Toronto Survivalists Are About More Than Doomsday Prep
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Toronto Survivalists Are About More Than Doomsday Prep

Toronto's growing survivalist movement strikes a balance between sustainable living, wilderness survival, and crisis preparation.

Karen Stephenson leads a workshop on edible wild plants at High Park. Photo courtesy of Karen Stephenson.

Three times each week, Joe McCumber leads up to 40 people of all ages, backgrounds, and motivations through the types of activities you might encounter at a particularly advanced summer camp: orienteering, tracking wildlife, improvising shelter, storing food, constructing a solar-powered water still. McCumber is the founder of the United Survivalist Network of Ontario (USNO), and he’s one of a growing number of people in the GTA who are spending their evenings and weekends sharing the knowledge and skills of basic survival.

Thanks largely to sensationalist media coverage, the “survivalist” label has come to suggest nervous hoarders and fringe-dwelling doomsayers anticipating a future in some post-apocalyptic abyss. The less dramatic, albeit more human, reality is that the growing appeal of sustainable living, and the advent of social networking sites like Facebook and Meetup, have made survivalism enticing and accessible to everyday people. These survivalists are interested mainly in experiencing nature and learning traditional life skills.

The Toronto Survivalism Group (TSG) has accumulated nearly 900 members on Meetup, with a mandate to teach self-sufficiency and sustainability. This is the modern iteration of survivalism, one that has more in common with the environmentally conscious, organic-food-eating, DIY ethics of downtown hipsterdom than it does with doomsday preparation.

At events around the city, TSG’s followers learn the kind of homesteading skills that, at one time in Canada’s history, were common: canning, breadmaking, natural health, and nutrition. On June 22, members are invited to an educational walk through High Park, during which author and wild-food educator Karen Stephenson will explain how to identify and prepare edible wild plants. Like many surivalism lessons, Stephenson’s teachings are equally applicable to crisis situations and basic healthy, affordable living.

For McCumber, whose workshops are regularly promoted by TSG, creating a survivalist group was a chance to impart the practical wisdom he’s gained during a lifetime as a woodsman and hunter. Granted, those skills do attract some of the more stereotypical survivalists, the ones preparing for some cataclysmic global event. And the USNO’s regular workshops on martial arts, bow-and-arrow making, and defence against “knife and weapon attacks” certainly suggest a more aggressive form of survival. But McCumber, whose pupils range in age from four to 65, maintains that general wilderness survival is his focus.

“[USNO] are not so much into the doomsday-type things, although a lot of our members do believe in that,” he said. “And wilderness skills are a good place to start if you’re into that kind of scenario.”

Though diverse in their interests, the survivalists McCumber has encountered have been able to coexist quite happily. While he admits that “there are a few bad apples in every barrel,” the feedback he has received from USNO participants has been overwhelmingly positive.

Now more than ever, Toronto’s survivalist community is deserving of a more temperate reputation. With a focus that’s equal parts healthy living, craftwork, and wilderness endurance, and with a membership that includes parents and children, high rise dwellers, and dedicated outdoors enthusiasts alike, they’re as diverse as the city itself.