Discover more from Planet Nude
The true north strong and nude
With her shining smile and disarming demeanor, Petra Scheller became the public face of naturism in 1980s Canada
“They had heard rumours, but they were skeptical. And why not? They had heard it all before. Again a few Easterners (isn't anything east of Regina eastern Canada?) have had the utopian idea of uniting naturists across Canada under one umbrella organization, creating a Canadian naturist network.” - Petra Scheller
Summer 1986. Near the picturesque James River in Alberta, Petra Scheller stood naked under the hot sun, gazing out at a crowd of equally naked people staring skeptically back at her. They listened but appeared unconvinced of the gospel she’d come to spread. An evangelist of the just-established Federation of Canadian Naturists (FCN), Scheller was on a mission, sharing the faith that the time was nigh to unite nude Canucks from coast to coast to coast.
The flock she hoped to convince was the assembly of delegates to the Western Canadian Sunbathing Association convention at the Sunny Chinooks nudist camp. Scheller had arrived from Toronto—a city known for thinking itself the centre of the universe while lumping everyone else into the all-encompassing category of “the R.O.C.” (Rest of Canada).
It was true, Scheller admitted, that the FCN was the dream of a small group in the heartland of Ontario—Doug and Helen Beckett and herself. But it was neither a pet project nor an amateur effort, she assured them. The FCN was building organizational ties across Canada, planning a publication, and linking up with naturists internationally.1
In many ways, Scheller’s story is that of the FCN itself during its formative years. Her growth as a leader was emblematic of the evolution of the naturist movement in Canada. Within a short time, she’d go from preaching the benefits of naturist unity to the like-minded to inviting millions of uninitiated but curious Canadians to shed their clothes and their shame by dipping a toe into the naturist lifestyle.
With her shining smile and disarming demeanour, Petra Scheller became the face and voice of nudism in newspapers, on television screens, and over the airwaves across the country over the next several years. Saying she helped bring Canadian naturism out of the closet and into public life is no exaggeration. But taking a fresh look at her work is not just about reminiscing on a past episode in the history of nudism; it is a study in strategy and tactics relevant to the challenges the movement faces today.
FKK…but in Canada
Born in the occupied city of Berlin, Germany, ten years after the fall of the Nazi regime, Petra moved to Toronto with her family in 1967—Canada’s centennial. Speaking little English upon arrival, she spent much of her childhood adapting to life in her new country, which was still a rather uptight place. Retailers were forbidden from opening their doors on the Sabbath thanks to Ontario’s “Sunday Shopping” ban, public schools required girls to wear dresses, and local government leaders in her hometown proudly lauded their city as “Toronto the Good.”
At the same time Scheller was coming of age, though, Canada too was going through a transformation. The 1960s and ’70s saw the rise of Canadian nationalism, a desire to build a sovereign economy more independent from U.S. corporate control. In Quebec, the long domination of the Catholic Church was being rapidly tossed aside by a new generation in the so-called “Quiet Revolution.” And after declaring there was “no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau oversaw the decriminalization of homosexuality and the liberalization of abortion and divorce laws.2 Constitutional debates were trending toward a strengthening of individual rights, and limits were placed on the moralizing powers of the government.3
Thus were the times in which Petra Scheller discovered nudism. As she told the Naked Age podcast recently, her first introduction to nude recreation came not in her native Germany, famed home of freikörperkultur (free body culture), but rather at Glen Echo Park, a nudist camp that was home to the Toronto Gymnosophical Society (TGS). In 1969, a high school friend invited Petra to accompany her and her family to Glen Echo, where the girl’s mom and dad were already members. Petra asked her parents, and within a short time, papa and mama Scheller were regulars at TGS as well.4
Scheller went about her life after adolescence, earning a degree in journalism, living in France for a time, but returning eventually to Toronto—and to Glen Echo. There, in the summer of 1985, TGS member Doug Beckett put out a call for volunteers. He had a vision of starting a newsletter, an organ around which a pan-Canadian naturist alliance might be formed.5 With experience as a writer and editor, Scheller was a key recruit.
