Transcript: Ep. 7 - Escaping war to land at summer camp | Jul 02, 2019

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Hi, I'm Colin Ellis,
and you're listening to
On Docs,
a podcast about documentaries
and the stories they tell.
It's officially summertime,
and many of you listening
right now
probably have children
at summer camp,
or maybe have your own memories
of the smell of the woods
or the sound of crackling
or the itchy feeling
of a million bug bites.
Now, imagine you've just
experienced your home country
being torn up by war.
You're a child,
you fled with your family
and you've landed in a strange
new country,
and then, you are thrust
into summer camp.
That's what happened to Omer
and Hameed.
They're teenagers from Iraq
who came to Canada with
their mother as refugees.
Less than a year later,
Omer and Hamid found themselves
at Camp Pathfinder.
Is Canada really different
from-- from Iraq?
Yeah, in Canada nobody kill
It's a different world here
in Canada, right?
Yeah, it's nice, Canada.
(Fire crackling)
Pathfinder invited ten boys
from Iraq and Syria
to spend a couple of weeks
at their all-boys camp.
It's in Algonquin Park
and it's been operating
for over 100 years.
The boys were exposed to all the
things kids at summer camp do.
I'm talking about fishing,
sailing, building a fire,
hiking through the woods.
They had none of the comforts
of home
and were hundreds of kilometres
away from their parents.
And then, one day,
a film crew shows up.
They came across to us as,
"We'd like to come and spend
a couple weeks
"filming everything that happens
at the camp,
"with a focus on these kids
who are newly arrived in Canada,
"and we would like to explore
this issue of refugee escape
"and arrival and assimilation
"from a personal point of view,
and not from a political
or societal point of view."
That's the camp's owner and
director Mike Sladden.
He was approached by documentary
filmmaker Barbara Kopple.
Kopple has won two Oscars
for her documentaries.
She's directed films
on everything
from coal miners in Kentucky
to the Dixie Chicks documentary
Shut Up And Sing.
For her next project, Kopple
wanted to look at refugees,
but instead of going to a war
zone, she went to a summer camp.
The parents of the kids
we invited,
and the staff of the camp,
both felt that it was
a worthwhile idea
because in spite of the fact
that it might be a bit intrusive
at times,
or would sort of change
the overall experience
of being up in Algonquin Park,
that it would shed a light
on, you know, a human...
just a human effort to connect.
The film that came out of
this experiment
is called
New Homeland.
It had its premiere at Hot Docs
in the spring.
Sometimes, the scenery
in the film
looks like what you'd expect
at a summer camp,
but of course, the campers were
from a very different place.
I spoke with Sladden about
the reasons he invited boys
from Iraq and Syria
to Camp Pathfinder,
and what it was like to have a
documentary made about his camp.
We've got that coming up.

So, Mike, thank you so much
for joining us today.
Great to be here, thanks.
Um, just tell us a bit about
Pathfinder Camp, first of all.
Right, okay!
Well, Camp Pathfinder is a very
old canoe camp
located up in Algonquin Park.
It's on an island in
the backcountry interior
of Algonquin on Source Lake.
Source Lake is
the headwaters lake
of the Madawaska River system,
so that waterway eventually
makes its way to Ottawa
through the Ottawa Valley.
You know, Pathfinder was
established in 1914,
and has been operating
continuously ever since.
I was the third generation of my
family to, you know, boys
to get to go to this camp
back in the late '60s.
And for me, it just sort of
like it has for so many kids
over the years,
and then, I ended up having
all kinds of different
identities there.
You know, camper, counselor,
trip guide, paddling instructor,
alumni volunteer,
then parent,
and then, suddenly a buddy
of mine and I
who had grown up there
ended up as owners.
And you're originally from
the U.S.?
Yeah, raised in Rochester,
New York.
And you went to--
But spent all these summers
up in Ontario,
and for the last 20 years
have lived in the park
for half the year.
It's a great place for camping,
It's one of the greatest places
for kids to learn about
canoe travel
because it's such a tight,
protected little wilderness
So, a documentary crew
comes to you.
How does this happen?
How do you get in touch
with Barbara Kopple?
