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Shaking up the stereotypes about Ontario’s outdoors

All Out Canada is filling a knowledge gap for racialized people who want to experience Ontario’s natural world firsthand

Shereen Ashman has felt the healing effects of Ontario’s wilderness firsthand — in fact, she wonders if she would have survived the worst of the pandemic without them. Being in nature, to Ashman, is free therapy, “like coming back to yourself.” 

So when she and her longtime collaborator Kofi Hope began to discuss the possibilities for their next project, facilitating a connection with the great outdoors felt like a natural fit. 

Ashman is director of operations at the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, a non-profit organization dedicated to the social and economic development of young Black people, which she co-founded with Hope almost 10 years ago. Since then, Hope went on to co-found Monumental Projects, a consulting company focused on equitable recovery and COVID-19, with Zahra Ebrahim.

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Now Ashman, Hope and Ebrahim have teamed up with Corex Creative — a Black-owned media company in Toronto — and a group of volunteers and funders to create All Out Canada, a project dedicated to making the outdoors more accessible to racialized communities. 

With content housed on Instagram and TikTok, All Out teaches audiences the fundamentals of getting outdoors, through safety series with infographics on how to spot poison ivy or remove a tick, or with posts like ‘Wooded walks within an hour of Toronto,’ and  ‘Free bike rentals in Toronto.’

The goal of these posts is to fill a knowledge gap: racialized communities in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) have an interest in spending more time in the wilderness camping, fishing or boating, but may not know where to start.

Shereen Ashman co-founded All Out Canada after experiencing the healing effects of the outdoors herself. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

All Out also aims to increase the visibility and inclusion of racialized people in the outdoors by featuring profiles and photographs of racialized outdoor adventurers, so they feel more comfortable getting out into new environments. It’s a two-pronged approach, tackling both the social perceptions of who belongs outdoors, and the material obstacles standing in the way of racialized communities getting there. 

Ashman and Hope spoke to The Narwhal about the barriers facing racialized communities trying to access nature, how they can be overcome and what systemic changes could be made to bridge the gap between urban centres and the wilderness. 

What are some of the cultural stereotypes and misconceptions we see in Ontario, and Canada more broadly, when it comes to who is ‘outdoorsy’ and who isn’t? 

Kofi Hope: There has been, historically, this idea that the “great Canadian outdoors” and the surrounding areas are predominantly white — that is, folks who have deep roots in this country, who have access to cottages, who are doing things like canoeing. And it’s a strange narrative we’ve created in Canada: Indigenous people have in many ways been written out of that narrative, even though these are the folks who showed settlers canoes, kayaks and snowshoes and all of these technologies.

[The campaign] shakes up a lot of these stereotypes. We can go into these spaces as people from racialized communities, on our own terms. Camping or going outside doesn’t need to be hamburgers and hot dogs, right? There’s nothing that stops people from having cultural foods that they’re used to, whether it’s dal or jerk chicken or catch that fish and spice it up with Caribbean spices, and cook it like you cook back home. People can go into these spaces and [practice] their culture unapologetically. But it might look different than what it looked like in the 1970s, ’80s or ’90s. 

Shereen Ashman: We’re trying to facilitate this idea of inclusion, to disrupt the dominant narrative that the outdoors is only for the white adventurer who is an expert. 

[There’s a] fear or concern, around safety and inclusion and belonging. People don’t want to mess up, people don’t want to negatively impact anybody else who’s trying to enjoy something. Sometimes instead of stepping out with that fear and trying to do it anyways, people pull back. 

We’re trying to facilitate this idea of inclusion, to disrupt the dominant narrative that the outdoors is only for the white adventurer who is an expert. Shereen Ashman
Director of operations at the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals

What are some of the material barriers you’ve seen impact racialized communities trying to get out into the wild?

Shereen: If you’re thinking about economics: who has the time? The pandemic has shown that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) folk are largely represented in service roles. Who has access to the time off to be able to do this? Who has access to friends and family who have done this, who can be a guidepost? That’s a significant barrier. 

Kofi: The knowledge gap, I think that is one of the biggest ones. Just knowing what’s out there, and then knowing how to be safe and comfortable. When you rent a canoe, no one is there telling you the direction you face in it, or basic things on paddling. It’s just expected if you’re renting it, you should know. But that’s something we could communicate in, like, two TikTok videos, give people enough that they can get out there and do the basics. 

[And] access to transportation, which of course has to do with income. It’s just taken for granted in Canada, that if you’re trying to access these places, you’ve got access to a car. [And] the gear isn’t cheap. So many people I know said, “Yeah, we’d love to camp, but we don’t know if we’d like it. We don’t want to spend $500 in all of that equipment, to then go in and [feel]  like, ‘Oh, this sucks.’ ” Camping can be a super affordable holiday if you’ve got a tent, if you’ve got sleeping bags. But [it’s] that startup cost, right? So the gear costs, helping people figure out places that you can rent, or more affordable ways to do it — that’s stuff that [All Out is] increasingly looking at.

To Kofi Hope, the knowledge gap is one of the greatest barriers preventing racialized communities from accessing the outdoors. “When you rent a canoe, no one is there telling you the direction you face in it, or basic things on paddling. It’s just expected if you’re renting it, you should know,” he says. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

In an ideal world, what kind of infrastructural changes or improvements do you think would make the outdoors more accessible? 

Shereen: I would love to see the health-care system recognize the environment and recreational wilderness, or nature just in and of itself, as a form of healing. There’s a lot of academic research that looks at the healing properties of nature. But on a personal level, I can tell you for myself: at the height of the pandemic, when it was super stressful, I don’t know if I would have made it through this pandemic without access to nature and being in wilderness, specifically. 

How do we integrate [nature] into our health-care system in Canada? I’m not sure — but it would be lovely. [And] the next thing would be teaching our children from very early on, in our TDSB [Toronto District School Board] or Catholic District School Board, about recreational wilderness and how to utilize it for self-care and for healing. 

Kofi: The first is public transportation links to [and within] some of these places. Many U.S. parks have shuttles within them, so you can actually get to the starts of the different trails or the lakes, even if you don’t have a car. I’ve never really seen that in Canadian provincial parks. 

[Secondly,] rental services so you could rent gear and try it out, or people can share gear. Because that’s so much of the culture too, right? People who are campers have friends who are campers, like, “Oh, I’ll just borrow so-and-so’s tent or stove.” But if you don’t know anyone in your network who has any of that, who are you going to borrow from? 

What’s your response when a racialized person says they don’t want to go out into the wilderness because they don’t want to be the only racialized person there?

Kofi: That’s what the campaign is about: you’re not, anymore. Any place that’s within a day’s trip of Toronto that you go these days, you will see other [racialized] folks there. But I think many people find when they go on these trips, folks are way more welcoming than they expected. I’ve found nine times out of 10, people are pretty open, want to share these places that they live around, are excited to see new people there. 

Shereen: [The campaign is] an invitation to my BIPOC sisters and brothers to not shrink your life as a consequence of racism. Racism is a fact, but I’m inviting you to live a full life, which includes exploring these spaces.

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The Narwhal has arrived in Ontario!

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