At the March 11 virtual Catfish Creek Conservation Authority (CCCA) Annual General Meeting, East Elgin Secondary School teacher Duncan Sinclair made a presentation to the board about the Environmental Leadership Program he has taught for more than 21 years.
Mr. Sinclair gave an overview of the program, which works closely with CCCA, touched on the challenges brought on by the pandemic, and announced his scheduled retirement in spring 2022.
ELP is a four-credit secondary school course integrating senior level interdisciplinary studies, outdoor education, and cooperative education.
There are only a handful of these types of programs across Canada, said Mr. Sinclair. The program is also unique in that it is almost exclusively self funded using donations from area businesses, service clubs and industries, as well as fundraising activities undertaken by students.
The interdisciplinary studies class is a Grade 12 university preparation course that focuses on resource management and conservation, with a strong emphasis on aquatic ecology, soil ecology, fish and wildlife conservation, and principles and practices of forestry.
Outdoor education is designed to increase outdoor recreation and environmental participation, including First Aid, CPR, canoe and kayak certification, biking, skiing, safe boating certification, Ontario Hunter Education Program, National Archery, and National Archery in the Schools Program.
“And in normal years, a five-day canoe lake trout fishing trip to Algonquin Park; a four-day Haliburton mountain biking, rock climbing, and hope ropes adventure; and a four-day winter wilderness experience on the edge of Algonquin Park building quinzees, snowshoeing and polar dips,” said Mr. Sinclair.
The cooperative education part of the course involves experiential work opportunities in the outdoor environmental field. The majority of these work placements are with the CCCA and Mr. Sinclair said highlights of this component are the chainsaw cutter operator lessons and the woodlot management program.
“The life skills taught during this part of the program cannot be replicated in the classroom,” said Mr. Sinclair.
Over the past two decades, the CCCA and ELP program have managed more than 100 acres of public and private woodlots in the Catfish watershed.
CCCA, ELP, Jaffa Outdoor Education Centre, and Ron Casier of the MNRF annually hosts Marsh Quest at the Yarmouth Natural Heritage Area. Marsh Quest is an interactive wetland education program with activities, presentations and demonstrations conducted by ELP students to stimulate interest in the outdoors by younger pupils.
“I remember one comment and students were boarding the bus at the end of a Marsh Quest day. ‘Hey, that was better than Canada’s Wonderland,’” said Mr. Sinclair.
About 500 grade four students from 15 different schools attend Marsh Quest annually, which is more than 7,500 students to date.
“What’s really cool about this program, we’ve been running it so long that my students are now the teachers, and they were once Marsh quest attendees when they were in grade four,” said Mr. Sinclair.
After Marsh Quest, students organize the Carolinian Forest Festival, a four-day event that annually teaches over 1,200 Grade Six and Seven pupils. Since 2008, over 15,000 students have attended this festival.
Activities, interactive displays and presentations provide students with information on the Carolinian life zone, species at risk, climate change, stewardship, and conservation.
ELP changed significantly last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic that caused lockdowns in Canada and globally in March 2020. Many major fundraisers were cancelled, such as the Three Port Tour and Thunder in the Valley; so too were the highlight trips to Algonquin and Haliburton.
“Going into summer students were struggling trying to decide what to do. ‘Do I stay ELP no matter what it looks like? Or is it time to move on?’” said Mr. Sinclair.
He added he was “ready to throw in the towel,” and people questioned why he would continue with the ELP program.
But, “With two years left in my teaching career, I didn’t want it to end. Many emails and text messages later, I managed to convince 15 students to stick with it,” said Mr. Sinclair.
Students would be outside daily, wouldn’t be required to wear face masks if they were physically distanced, and they were going to be active. “Together, we could make the best of our new normal.”
CCCA helped to organize, teach, film, edit and plan the virtual Marsh Quest, as well as provide assistance with the Carolinian Forest Festival.
Mr. Sinclair noted he was proud of how everything came together.
“To me, the days seem normal. Other than not having hundreds of screaming elementary kids around Marsh Quest and the forest festival, we were just like any other year.”
Mr. Sinclair noted that he is scheduled to retire in spring 2022, and that next year will be his last teaching ELP.
He said he was looking forward to one more year of watching kids challenge themselves on the two-kilometre portage, eat and catch their first lake trout, and push themselves to new limits on the Haliburton trails.
“And if I can’t, well, maybe I’ll have to postpone that next chapter and come back one more year.”
He concluded that he hopes the ELP, CCCA are able to continue doing what they do: conservation through education.
Mr. Sinclair’s full speech is available on the CCCA YouTube page.
Veronica Reiner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Aylmer Express