Uh, we got a call from a guy
who had gone to Camp Pathfinder
for a couple years as a little
kid, and he said,
"Oh, I was talking to some
fellow camp alumni recently
"and found out that you guys
are welcoming kids
"on scholarship from the U.S.
and Canada,
"that you have started inviting
Indigenous kids
"down from James Bay communities
"to participate in collaborative
canoe trips
"with Camp Pathfinder kids,
"and now that you're having
Syrian and Iraqi kids come
without any charge,
and I work for Barbara Kopple."
And that name sort of clicked
and rang a bell,
and then, he said, "You know, I
think we'd like to talk to you
"about maybe documenting some of
your experiences this summer
with a new crop of these kids."
Hmm, and had you heard of
Barbara Kopple before?
You said her name clicked.
Yeah, it turns out it made sense
to me a little bit later.
I had seen
Harlan County
when I was young.
That was made in 1976,
and I graduated high school
in 1976,
and turns out I had seen
that film
and I knew a little bit about
another film she had made,
Miss Sharon Jones,
which was more recent.
So, I just, you know,
we knew that she had long
and deep experience,
but we were unprepared
for their approach to us.
We didn't really think anything
about a project like that.
We were really focused on how
we were gonna help these kids
and their families have
a positive experience,
'cause it was gonna be
so new for them.
They came across to us as,
"We'd like to come and spend
a couple weeks
"filming everything that happens
at the camp,
"with a focus on these kids
who are newly arrived in Canada,
"and are new Canadians,
"and we would like to explore
this issue
"of refugee escape
"and arrival and assimilation
"from a personal point of view,
and not from a political
or societal point of view."
And was there any kind
of reluctance
to invite a film crew on?
Were any of the parents
or the kids kind of like,
"Uh, I don't know about this."
I think I was the most reluctant
at first.
You know, I think the backstory
is that we said no at first.
We thought that having a film
crew come would be so disruptive
and would change everyone's
experience so significantly,
especially in a remote and tiny
community like that
that it would risk undoing
what we were hoping to do
for not only the Syrian
and Iraqi kids
we invited to join us,
but all the members of
the summer community.
But we got over that pretty
and I think there were two
reasons why.
One was that some people we knew
were calling us saying,
"You'd be insane not to have
Barbara Kopple come
and make a film about anything
you do with that place."
And that was persuasive,
but more persuasive was that the
parents of the kids we invited,
and the staff of the camp,
many of whom are high school
and university kids,
both felt that it was
a worthwhile idea
because in spite of the fact
that it might be a bit intrusive
at times
or would sort of change
the overall experience
of being up in Algonquin Park,
that it would shed a light on,
you know, a human...
just a human effort to connect
between people,
and that might be worthwhile
if it reached, eventually,
an audience that could be
that that's the way to look
at human migration
and the challenge that people
are facing in something
like this unbelievable conflict
in the Middle East.
So, you mention inviting Syrian
and Iraqi refugee boys,
this is a boys summer camp.
Why did you start inviting
refugee kids
to Camp Pathfinder?
Well, I did grow up
in the States,
but spent so much time in Canada
that I really got to feel
Canada's outreach to Syrian
and the film touches on it
a little bit.
You know, in the States,
we were really horrified by some
of the reporting going on
about the Syrian conflict
and what was happening
to people there,
and about refugee camps
springing up in Turkey
and Jordan and Syria,
and then, we saw this photograph
that was widely published.
You know, there's a child
that had drowned
during a family's attempt to
escape in the Mediterranean
and had washed up on a beach
in North Africa,
and that picture was just
horrendous and just...
This is Alan Kurdi.
You know, it circulated
around the world.
And it turns out that Barbara
touches on that in the film,
as well, because some of the
sponsor parents in Toronto
were all so deeply affected
by that.
But I think it was one of those
moments where we felt,
you know, we're trying
to reach out
and bring people into
and expand the diversity
and the richness of our camp
and we could join in the spirit
that Canada is exemplifying
at that moment.
This was the winter of 2016.
And do you know much about
the kids
that came from Syria and Iraq?
Like, how much information
do you have about them
before they arrive?
Well, that's a difficult one,
because I knew enough to go
into Toronto
during the winter of '16
and really haunt around the city
trying to make contact
with sponsor family groups,
and with agencies
that were helping
government-assisted refugees
and we knew that we couldn't
just sort of throw our name
in the hat of summer camps
that would take any kind of
that wanted to sign their kid up
for a camp experience.
