragg-Larocque, a volunteer Guide leader in Orangeville, Ont., says that her unit focuses on “helping the girls realize that they have the power to make change and they can be whatever and whoever they are.”
My time in Guiding certainly isn’t without fond memories. Many leaders were kind and my mother counted herself among the dedicated volunteers. I remember the thrill of having my very own camping equipment and proudly assembling recipes for our cookbook campaign. But after talking with so many former members, I know it’s time for my Guiding keepsakes to go. I don’t need to keep mementos of a time when it was better to politely serve food than exclaim over its flavour.
I’m prepared to throw my badges away but before I do, a more fitting suggestion comes along. Pamela Bragg-Larocque requests them for her troop. In her invitation, she said: “I would LOVE to use them to show the girls how far we have come.” I couldn’t agree more. Finally, after 30 years, my Girl Guide badges have a chance to just be adventurous and are finding a new home and higher purpose.
Vanessa Chiasson is a freelance writer, travel blogger, and digital strategist based in Ottawa.
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