“I have nothing to reconcile,” Tom Eustache says plainly to a room of 200 white people, followed by a small but exasperated chuckle into his microphone. A member of the Simpcw First Nation, Eustache has just been asked how non-Indigenous folks can help First Nations with reconciliation. His answer, softly and affably delivered, belies an inescapable fact: Reconciliation is a colonial burden, not an Indigenous one. And yet, when it comes to this fraught process, First Nations continue to come to the table.
In this case, that’s the biannual Mountain Bike Tourism Association (MBTA) symposium at SilverStar Mountain Resort in British Columbia, where Eustache is speaking on a guest panel. As a rider and a trail builder himself, he’s found common ground with everyone in the room—something that’s been elusive in the grander scheme of Canadian reconciliation. For the Simpcw and other Nations, trails have become a way to reoccupy their territory and bring health and happiness back to places clouded by the legacy and inter-generational damage of Canada’s residential school system.
To help heal his home community of Chu Chua, B.C., about an hour north of Kamloops, Eustache—as both the Simpcw’s public works manager and a volunteer—has been coordinating the construction of a growing network of trails in conjunction with the Indigenous Youth Mountain Bike Program (IYMBP) and First Journey Trails. The forest floor here is sandy and dry, the spacing between the pine and spruce ideal for sightlines, the hills rising in gentle gradients from the wide, lazy river that settlers named the North Thompson. It’s as perfect a place to ride fat tires as there is in B.C., situated midway between the storied freeride epicentres of Kamloops and Williams Lake. But, for the Simpcw, mountain bike trails aren’t just an amenity—they’re an invitation.
On the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, only a few weeks after the MBTA symposium, a hundred riders gather in Chu Chua at the inaugural Allies Mountain Bike Festival. It’s an open call to come celebrate and enjoy the flowing lines the Simpcw have carved into their territory. Non-Indigenous riders with a mind toward reconciliation have travelled from all corners of B.C. and as far away as India. Riders from four other B.C. First Nations—the Squamish, Musqueam, Ucluelet and Wet’suwet’en—have gathered here, too, alongside Indigenous mountain bikers from Waterhen Lake First Nation on Treaty 6 territory in Saskatchewan and from the Navajo Nation in the southern United States.
“You’re next,” says Tina Donald, a Simpcw councilwoman leading the welcome circle as she systematically asks each individual to introduce themselves. It takes a while to make the full round, as even latecomers aren’t skipped over. On such an auspicious day, each of us must take the time to see and hear one another. A welcome song by drum follows, performed by Leon Eustache, Tom’s nephew, and then it’s time to ride. For the remainder of the day, all further formality is out the window. The purpose is simply to be together.
The crowd disperses towards the trailhead, just a few hundred metres up the road from the Neqweyqwelsten School, and disappears into the woods. Some load into shuttles, others choose to pedal up the Fish Trap climbing trail. The loops are short and gratifying; you can bang out multiple descents on trails that match the best in the province. Step It Up, with modern flow and well-calibrated jumps, proves a group favourite; Section Zero is similar but faster, with dirt that feels like Velcro; Section One feels more natural, with technical sections throughout.
The world-class network begs a simple question: Given what Indigenous people have lost to Europeans settlers and their descendants, why invite any of us when they could keep it to themselves? “To show everybody how we gather and how we share,” says Tom Eustache. “I can sit here and talk to you. And maybe because we’re together here in a different light, you can listen, and you’re able to hear. Because we just went for a ride, we have the opportunity to be calm, to sit down with like-minded things.”
It’s such a generous answer it almost shames the question. But another part of it, Eustache admits, is that when you build something you’re proud of, you want to show it off. There’s an innate satisfaction in having people from the best-known mountain bike towns in B.C. visit your trails and say, “These are awesome!”
“I hope you guys have fun here,” he beams. “It just has me so proud of who we are. That’s something I’ve been feeling more and more lately—proud of who I am and where I’m from. A lot of First Nations don’t get to feel that.”
Pride is also becoming a familiar feeling for Jay Millar, visiting from the Ucluelet First Nation. The Ucluelet, too, have been etching trails into their unceded territory, often resurrecting old hunting routes in steep, rugged rainforest where, as he says, “the ocean slams into the mountains.” As part of the trail-building crew, Millar confesses to being tugged at by an impulse to keep the trails secret, while also wanting to use them to reach more people. “It’s a bit of both,” he says. “Through education, one can hopefully move on from what was in the past. With more and more bikes coming out, it’s a necessity for our community—and a way to get Indigenous people on the land.”
Millar, whose irrepressible excitement commands every bit of his body language, says building trails and learning to ride has both lifted him from hard times and given him something to strive for. He grew up surfing, but is now saving to buy a carbon mountain bike to be better able to enjoy his own work and to explore his ancestral territory even further. It makes him feel connected, but moreover, it’s just a lot of fun.
The sentiment resonates with Chelsie McCutcheon, a Wet’suwet’en rider from Smithers, B.C., who notes that the very notion of Indigenous happiness was lost under the residential school system, torn away by the rigid crush of Christian absolutism and replaced by generational trauma. “Fun is a healing agent,” she explains, her daughter riding with other kids in the background. “For a lot of First Nations communities, there’s a sense of hopelessness—a whole that needs to be stitched back together. And it seems so basic, but having fun is a really big part of that.”
McCutcheon now lives in Squamish, where she helps run the Squamish Nation Youth Mountain Bike Program and has also been involved in the Indigenous Life Sport Academy. Depression, she recounts, is an ongoing scourge in Indigenous communities. But sports like mountain biking and snowboarding have helped keep her own head above water, and she believes they can build a foundation for generational healing.