We had to find families
where we could get to know them
a little bit,
understand whether the boys
were really interested in
and ready for, first,
a residential experience away
from home,
and two, for a wilderness travel
kind of experience
that's very rustic
and sort of hard-core.
So, there was a lot of work done
leading up to that first summer
to find people and to get to
know families,
and to make a decent personal
connection before, you know,
inviting the kids to come up.
And there were families
for whom Pathfinder
wasn't the right choice.
They wanted for their kids
to go to day camp
and not sleep away at night.
They wanted their kids to focus
on soccer or art,
and we helped a bunch of
families find alternative camps
that would happily take
their kids at no charge,
but it wasn't a Pathfinder fit.
And so, we lucked out and found
these families
who we thought really would be
a Pathfinder fit.
Yeah, well, it's kind of tough,
I guess, for the parents
to certainly give up
their children for...
how long are they gone for,
a month?
Well, we tried to convince
everyone to come for a month
'cause that's kind of Canadian
summer camp--
--you know, baseline thing.
In the old days, many kids came
for 7-8 weeks every summer.
But families were reluctant
about that
and understandably so,
and so, it turned out that we
offered a two-week experience,
and we split the ten kids
that we invited
into two groups of five
so that they would spend two
different weeks, five and five,
at Pathfinder so that they would
have a chance
to really integrate more with
all the kids at the camp
and not tend to bunch together
or to be too focused
on each other.
And what kinds of activities
do you have them do
when they're up there?
Well, all the kids who come
to Pathfinder are swimming,
paddling, kayaking, climbing,
sailing, fishing.
They're learning about fires
and cooking,
navigation, orienteering.
They learn a lot about
the ecology at Algonquin
and the north,
and a little bit about
minimalist living, I guess.
You know, sort of
simplifying life
and being comfortable
with the least amount of stuff.
So, we know specifically for
the boys from Iraq and Syria,
they're obviously coming
from countries
that have been devastated
by war,
probably seen things
that we can't imagine.
They're dealing with some
serious trauma here.
How does your camp kind of help
them deal with that?
We were nervous, Colin,
about how things would go
for them
if the normal stresses
and strains
for a young kid leaving home
and being independent sometimes
for the first time.
You know, if those were
to play out
with this sort of added burden
of having had a traumatic
experience as young people.
And I guess in our experience
that first year,
the year that Barbara
and her crew covered, 2017,
nine out of the ten boys
sailed through it.
And their parents even
said to us
when we had a big orientation
day up in Algonquin Park
and brought everybody associated
with the families
and their support up together
for, you know, an all-day
experience at the camp,
they all said, "You know,
our kids were so young
"when we fled that their
memories are really limited,
"and we don't think that they're
going to have a hard time
"based on that, so much as it is
going to be difficult
"for them to be away from us
"and from our, you know,
family's almost obsession
with staying together
and staying close."
And so, that's gonna be big
for them,
and then, getting to know
and feeling part of a community
that really is all kinds of kids
from the U.S. and Canada,
and some from South America
and Europe and even China,
but predominantly
North American kids.
Like, how, we're thinking about
how they're gonna handle that.
And how did they get along with
the kids from North America?
Kids are kids, I mean, that's--
We found that out yet again.
You know, it's proven to us
year on year,
but that was the case in this,
for sure.
The film even has great
little moments
at the beginning of
their experience
when camp kids who have been
for a couple of years already
are just walking right up
to these boys,
introducing themselves, inviting
them to go tripping, play games.
(Boys shouting indistinctly)
BOY 1:
You coming?
BOY 2:
BOY 3:
Get the ball!
BOY 2:
BOY 1:
BOY 2:
Nice to meet you.
BOY 1:
Nice to meet you, too.
The kids, they lived in tents
with, the counselors
they had looking after them
at the beginning,
it made me feel good
about the kind of people
that come to the camp
'cause the welcome was authentic
and it was just the same
as it would have been
if you were from Cleveland
or Denver,
or you know, London or Sarnia.
Well, I want to ask about
one boy in particular, Omer.
