Marching into decline

Terry Roberts
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Society Demographics changing ranks of cadet movement

Cadet Kelsey Barrett of Spaniards Bay is presented with the Maj.-Gen. W.A. Howard Medal in May 2009 by Silby Luffman,chairman of the honours and awards committee for the Army Cadet League of Canada. The award is presented annually to the top cadet in each

Editor's note: In this first of a two-part series, we look at the dramatic drop in the number of young people involved with cadets in Newfoundland and Labrador.

When it comes to cadets, even a persistent cough can't dampen Kelsey Barrett's enthusiasm.

The teen from Spaniard's Bay, who turns 17 Sunday, is a member of the newly formed 2372 Avalon Army Cadet Corps in Bay Roberts.

She's been in uniform since she was 12, has spent three summers at camps in New Brunswick, took part in a winter expedition in Labrador, and spent four weeks in Germany last year on an exchange.

She not only did all this at no cost to her family, but was actually paid for the experience.

"I never would have had the chance to do the things I've done without cadets," she said last week.

She's also won numerous awards, including the Maj.-Gen. W.A. Howard Medal in 2009, which is presented annually to the top cadet in each province.

Aside from cadets, she also plays the fiddle and participates in basketball, volleyball, cross-country skiing, track and field, softball, badminton and swimming. "I still maintain a 90 average in school," added the Level II student at Ascension Collegiate.

Kelsey is a high achiever and wants to be a dentist, although she hasn't ruled out a career in the military.

She believes her cadet experience will help her achieve her goals because it's taught her leadership, discipline and commitment.

She can't imagine a life without cadets.

But examples like Kelsey are becoming harder to find.

That's because the cadet movement in this province, which includes nearly 90 army, sea and air corps and squadrons, has seen its ranks dwindle by a jaw-dropping 38 per cent in the past decade.

There's also a growing shortage of adult cadet instructors, and sponsoring bodies, usually service groups such as the Royal Canadian Legion, are finding it harder to do their part because of an aging and declining membership.

It's a trend that is being felt across Canada, but not quite to the same extent as in this province. Nationwide, the number of cadets has declined by about 11 per cent over the same period, according to figures released by Cadets Canada.

Some corps and squadrons that once boasted a parade of more than 100 cadets have seen their ranks cut in half, and many others have dropped below 30, the benchmark once used by Cadets Canada as the number needed to run a viable program.

Some corps have folded, including the one on Fogo Island, while others have amalgamated. Senior officials with the movement say more closures and amalgamations are likely, since the downward trend is expected to continue.

The trend is especially noticeable in rural areas, where many communities are being hit hard by an exodus of citizens to larger centres.

Conception Bay North is an example of an area that is taking extreme measures to maintain the program.

The 2372 corps was created last year following the amalgamation of two struggling corps in Spaniard's Bay and Clarke's Beach.

Leaders say the decision was the right one, since the corps now has a parade of about 40 cadets, a solid group of instructors, two sponsoring bodies and more resources.

"The biggest difference is the commitment and involvement of everybody to keep army cadets in the area for years to come," said longtime instructor Joy Carroll, who has been involved with cadets since she was 13.

She will take over as the corps' commanding officer in September.

Why such sharp decline in enrolment?

Firstly, demographics. After many years of population decline and a trend toward smaller families, there are fewer young people between the ages of 12 and 18.

And many say the program, which is largely funded by the Department of National Defence and has a strong military connection, simply doesn't resonate with most young people.

In an era of online social networking, some says it's just not cool to be a cadet, and a large percentage of those who do join tend to drift away from the program after one or two years.

Barrett agrees that it's not for everyone, but she wishes more young people would give cadets a chance. She said it's free, and the opportunities are endless.

Cadets from this province have travelled all over the globe in recent years, from the Rockies in Alberta to the Cayman Islands to New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

At the recent national cadet biathlon championship in Quebec, a team of cadets from Stephenville turned in a silver medal performance.

"They just don't understand what you can get out of it. If people joined and tried some of this stuff, they might like it. People aren't trying it at all, thinking it's not cool," she said.

Those involved in the program emphasize that it's not a recruiting tool for the Canadian Forces, and only a small fraction of cadets actually join the military.

"I would guess about two per cent," said Adam Gale, a cadet instructor with 2515 St. John's Army Cadet Corps, which meets each Tuesday in Pleasantville.

Like other corps and squadrons, the 2515 Corps has dropped in numbers, and now parades with just under 40 cadets.

During a parade night this week, only five first-year cadets were taking part in drill instruction, practising standing at attention and perfecting a "right dress."

In another room, four cadets were receiving instruction on how to use a map and compass, while two others were being presented with their national star, which is symbolic of having successfully completed four years of training and instruction.

The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, unlike the stereotype of scowling drill sergeants barking out commands and straight-backed, stone-faced cadets marching in formation.

Leaders have intentionally eased away from the military aspect of the program, and emphasize that cadets is all about fun and adventure and citizenship and physical fitness.

They also say the opportunities for cadets have never been greater.

"The program is alive and well in Newfoundland and Labrador," Cadets Canada spokesman Capt. Doug Kierstead said from his Halifax office recently.

Monday: The Telegram examines what's being done to ensure the youth organization has a future.

Organizations: Cadets Canada, Avalon Army Cadet Corps, Royal Canadian Legion Department of National Defence Canadian Forces St. John's Army

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Bay Roberts, New Brunswick Germany Canada Fogo Island Alberta Cayman Islands New Zealand United Kingdom Quebec Pleasantville Halifax

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