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This photo essay is part of The Narwhal’s BIPOC Photojournalism Fellowship, operated in partnership with Room Up Front and made possible by The Reader’s Digest Foundation and the generosity of The Narwhal’s readers.
Growing up, Sandy Ward never saw other Indigenous people involved in the outdoors.
“It’s not that we weren’t there,” she said, “it was that we were underrepresented.”
The overwhelming whiteness and predominant maleness in our representations of the outdoors isn’t just a failure of recognition, or of the imagination — it’s actually something more corrosive. For Ward, not seeing other young Indigenous people out enjoying mountain paths led her to question her own belonging on them.
“It made it hard because I wasn’t sure that I should be doing the things I did. Why were there no other people like me in these sports? Was I straying too far from my culture and my people?”
We all grew up seeing a point of view which intentionally omitted the Indigenous people’s perspective and innate belonging in nature. From the paintings of the Group of Seven, to outdoor equipment marketing campaigns, to the world of outdoor influencers, there’s long been an emphasis on able-bodied, heterosexual and cis-normative white guys. But all those glossy visual representations are giving you the wrong impression — and it’s disconnecting queer and racialized communities from the outdoors.
Connection to the land and doing outdoor activities are integral for mental, spiritual and physical health. Studies have shown that nature-based recreation can decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression, while increasing cognition, restoration and overall well-being. This connection with the outdoors through nature-based activities also informs and encourages us to take action to combat the climate crisis. But that assumption — that the Canadian outdoors is a white and male space — persists, creating barriers, whether emotional or physical, for racialized, female-identifying, disabled and recently immigrated individuals.
If you know where to look, there are BIPOC female-identifying and non-binary folks who complicate the predominant settler narrative of who explore and play in the outdoors, while inviting their community members along. Ultimately, the 10 figurative (and in some cases literal) trailblazers featured in the photo essay are here to disrupt the normative script of who belongs in the Canadian outdoors.
Indra Hayre is 25, an avid skier, runner, hiker and mountain biker. She is also the founder of incluskivity, an Instagram community that works to extend the outdoors to people who have traditionally been excluded, mostly by conducting interviews.
“I believe that storytelling is a really powerful tool for understanding and connection,” Hayre tells The Narwhal. “These interviews act as a tool to elevate voices that haven’t been sought out by popular media and in turn, folks can feel validated and less alone in their experiences. I hope that these interviews help traditionally marginalized folks feel seen and heard in spaces that they haven’t felt before, and I also hope they act as an education tool for people who have always felt represented in outdoor spaces.”
Upon reflecting on what barriers she faced with the outdoor activities she does, Hayre listed many. “There were countless barriers: money, leisurely time, lack of intergenerational knowledge and the list goes on. There are different barriers for different people, but the one that still impacts me the most is representation. I never saw myself represented in any sports media, so not only did it impact my own sense of belonging, but other folks were also not convinced I belonged in outdoor spaces because they also had never seen people who looked like me in the spaces before. This led to people projecting their beliefs of my ability onto me, and it limited me to being able to show up authentically. Even to this day sometimes, I feel as though I am representing not only women when I’m in the outdoors, but also South Asian folks and South Asian women. I feel as though I need to be good at whatever I do because I am representing an entire community. It has been a journey, but I’ve released this burden by spending time in the outdoors with people who allow me to show up as I am, and this often means recreating with other folks of colour or friends who I have built a very safe relationship with over years of recreating together.”
“I began hiking avidly and skiing again in my early 20s, but it wasn’t for me at first. Initially, it was an act of defiance toward the media that never made me feel as though I could take up space in the outdoors. I recreated for the purpose of proving people wrong, and showing the few folks who did look like me on the slopes or up on the summit that they did belong in these spaces. But over time, I started to develop a relationship with the outdoors that was a lot more reciprocal, and it was for me.”