Very quickly, she emerged as one of the most active leaders in what became the FCN. She not only carried out the administrative work of running a Canada-wide organization but also wrote for and edited the group’s magazine, Going Natural, negotiated with and lobbied naturist clubs to affiliate with FCN, and began representing English-speaking Canada in the international naturist movement.
With earlier pan-Canadian (and Ontario-based) efforts like the Canadian Sunbathing Association and the Canadian Nudist Confederation having collapsed amid a variety of personality clashes, financial mismanagement scandals, and factional bickering, the FCN faced an uphill battle to convince skeptics that it was worth trying again.6
The earliest negotiations for Canadian naturist unity were between the nascent FCN and its French-speaking counterpart, the Fédération Québécoise de Naturisme (FQN), which had already been on the scene for more than a decade. The FQN represented Canada at the International Naturist Federation (INF), but that body had always made it clear that eventually FQN should be sharing the seat with an organization representing the rest of the country’s naturists. When the Becketts and Scheller came along with their proposed group, FQN leader Michel Vaïs offered enthusiastic guidance and support—as long as French-speaking Quebec was reserved for the FQN. He and Scheller would work together closely in the years ahead.7
With FQN-FCN cooperation up and running, the FCN set its sights on bringing all of English Canada’s naturists into its tent. In the summer of 1986, Scheller embarked on a cross-Canada tour to introduce and promote the new Federation to nudist clubs and organizations. She jetted out to Vancouver to meet with Judy Williams of the Wreck Beach Preservation Society. In August, it was Calgary for the aforementioned WCSA convention. Stops at nudist clubs and camps were made all along the way. Everywhere, she touted the benefits of the FCN and scouted for potential board members in hopes of expanding beyond Ontario.
At the outset of her journey, membership was 50, but enthusiasm was high, and 1,000 copies of the first issue of Going Natural were printed. By the time she was back at Glen Echo for the official founding of FCN in August, the rolls had climbed to 119 members, and Scheller found herself elected the group’s first Director of Public Relations. “For the first time in many years, if not decades, the Canadian nudist environment is addressed,” she announced. “We have established an organization by Canadians for Canadians.”8
Over the next couple of years, FCN started to make a name for itself on the international nudist circuit, hosting a European youth delegation and leaders from Denmark, France, and other countries. At home, however, growth sputtered.
“We still have a lot of national convincing to do,” Scheller lamented in 1988. “Our original goal was to recruit FCN members in nudist clubs across the country, with only limited success. Even in clubs that have been bombarded with FCN idealism and information, there is much resistance and apathy from club members. Even the support from club owners is weak.”9
Much to the FCN’s disappointment, clubs and their members weren’t too interested in being courted. Some were perfectly happy to remain second-class citizens in the American Sunbathing Association and didn’t see the use of affiliating to another new group. The lack of Canadian nudist enthusiasm for this specifically Canadian organization left some baffled.
“How tragic that a great, independent nation such as yours has clubs of the highest carat…affiliated with the Americans,” remarked one European naturist leader. “All honour to the Americans, but what have they got to do with what naturists do in your own country?”10
Clothed but curious
Scheller began to conclude that factionalism was consuming too much time and money. The lobbying of landed clubs yielded little support, and FCN couldn’t even get a single naturist leader from Western Canada to join its board of directors. After spending the first few years trying to woo club owners and convince regional organizations like the WCSA to affiliate, Scheller began advocating a shift in strategy. If existing organized nudists didn’t care much about FCN, then it was time to target a new audience.
“I feel strongly that preaching to the already converted is misplacing valuable promotional energy,” she wrote in the pages of Going Natural, “while the general public is a vastly untapped market of tremendous membership potential.” She argued that the still-clothed but curious masses were “thirsty for more information” about naturism and that FCN should fill that gap.11 On her advice, the FCN board decided to devote almost all its funds and efforts to reaching the uninitiated.