Could you just tell me just
a little bit about him?
Well, Omer was the one
out of ten
who really struggled at camp,
and you know, Barbara's crew
picked up on this early
and covered it, you know,
pretty extensively,
and pretty thoughtfully,
I would say,
and with a lot of care.
But Omer was, he was 14 when he
got to Pathfinder in 2017,
super bright kid,
super charismatic,
handsome as you can imagine,
and had tons of energy,
and we knew during this
orientation visit
earlier in the summer
that he would be a handful
'cause he was so excited
about everything,
very impulsive,
wanting to play pranks
and you know, act up
and be the centre of attention
right from day one.
We certainly thought that we
could handle that more,
I mean, that's what you do
when you're at camp.
But, when we got there to be
resident for two weeks,
it really quickly started
to become apparent
that he was someone who kind of
brought baggage from Iraq
and from the refugee camps
that he had lived in
to North America,
and part of that baggage
was this sort of obsessive need
to control other people,
and to project a very powerful
and intimidating persona.
Omer, Omer, Omer, Omer!
Omer, we made a deal.
Omer, Omer, Omer, Omer.
We made a deal, okay, man?
Guys, please.
Omer, Omer, it's okay, dude.
Did he talk about his experience
when he was over there?
Very little, you know...
His mother Shifah told me
that their father,
her husband,
was a policeman with the
coalition in Baghdad,
that he was abducted,
and they believe murdered
when Omer was still...
hadn't been born.
She was five months pregnant
with him,
and had two other sons
when her husband disappeared,
and he never knew his father.
So, his young childhood was
spent first in Baghdad,
and then fleeing Baghdad
and leaving for, um,
what became a long stay
in refugee camp life.
He was in Turkey, right?
That's right.
I wondered about him
and his behaviour
because he did kind of remind me
of kids
that I either went to camp with
or went to school with
who are a little bit rebellious.
Charismatic at the same time,
How much of his behaviour
do you think is related to his
experiences in a refugee camp
versus just being a rebellious
young boy?
Yeah, I just can't tell.
It's really hard to tell even
today looking back on it,
and charitably, everyone at camp
who was affected by...
by his behaviour
kept thinking that this has
to reflect the fact
that he has had a really
difficult time
in the Middle East,
and then, making this transition
to life in Toronto.
But his brother,
who was a couple years older,
you know, sailed through
the experience
and was super kind, positive,
collaborative with everybody,
made friends, was over the moon
about making friends with kids
at the camp,
and the other boys,
some of whom had had similar
experiences before getting there
just did so well.
He just seemed to be someone
who had sort of flipped over
to the other side at some point
in his history of coping
with his circumstances,
and was really focused on coping
by controlling his environment
and controlling other people,
you know,
and it really came out
in all kinds of ways.
He was, you know, shaking down
little campers
who were junior to him
for their stuff,
and he was creating elaborate
sort of webs of lies
to keep the counselors
kind of off-balance,
and was looking to sort of
set his own agenda at the camp.
Is that in the film?
See, I don't remember seeing him
shake down other kids?
I see him getting in kind of
scuffles, but--
Yeah, I think what really showed
up on the final edit
was him, you know, giving the
trip guides a bit of a hard time
and not being very empathetic
with peers,
and then, getting into conflicts
with both Canadian kids
who were in the camp
and with a couple of his fellow
refugee campers,
and that seemed to stem
from kids
sort of standing up to his
nonsense at a certain point,
and that really triggered him
at that point.
I wouldn't want
to characterize Omer
as all on the negative side.
There was so much about him
that was so engaging
and magnetic, and you know,
we worked so hard to make
that experience work for him.
And in the end,
he got through ten out of 14
days at the camp,
but in the end, when he became
so aggressive with people,
it was time for him to go home
and for us to consider
the bigger community.
Yeah, well, I want to ask about
his brother as well, Hameed,
'cause there is a scene
where you're talking to him.
He's also struggling a bit
and he wants to go home.
Um, how do you know how far
to push a kid
who is struggling, given what
they've experienced?
I wish I could say the camp
directors know
exactly what to do about that,
but we don't.
We're just trying to find ways
to get them to focus on a goal
that involves staying
and sticking with the experience
of being independent.
