words :: Taylor Godber.
Picking up trash left behind on trails or scrubbing crusty dishes somebody negligently left in a cabin is infuriating. And yet, bothers of this kind are becoming more common, and aren’t helping to dissolve disgruntled vibes from those who have been frequenting Canada’s wild lands for extended periods of time. They can be felt in crowded backcountry huts, overflowing parking lots, on well-travelled skin tracks, and any other trending outdoor destination. It’s not uncommon to hear whispers and sighs that, “city people and out-of-towners are coming up and taking over.”
While we can fault people for being bad stewards, we can’t really fault them for wanting to catch their breath and unplug from the challenging hustle of contemporary life; to admire the beauty of these wide-open spaces, and to get those feel-good hormones flowing through exercise and movement.
Nature welcomes everyone and we should take notes to do the same.
The idea of racism and prejudices in the outdoors isn’t a common topic of discussion. Yet exclusionary and self-entitled attitudes—as benign as they may seem to their owners—are in fact forms of discrimination. The stealthy thing about prejudices is that unless you have been the recipient of them or been educated about them, they are easy to miss.
The same goes with the concept of privilege. If someone’s upbringing was confined to an insulated and singular perspective both in their family and their friend groups, it would be easy for them to miss where they sit on the societal hierarchy of opportunity. It is imperative that we get introspective on where we stand on this ladder if we are to help create a more inclusive future for the generations to come.
I acknowledge that I have lived a privileged life. There has always been a roof over my head, an abundance of food on the table; access to health care, education, nature; and chances to travel. Financial support to explore extracurricular activities I showed interest in as a kid, influenced the direction of my life, including a career as a professional athlete. My biological mother—who gave me up at birth with the selfless hope that the family adopting me would be able to provide more opportunity than her 18-year-old self—would be pleased.
Despite being raised in a white, middle-class household and given every chance to thrive in the world, my youth still came with its hiccups. My parents separated early in my childhood, were consumed with navigating their own personal obstacles, and I was being severely bullied at school out of jealousy by a handful of mean girls. Being half-Chinese, racial quips came up often, sometimes about my skin colour, or why I wasn’t better at math. But remarks of this sort were grains of sand in comparison to the verbal stones of abuse I heard being thrown at many of the BIPOC kids. My graduating year I skipped the majority of school to snowboard (I don’t recommend this, kids) because the mountains provided a place of refuge—a place where I felt safe to be myself.
Snowboarding led me to meet people who surfed and climbed and found happiness in the simplicity of running in the woods. Their generosity to share their knowledge and let me tag along allowed me to integrate these ways of connecting to nature into my life.
Time spent outside has shaped me, from feeling the joyful celebration that comes with summiting a mountain and gazing upon a vast expanse of peaks, to the sensation of connecting to the present moment while floating down thousands of feet of snowflakes or gliding across a glistening wave at sunset. It has also shaped my experiences of despair and grief from loss, as stark reminders of the fragility of life, and the necessity to live it to the fullest. It has solidified the importance of community and the truth that there is so much more to life than making money. To breathe in the aroma of the pines, feel the crispness of the cold, and hear nothing but the whisper of the wind or the beat of a crow’s wings above is to feel magic itself. Nature has taught me boundless lessons in self-confidence, self-worth, managing anxiety and depression, determination, focus, connection, love…
When I reflect on how the outdoors has enhanced not only my physical health but also my mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being, it is disheartening to think that not everyone has access to the life-altering experiences that the natural world can provide. Or that self-entitled attitudes may dissuade some from continuing their journey into nature.
“We know that people of colour are three times more likely than the average U.S. citizen to live in nature-deprived neighborhoods, and for many, the outdoors doesn’t feel safe or welcoming,” says Eric Raymond, Director of Social Impact and Advocacy for The North Face. And while Canada may have more green space than the U.S., inaccessibility to the outdoors is still a barrier to many up here as well.
Consistent exposure to any environment yields more comfort, which means creating opportunities for people to explore and get into the mix of nature is essential for a safer and more welcoming outdoor space. But we also need to dive deeper to understand why these opportunities are lacking to begin with. Social and racial injustices in Canada can be traced back to the country’s inception and have since led to significant class disparities, unequal opportunity, and generational trauma. Sadly, most accounts have been left out of history books.