Press releases and position statements started flying out of FCN headquarters any time an item even tangentially related to nudism or naturism appeared in the news. Utilizing her knowledge of public relations and the media, Scheller garnered interviews with reporters and sweet-talked news producers into giving FCN spots on talk shows. Newspapers were constantly calling for quotes.
Within a short time, Petra Scheller was known nationally as a nudist spokesperson, and the organization’s name seemed to be everywhere. She and an FCN colleague taught sold-out seminars on naturism at a community centre in Toronto. FCN’s input was welcomed (if not always heeded) by the Ministry of Tourism. A program promoting naturism was broadcast on cable television. Bookstores couldn’t keep FCN’s bilingual Canadian Guide to Nudist Clubs and Beaches (modelled on Lee Baxandall’s similarly-titled volume) on the shelves. And the media was filled with stories about the growing appeal of nude recreation.12
FCN President Terry Hill reported that public awareness of FCN was advancing rapidly. “Both press and radio have been quite positive in their presentations about naturism, and references to the existence of the FCN are now becoming routine,” he told delegates to an annual meeting.13 By the end of 1988, membership was approaching 500, and financial support from individual members was “tremendous,” even if “support from solicited regional naturist club members” remained “sadly lacking.”14
“The accurate and sensitive reporting of naturist subjects in the Canadian media has had a very positive effect on the acceptance of the naturist lifestyle,” Scheller reported.15 Another observer noted, “Every time someone reads or hears one of these [news] pieces, it means a shift in perception: The outraged become a little more tolerant; the titillated become curious; and the curious become interested…. People don’t look at us now like we’re a bunch of monkeys.”16
Scheller’s media work was lauded for “allowing the uninitiated to try something new, something that will contribute to their well-being and ultimately bring about a saner existence for all of us.” Soon, even those at the highest level of state power in Ottawa were forced to take notice of the FCN.
The Prime Minister has no clothes
Under cover of stopping extreme and degrading pornography, the Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proposed a restrictive new censorship law in 1988. Bill C-54 sought wide powers for the state to determine what was or was not obscene, with “depiction of genitals” being a key determinant.17 As with the contemporary “grooming” moral panic cooked up by the right wing to disparage drag queens and LGBTQ people, the safety of children was a central part of the government’s argument for why it needed new authority to decide what people could read or watch.
With its photos of families enjoying nude recreation, the FCN’s magazine Going Natural was potentially at risk of prosecution under C-54’s open-ended definition of obscenity. Fearing a return to the old days when postmasters seized and destroyed nudist literature, the editors of Going Natural chose to fight back. The FCN joined the opposition campaign, allying with free speech groups, some women’s organizations, publishers, artists, librarians, museums, and others to stop C-54.18
In an open letter to the prime minister, Scheller warned that the bill’s “emphasis on the prohibition of nudity and its vagueness” would require “most decisions to be made in court.”19 It was a legal minefield that would spark endless lawsuits against government censors—and FCN was prepared to be part of them. The prime minister was urged to give a sober second thought to the litany of litigation that would ensue if he pushed C-54 to become law.
Much to the naturists’ surprise, Mulroney himself wrote back to Scheller and the FCN, justifying his proposed legislation as a move to “protect…all Canadians, particularly children,” from pornography while “upholding the fundamental liberties” of citizens.20 His response was printed, in full, in the Summer 1988 issue of Going Natural. Members of the FCN revelled in their newfound legitimacy. Even if he disagreed with them, the leader of the country actually felt compelled to respond to a group of nudists about pending legislation.
“Petra Scheller…is known not only throughout the naturist community, but in society at large,” wrote FCN member Joe Solway. “Her efforts have even reached the halls of power in Ottawa. Ask to see the letter from our beloved P.M.” Solway mused that perhaps Mulroney should “come to Glen Echo Park for just one day” to see what naturists and naturism were all about.21
Needless to say, Mulroney never showed up to disrobe with the campers at Glen Echo. But thanks to widespread opposition to Bill C-54—which Mulroney thought would easily sail through Parliament—the whole debacle ended up becoming, as the old saying goes, a case of the emperor having no clothes.