You know, Hameed was doing
really well
up until his brother's
started to embarrass
and frustrate him,
and then, when Omer left
the camp,
Hameed suddenly realized
all at once
that for the first time
in his family's life,
he was the only one
who wasn't with them.
And at the same time, he was--
I think, looking back on it--
he was concerned about how
other kids in the camp
were going to look at him
as the brother of someone
who had, you know,
caused a bit of a ruckus.
And that, plus being tired from
coming in off a tough canoe trip
and finding yourself the only
family member
after having been with your
brother there the whole time,
I think it conspired to bring
him to the point
where he packed his bags
and came to see me
and instructed me
to send him home...
Yeah, that's right, yeah.
...that day.
You know, at that point,
you just, you do what camp
directors do.
You're just trying to figure out
how to sort of reorient
their sights on a near goal
that they think they can do.
And so, we tried to get him
to focus on his canoeing,
which he was so interested in,
as someone who had never even
seen a canoe
until he got to Algonquin Park,
and to see if he couldn't get
an award in canoeing
before he left.
And we just, we put him
on that sort of project,
and then, asked him to let us
contact his mother
and talk it over,
but make no commitment
to send him home.
Hmm, and how's he doing now?
Do you stay in touch with
the kids after they leave?
Well, so I saw him last night
for the first time
in over a year,
and he was hard to get
a hold of.
We kept inviting him back
last year
to become a junior counselor.
He was at the age
where he could have gone
into our leader development
and he just has what it takes,
You can tell he does,
and we just couldn't interest
him in it.
He seemed focused on staying
in the city,
working a summer job,
making money,
helping the family
that definitely needs
the financial help.
But when I did finally make
a connection with him,
it turned out that he didn't
really have
as solid an employment prospect
as I might have thought,
and we figured that maybe
getting him to see the film
and see what an important part
he plays in the film
and in the vibe of the camp
that summer
would, you know, intrigue him.
And sure enough, he saw the
screening and immediately said,
"I know I should be back there
and so, let's do it."
And so, today
I'll be giving him a contract
later in the afternoon
to be a junior counselor
at Pathfinder.
That's great.
Is there a universal experience
that Pathfinder offers
young boys who attend the camp?
I think so.
I'm a big believer in
the experience that I had,
that my sons had,
that my dad and my uncles all
claim to have had at Pathfinder,
that we've seen happen over
and over again over the years.
I think there's an experience
that keeps parents and families
interested in a camp like that
in this modern age,
so that it's 106 and thriving
this year.
And to me, that experience
is getting away
from the protective influence
of Mom and Dad,
and having to live
as co-equally responsible
in your peer group
or age group for everybody's
You know, Pathfinder's a very
rustic camp,
and the base camp is very,
you know, rustic and basic,
and then, of course, that's just
the starting-off point
and then, you go out into
the 7,000 square kilometres
of Algonquin Park,
and as you get older,
you go out into the bush country
of northern Ontario and Quebec,
and when you get be
a certain age,
you're suddenly up
on Hudson's Bay
on trips that are six weeks
in length.
You know, kids tend to go
to the camp
and keep coming year after year,
and every time they come back,
they're pushed a little farther,
both geographically, but also
mentally and emotionally,
to become more self-reliant
and to look after each other,
and to sort of rise to an adult
level of capability,
'cause it's often required
for everyone's safety
and well-being
on these canoe trips.
And so, I think the universal
thing is for boys and girls,
but in my world, for boys to
have experiences like this
that help them step up
and step up and step up,
and to do what every kid
has to do,
which is to go away from home
and return and reflect,
and then, go away from home
a little bit more
and then, return and reflect
and so forth
until they're out on their own
in the world.
And what's happening at
that we think is kind of special
is that doing this year on year,
you also start to become
really addicted to
and habituated to the feeling
you get
when you as a group of people
accomplish what you could never
do by yourself,
and you get such a charge
out of that
that feeling becomes something
you want to repeat and repeat,
and we think that if you can
take that sensation
and your desire to repeat it,
and bring it back into your
schoolwork and your athletics
and your community and your
friendship circle,
and into your family as a parent
and into your community as
an adult who's contributing,
good things are gonna happen.
So, that's our universal.