Some forms of historical and systemic racism are easier to identify such as colonialism, in which Indigenous peoples were pushed from their land, had their spiritual practices deemed illegal, and men were allowed to vote only if they gave up their identity as Indigenous. Residential schools were put in place to “get rid of the Indian in the child.” Children were forcibly taken from their families, often never returning. Physical, emotional, psychological and even sexual abuse were widespread at these schools. The Canadian government seized the property of Japanese Canadians and sent them to internment camps, and imposed a head tax on Chinese immigrants if they wanted to stay in the country. BIPOC people were often segregated or excluded from schools, neighborhoods, land purchasing and rentals, health care, and other essentials. The last Canadian race-segregated school closed in 1983. Less than 200 years ago, First Nations, Metis, Inuit and women were considered for legal purposes, “non-persons” under the law. This is just a glance at the sullied history of Canada.
When those minorities did try to stand up for their freedoms, traditions, resources, and the right to keep their children and lands, their actions were labelled as treasonous or terroristic. Some families who fought against sending their children to Residential Schools were subject to imprisonment. To this day, it feels that freedom of speech is still a shaky concept for those going against social norms. To speak up against any majority opinion is seen as radical, whether it concerns racial injustice, human rights, children’s health, or taking care of nature. The idea that exclusion in the outdoors has existed and continues to, will likely seem outlandish to some.*
There is an implicit vibe of discrimination in our outdoor spaces. Minorities have not been present for many reasons, one of which being financial barriers, or their presence was only “tolerated” in public spaces like national parks. Alan MacEachern, Professor of History at Western University: “Parks Canada’s entire line has been that these places are for everyone. But you do see little glimmers where underneath the surface people were being turned back.” He adds, “There were a lot of tourist places, including the national parks, which in the 30’s and 40’s quietly advertised ‘Restricted Clientele’, that Jews [and people of colour] were not allowed, especially in eastern Canada.”
An example, in the 1960’s a guest booked into a hotel in Fundy National Park in New Brunswick and prior to arrival wrote a letter to the accommodations to ensure that his Black friends who would be joining would not be troubled. MacEachern recounts how the recipient of the letter replied, “your friends better not come up, because they might face racism from white Southerners up here.” Those friends were Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
Anti-racism and social justice movements this past year have brought to the surface the fact that discrimination still exists. The power of people speaking up to demand change has undoubtedly catalyzed a movement across all branches in the network of life. Leaders in the outdoor world are chiming in and owning their responsibility to be figureheads in inspiring the masses. Brands are supporting BIPOC exposure in print and marketing, diversifying who they elect as ambassadors and athletes, supporting programs to help welcome minority groups into the outdoor space, as well as creating equal opportunities within their employee framework.
In spring 2021 The North Face announced they will increase donations and expand their support (with 7 million dollars in initial funding) to non-profits working to open up access to the outdoors. They are also nominating a badass council to help direct the funds. Eric Raymond, Director or Social Impact and Advocacy for The North Face says, “to radically accelerate this work we have enlisted a council who are representative of the communities we’re working to engage more deeply with to help to do so.” He adds, “the collective decision-making power of the Explore Fund Council will result in thoughtful and genuine approaches to our grantmaking process.”
The team will be led by Lena Waithe, an Emmy-winning screenwriter, producer, and actor, who has worked tirelessly to champion new and diverse voices within the entertainment industry; and Jimmy Chin, professional climber, National Geographic photographer, Academy Award–winning director of Free Solo, and North Face team athlete for over 20 years. The Explore Fund Council will work to expand access to exploration for communities that have been traditionally excluded—that means broadening the definition of what exploration looks like and embracing the unique traditional, cultural, and various ways we like to explore,” Raymond says. “Our motto Never Stop Exploring embodies the concept that there should be no limit to the definition of exploration.”