The support from his conservative voting base and the predictions of his poll-reading advisors had left Mulroney certain that pitching himself as the anti-porn P.M. was a no-brainer. It turned out to be anything but. Lawyers, academics, free press advocates, and almost everyone else other than Evangelical Christians and the Catholic Church picked apart the many holes in Bill C-54, leaving it in tatters with hardly a legal leg to stand on. Mulroney’s anti-nudity crusade soon crumbled; his proposal never even made it to a vote on the floor of Parliament.
Thanks to its shift away from lobbying club owners and toward recruiting the general public, FCN had come a long way in a short time, but Scheller believed the organization had “only scratched the tip of the iceberg.”22 The burst of growth had given FCN a boost, but by the early 1990s, Scheller was troubled by the fact that too many naturists remained unwilling to become public advocates for their movement and help build on the expansion of the early years.
“We cannot expect to gain respectability for our recreation/lifestyle if we hide behind anonymity,” she told her nude compatriots. The organization couldn’t rely on only herself and a tiny handful of others to be its public representatives; eventually the press—with its short attention span—would lose interest. More leaders needed to step forward, but it wasn’t happening.
The gruelling pace of her FCN work also seemed to wear on Scheller. In 1991, she resigned from her role as PR director to give attention to her own professional career in the textile world. In an editorial announcing her departure to the membership, Doug Beckett lamented that “board meetings won’t be the same without her” and said her work had been “extremely valuable to our fledgling organization.”23 But she wasn’t stepping away from the world of nude activism just yet.
Throughout her whirlwind tenure as FCN’s PR director, Scheller had also maintained a focus on the affairs of naturism internationally. Together with representatives from the FQN, she was a regular at INF congresses and meetings in Europe. The early issues of Going Natural clearly showed that FCN leaders—Scheller included—believed their organization’s prospects for success were closely tied to copying naturists elsewhere.
Canadian naturists saw themselves as novices in need of the wisdom and experience of the International. They wanted to replicate what they perceived as naturism’s success in penetrating the societies of Western Europe. “Only through our affiliation with a larger naturist network, such as the INF, can we reach maximum effectiveness,” Scheller said.24
Her success in putting FCN on the map had gained the attention of naturists in other countries, and at the 1992 Congress of the INF, she was nominated to be the group’s global Vice President for Public Relations. In her speech to the Congress, she spoke about the challenges of being a woman leader—both in the worlds of capitalism and nudism:
“…[I]n my business dealings…I must prove to the male majority that a woman can supply the goods and services they need…. Here I am, applying for a job in nudism, and I’m facing the same challenges. I am younger than most of you. I represent a Federation that is one percent the size of my giant neighbour to the south ... and a mere half percent the size of the Federation that represents my country of birth, Germany. And I am making my pitch to an organization that is represented by 28 men and two women. So please forgive me for feeling a bit like David before Goliath.”25
She discussed how issues of body shame still impacted women more than men and emphasized the need for naturism to nurture more female leaders and representatives. “Just like businesses everywhere, our business needs to produce female role models,” she said, “naturist women that other women in society can identify with.”26 She was elected with overwhelming support.
Eventually, however, some of the same bureaucratic bickering and internal navel-gazing that had bedeviled the FCN with its regional factionalism also became apparent in the INF. Though she saw the important role that the organization played, as she confided to Naked Age years later, Scheller became convinced that arguing in committees was not necessarily the most productive way to advance the cause of naturism. Instead, she came to see direct political work to protect nudist spaces and organizing the unorganized as the means for advancing the cause. As she always had, Scheller wanted the movement to get outside of its comfort zone.
Within a few years, she withdrew from work as a full-time promoter of naturism. She spent more time running her own company, worked as a staff member on Bare Necessities cruises, and continued to be an occasional contributor to Going Natural. Today, she remains a member of FCN and a practicing nudist.