I want to ask about the
filmmaking part of all this,
because I guess,
it's probably a little unusual
to have a crew following you
Is it tough to act natural
in those situations?
Like, what is it like to be
on camera, I guess?
They predicted it...
the DPs and Barbara
when she came
and the segment producers
that came with her,
they said, you know,
"You're gonna forget about us
in a couple days."
And that seemed impossible,
especially to the kids
at the camp
because their filming style
was right in close.
And they wireless miked people,
and they weren't, like,
literally right on top of kids,
but their camera distance
was very close, I thought.
And so, you know,
if you looked at how kids
and even counselors reacted
in the first day
and day and a half,
it was so hard not to be
distracted by,
and to grab a glimpse
of the camera.
But at a certain point,
their prediction came true
that everyone just gave up
worrying about them,
and just lived our lives,
and they just kept on
plugging away,
and they were up day and night.
They lived in all the same
conditions that we did.
It was a very small crew.
They bathed in the lake,
they used outhouses for toilets,
they slept in canvas tents
with bare wood floor
on a simple camp cot,
and they just worked like dogs.
You know, and people started to
have so much respect
for just the work ethic.
You know, it's almost like
being a canoe tripper
to try to be a doc filmmaker
in a location setting like that.
They were really impressive.
Do you know how many hours
they got of footage?
They told me that they had 23-24
hours of material,
and originally she wanted
to make--
Barbara wanted to make a
28-minute short-form documentary
and she struggled with that
for a few months,
and decided she wanted it
to be a feature-length doc,
and so, changed the whole
game plan
and I think it runs
to 93 minutes.
So, there's 22 hours of
something awesome
lying on the floor of some
editing suite.
(Colin laughing)
But I think they did a great job
with what they got.
Yeah, I think so.
Um, we kind of started this
talking a bit about, you know,
inviting refugee kids from Iraq
and Syria,
and Canada opening its doors
to about 60,000 of them
at this point.
I just wonder what you think of
Canada's image
as open and accepting
of refugees?
I think it's inspiring.
You know, it's inspiring
to a kid from America
who started spending summers,
and now spends much of his life
up here.
I think it certainly has
inspired all the Canadian kids,
especially the staff members
that are with us,
and it certainly has inspired
all the American and European
kids and counselors
that are part of Pathfinder,
and it really was their
encouragement that caused us,
you know, as the directors
to say yes to that film,
because even though they knew,
as we did,
that it was going to affect
life at camp for a couple weeks,
that it was going to maybe tell
a story that was...
you know, what we think
Canada is trying to say
with its refugee policy,
and that is that this is
a people problem
and a people crisis,
as much as it is a geopolitical
or economic or...
or macro policy crisis,
and I think Canada
is helping me to see
that even though some of these
international relations
conundrums are so difficult,
that you can always default to
the person-to-person connection
and find your way toward
what's the right choice,
if you keep that the focus.
There's actually been some
pushback in Canada
to, I think, asylum seekers
crossing the border
at these irregular border
It's certainly come up in,
I guess,
our political debates here
around immigration and refugees,
and I guess to what extent
we can have open borders.
I'm just wondering if you think
our attitudes as Canadians
are kind of hardening towards
refugees at all?
I can't tell, Colin.
I think the media sometimes
has to, you know, create
two sides of an issue
for context to make sense
to the reader, to the listener.
The people I come across
in my work and life
on the Canadian side
of the border
are just amazing people
in general,
and I haven't heard anyone say
anything negative to me.
I can understand how people
can become a little fearful
if they're starting to see
that after two,
three, four years,
the story for Syrian and other
refugee arrivals in Canada
is a mixed story.
That is, it's not a happy
narrative for everybody,
and certainly not all the time.
Some families may struggle
and end up on social assistance.
Housing may still present
a challenge.
Family sponsorships have to come
to an end at some point,
and then, there's trepidation
about how the refugee family
will fare when all that safety
net steps back a little bit.
But no, I have great optimism
about how Canadians
will follow through, absolutely.
Well, Mike, thank you so much
for joining us today.
It's great to be here.
Thanks for having me.

And that's the podcast.
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New Homeland
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and so many more people,
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We'll catch you at the next
Have a happy summer!

Watch: Ep. 7 - Escaping war to land at summer camp