Parks Canada is also beginning to show signs of considering accessibility to those visiting national parks—opening up the door for more people to explore. Rouge National Urban Park is Canada’s first such park, established in the Rouge River valley near Toronto in 2015. The major cities in Canada are often disproportionately diverse and access to the national parks is usually quite a challenge. MacEachern, who studies relations between people and nature over time as an environmental historian, sees the building of these parks as snapshots of how people are treating each other. He says: “National parks are great places to study how people have thought about and acted towards nature (…and people), because they’re places where nature is ostensibly paramount (…because people have said so).” He gives an example, “[The way that national parks were created nearly a century ago] when Indigenous people were pushed out of their land and told national parks can’t have people, yet hotels and golf courses were built, because you can’t have a national park without that. It is a snapshot in history.” The snapshot of 2021 in the Rouge Valley gives hope for a more thoughtful, respectful, and inclusive captured moment in time.
Individuals taking action on grassroots levels are making a tremendous impact as well. Take Myia Antone, the founder of Indigenous Women Outdoors who quickly became aware that she was often the only BIPOC member when recreating in the wild. She says, “I decided that I wanted a space for Indigenous folk to be able to get together and ski and learn these activities and realized that I was going to have be the one to create it.” This past year her program facilitated a group of Indigenous women the opportunity to not only re-occupy their land physically, but also took them through an AST 1 certification, and Wilderness First Aid program, empowering safe exploration in the future. Antone says, “I think any connection to nature is so important. And sport is just one vehicle to get outside. It allows us to reoccupy the land in a spiritual and emotional state too, not just physically.”
The ability to safely take up space and express oneself as a perfectly imperfect being is central to experiencing joy on this planet. The impacts of trauma and oppression are real. When people have gone through traumatic experiences it impacts how they are able to show up in the world, and this includes the outdoors. On a neurological level, Greg McDonnell, a Registered Clinical Counsellor in the Sea-to-Sky, weighs in: “The nervous system becomes dysregulated [when you don’t feel confident in who you are] which can affect many aspects of our human engagement.” Living in a constant state of stress can impact how people behave and can lead to “….addiction, numbing behaviors, anxiety, and depression.”
Just simply being outside can have positive impacts, McDonnell adds: “This is connected to mindfulness. The nervous system becomes deeply connected through our senses [when in nature] which helps guide us how to self-protect in a functional way.” When we feel safe, we are better equipped to show up as our unapologetic selves, our true selves—and this expands to others. Myia Antone, who confidently shares her Skwxwú7mesh language, culture, and knowledge in the experiences she leads in the outdoors says, “It invites everyone else to bring their cultures into that space too and their own experiences and lived experiences. I think if we are able to do this, it will just make this whole outdoor industry better.”
The future is looking brighter, but the outdoor community and all Canadians collectively have a long journey ahead in keeping the momentum going towards a social landscape that celebrates and invites all faces, shapes, colours, cultures and spiritual beliefs, and opens up space for marginalized groups to feel comfortable as a part of the outdoor community.
Let’s rise to the challenge and act on being activists and true allies. Support BIPOC businesses and initiatives in our communities. Start thinking outside of conventional norms and consider going the extra mile to be welcoming to others at the trailheads or out in the line up, and lend knowledge if you have it and see it could help someone out (i.e., always let someone know they have their wetsuit on backwards). And let the true essence of adventure live on.
And above all else, lean into it all with compassion and empathy; while everyone’s experience is vastly different, it is safe to say that we all know what it feels like to feel unwelcome, to feel ignored, to feel vulnerable, to feel that we don’t belong somewhere. And we all want to feel loved, accepted, and free.
Everyone deserves the chance to experience the outdoors, everyone has the birthright to the freedom to explore.
Nelson Mandela may have said it best: “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”
To get more information or stay up to date with the Canadian Explore Fund program we encourage you to join The North Face mailing list.
A few local initiatives to support:
-Outdoor Indigenous Women: https://www.indigenouswomenoutdoors.ca
-Brown Girl Outdoor World: https://browngirloutdoorworld.com
-Colour the Trails: https://colourthetrails.com
-Predjudice and Discrimination in Canada: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/prejudice-and-discrimination
-UBC Aboriginal Timeline: http://timeandplace.ubc.ca/timeline/
-Reconciliation Action Plan: https://reconciliationcanada.ca
*Author’s note: I invite you to do your own research as well, to dig deeper into some of the laws and restrictions put in place over the past few centuries of which traumatic impacts still flow over into the daily lives of many people.