“We’re in a place where, in modern society, it’s not appropriate to show you’re grieving. And so, when you have to hide that, you get stuck. But [on the trails], incantations of healing are embedded in that suffering,” she says. “It feels like your throat is burning, but it’s a different type of suffering. Back home, you’re grieving over death and tragedy, but suffering [through exercise] almost strips away that ability to talk down to yourself.”
While it’s true movement is a powerful agent for both mental health and physical well-being, McCutcheon is clear-headed about the fact that getting people moving is a whole other task. It takes infrastructure—like the Chu Chua and Ucluelet trails, which have become a model of cooperation. While governments at all levels continue to flail at this task, mountain bikers are becoming good at it. The IYMBP and First Journey Trails—among other groups—have assisted dozens of northern and coastal communities in building trails. Of course, it helps that B.C. is one of the most desirable mountain-biking destinations in the world, with riding both a nearly universal part of the culture and a significant economic driver.
If B.C. has become ground zero for Indigenous-led trail development, it’s likely because of one thing: Unlike most of Canada, there are virtually no land treaties here, with almost the entire province remaining unceded. The same is true of Yukon, where the Tagish First Nation undertook a similar trail initiative in Carcross as far back as 2011, and now has a tourism amenity drawing thousands each summer to its trails, shops and food services. As First Nations develop their own networks, they can begin to share in those economic opportunities. According to the MBTA publication 2016 Sea to Sky Corridor Overall Economic Impact of Mountain Biking, which summarized studies of the Hwy 99 axis between North Vancouver and Pemberton, trails produced $70.6 million in visitor spending, $35.9 million in wages and $18.6 million in tax revenues that year—doubling the amounts from a previous study in 2006.
And the sport’s benefits aren’t isolated to Canada’s westernmost province. In the U.S., the Navajo Nation now hosts the monumentally popular Rezduro—billed as the world’s first Indigenous-led mountain bike enduro race—on a growing network of self-constructed trails.
Terence Yazzie and MT Garcia are visiting from the Navajo Nation to compare notes. Their sizeable reservation spans portions of three states—Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. Yazzie and Garcia advocate for trails within it. Garcia works to spread mountain biking to school kids, and over the course of only a couple years she’s seen more than 40 Navajo youth take up the sport.
“Myself and other trail builders, and people in the community advocating for cycling, are trying to build a safe space,” Yazzie says, acknowledging the discomfort that comes with trying something new. He was drawn to the sport at a young age, growing up mountain biking in Flagstaff, Arizona, with British racer Steve Peat as his idol. In Chu Chua, we see that influence in action: Yazzie rails corners with perfect bike-body separation, and still runs his brakes reversed (Brit style) in homage to his childhood hero.
Although reconciliation in the Canadian context is a new word to him, Yazzie well understands the concept. “I think it’s just sharing the cultural significance of all the people in the world, right? Like, because you’re not Indigenous doesn’t mean you don’t have culture. So then we get to share this with each other and build community.”
At this gathering, that notion of sharing plays out all day on the trails, but also at night by the campfires, where McCutcheon explains the significance of the potlatch—an Indigenous ceremony around giving and sharing meals—and how B.C.’s early colonial government banned it. Eustache likewise explains to Vinay Menon, from Pune, India, that Indigenous language in Canada was entirely oral, and was thus nearly wiped out by the residential schools. Menon is shocked to learn there were no scrolls, and recounts the tribal diversity of his homeland that persists largely thanks to paper records.
Coming into these exchanges with wholehearted curiosity is a tact that Sean Bickerton is interested in exploring. He’s a non-Indigenous resident of Squamish, attending the Allies Fest with his two young children. A natural resource officer for the B.C. government who works in Indigenous relations, Bickerton admits that the position—a form of law enforcement—has historically been an arm of colonialism. As such, he worries about being perceived as an enemy, but is continually blown away by the welcome he feels when he visits First Nations. It’s become important for him to normalize the feeling of “We all belong together” for his kids. “I wanted to step away from the work side and actually just come in the open, you know? The message of the Indigenous Youth Mountain Bike Program is, ‘Come in a good way.’ So I wanted to come together in a good way in a community I’ve never been to before.”
For everything that makes us different, there is much more that makes us the same. Give us two wheels and a hill to play on, and you’ll see for yourself.
For Bickerton’s kids, the immersion part of the experience is the most compelling. It’s something you just can’t learn in school, where Indigenous people are too often only a concept. “We could have stayed in our home community for National Truth and Reconciliation Day, or we could come and visit this event as mountain bikers, and hopefully expose my kids to how this First Nation community works. To live and to learn, and to do it by bike. It makes an immediate piece that kids can relate to—a vehicle to come and absorb new information.”
Yazzie puts the culmination of that process on display at the festival’s close, with a bannock dinner and farewell ceremony at the school. Instead of piling inside, he and Tom Eustache’s pre-teen son, Theo, are rapt in doing skids, cutties and 180s against a grass bank. A dozen other riders join in, noodling on the impromptu feature, falling, laughing and making themselves late for dinner. Time seems malleable as everyone returns to a simpler state—childhood, in all its uncomplicated wonder. For everything that makes us different, there is much more that makes us the same. Give us two wheels and a hill to play on, and you’ll see for yourself.
Back inside, youth from the Squamish Nation pull Tom Eustache aside to present him with a carving as a gift, and Leon drums out a farewell song. He says a tearful goodbye to the group of mostly white mountain bikers, telling them his heart is big from seeing everyone on the territory. “Come back, come ride the trails again,” he says in his native Secwepemctsin, “and when you do, come say hello—weyt-kp.”
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