Although she rightly deserves recognition as one of the founders and driving forces behind the establishment of the FCN alongside Doug and Helen Beckett, the most valuable contribution Petra Scheller made to Canadian naturism was to turn it outward in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She revolutionized the movement, pushing it to come out from behind the high walls of rural nudist camps and into the spotlight of mainstream public life.
She was an effective and inspiring woman leader in a movement which, like the society around it, was (and still is) dominated by men. Scheller was likely years ahead of her time in asking questions about what the organized naturist and nudist movement should make of itself if it wants to grow and gain influence. Almost 40 years after she became the public face of nudism in Canada, that movement is still grappling with some of the same questions, though in a new context.
Where should naturist organizations devote their energy? On the existing landed clubs and their owners? Though shrinking in number, many still have the resources (physical and financial) to support national-level organizations that represent their interests. But theirs is an aging and largely monochromatic demographic sometimes seen as resistant to change. Though there are certainly exceptions, the resorts and landed clubs also don’t always make it easy for the young, LGBTQ people, people of color, and those with limited financial means to join.
Or, instead, should associations like FCN try to hitch their wagon to reaching and recruiting among new generations of nudists? A variety of non-landed clubs and social groups—like the Carolina Young Naturists Association (CYNA), Chicago Area Naturist Sons (C.A.N.S.), Natural Pursuits, the Naked Adventure Club of Detroit, and dozens of Meetup outfits—exploded during and after the pandemic. Though occurring outside the usual channels, this growth suggests a groundswell of renewed interest in nudism.
Some of these groups have been around awhile, others are brand new. Many don’t have the longevity or capital of the older clubs and resorts, but they often possess the vitality, diversity, and inviting atmosphere that a new generation of nudists and naturists seek.
In her time, Petra Scheller faced a version of this same dilemma and came to the conclusion that simply preaching to the choir wasn’t a viable strategy: The two worlds had to be bridged. Though they may require some renovation for a contemporary context, many of the lessons she learned in the struggle to establish the FCN almost four decades ago should be dusted off and studied anew. 🪐
Listen to Naked Age “Faces of Canadian Nudism” now:
We hope you’re enjoying Planet Nude.
Join the community. Get exclusive content. Go paid for just $5/mo.
Petra Scheller, “Western Exposure ’86,” Going Natural, Fall 1986, p. 4.
Pierre Trudeau, 1967. https://parli.ca/state-place-bedrooms-nation/
See the debate around the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, summarized by the Law Society of Ontario: https://greatguides.lso.ca/c.php?g=711269&p=5068415
Scheller, “Presentation Speech to the 23rd INF Congress,” Going Natural, Fall 1992, p. 6.
Scheller, “FCN body and soul…10 years of reflection,” Going Natural, Summer 1995, p. 2.
James Woycke, Au Naturel: The History of Nudism in Canada. Toronto: Federation of Canadian Naturists, 2003. p. 259.
ibid., pp. 257-8.
Scheller, “Western Exposure ’86.”
Scheller, “Public Relations and Membership Report,” Going Natural, Fall 1988, p. 14.
Henny and David Clayre, “A simple naturist couple visit Canada, Going Natural, Winter 1988, p. 4.
Scheller, “Public Relations Report,” Going Natural, Fall 1989, p. 7.
Woycke, p. 260.
Terry Hill, quoted in the unsigned article “FCN Annual Meeting,” Going Natural, Fall 1988, p. 7.
Scheller, “Public Relations Report.”
Scheller, “Public Relations and Membership Report.”
Joe Solway, “FCN Gains Media Exposure,” Going Natural, Fall 1988, p. 8.
Doug Beckett, “Editorial,” Going Natural, Fall 1988, p. 2.
“Editor’s Note” on Petra Scheller’s letter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Going Natural, Summer 1988, p. 10.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Letter to Petra Scheller and the FCN, dated March 24, 1988. Printed in Going Natural, Summer 1988, p. 10.
Scheller, “Public Relations and Membership Report.”
Beckett, “Editorial,” Going Natural, Winter 1991, p. 2.
Scheller, “Public Relations and Membership Report.”
Scheller, “Presentation Speech to the 23rd INF Congress.”