Judith Kasiama is 32 and hikes, backpacks, mountain bikes, skis — often in the backcountry. She is also the founder of Colour the Trails which advocates for inclusive representation in outdoor spaces through subsidized outdoor adventure, diverse content creation and working with allied businesses and organizations to break barriers and create accessibility. Upon reflecting on how her love for outdoor activities began, Kasiama shared: “I love learning new sports even if I’m terrible at it. Hiking was something I always did … I think I was always receiving invitations and I always said yes. Skiing, I learned at 30 with Whistler Never Ever Day. And mountain biking, I learned through an invitation from Jaclyn Delacroix last summer when she invited Colour the Trails community to an intro course. Much of my involvement has been due to my own curiosity and my love for the outdoors.”
Kasiama created Colour the Trails “as a means of creating opportunities for others to enjoy the outdoors.”
“I created hiking meetups, colour the slopes [ski day] and our mountain biking mentorship that aims [to create] opportunity and mentorship for those who are interested in participating in the outdoors. The joy of community coming out and enjoying and trying things that they may never have thought they could is how I am building that access. … My motivation has been, and continues to be, creating opportunities for folks to enjoy the outdoors and find peace in nature.”
“Nature is already diverse — what has been lacking in the past years has been the diverse voices and lived experiences and the space to share those in relation to the outdoors. Diversity was already present and it was inclusion that was missing. As I share my lived experience as a Black woman, I find that the intersection of my Blackness, my displacement in terms of being a refugee, all plays into how I see nature and the outdoors.”
Asalah Youssef is 18 and is passionate about hiking, mountain biking, kayaking and meditating in the forest. She is my youngest sister, and is a constant inspiration for me to experience nature more. Often that inspiration has come from seeing the photographs she shares or her inviting me to go on a beautiful hike. She told The Narwhal, “I fell in love with the feeling of hiking due to the constant exploration I’d go on with my mum around areas close to home. … She instilled in me a deep appreciation for all the beauty that exists outdoors, and I’ve been constantly fond of it ever since. Time outside for me changes depending on what I’m feeling my wellbeing needs. Some days a fast-paced trail run fuels me, and other days it’s a forest bathing meditation.”
“Nature refuels me, inspires, grounds and returns me back to my values and mission as a human being,” Youssef said. “Now I aim to invite folks outside to experience this themselves through the images, videos and content I share online. I’ve received comments from people saying that my Instagram stories [makes them] ‘feel calm.’ Someone said ‘I took a walk in the forest today and it made me think of you.’ These words fill me with joy. Everyone belongs outside, there is no need to be ‘outdoorsy’ or ‘sportsy’ to connect deeply with Earth. I also understand how important it is to acknowledge the barriers people face to even going on a walk in a forest; so when I speak about nature, it can be as simple as a tree in their backyard or a pond in a local park and through my social media I aim to bring the beauty of the forest scenes to people as much as possible. Moving forward, I intend to facilitate mindful hikes for folks who are new to outdoor exploration to build community.”
“The more I explored the lands, the more I realized the importance of my environmental footprint. The land so deeply tends to my wellbeing, so this relationship must be reciprocal. The realization that I am not separate from the Earth meant acknowledging that caring for myself means being a steward for the places I so gratefully explore. Just as much as I go outside, I intend to be advocating for climate action and environmental protection in all different areas of my life.”
Melissa Hafting is 35 and a birder. She began birding at age five when her father took her to the Reifel Bird Sanctuary, bought her her first field guide and had her feeding birds like Chickadees. Hafting founded and created the BC Young Birders Program to ensure other young people have a mentor to make them feel included, especially if they identify as a woman or a person of colour.
“There are very few birders that look like me,” Hafting said. “In fact I only know of one other Black birder … the field is still dominated by older white men. I overcame that by following my passion and wanting to make a difference to make this hobby more inclusive. … I also did not let other birders intimidate me and persevered watching birds and proving I could hold my own despite people who felt it was strange that someone like me was into birds.
“I know how it feels not to feel welcome, to feel excluded and to receive racist comments in this hobby. I don’t want anyone else, especially youth, to ever experience that. Nature is for everyone. One group should not claim the outdoors or the birds.”
“Birds have helped me so much to get through some of the most difficult times in my life. They help my mood and bring me peace, relaxation and serenity. I feel even more strongly to fight for conservation issues and to make the outdoors more accessible to all, so that everyone can experience these gifts.”
Anaheed Saatchi is 30, a rock climber and co-founder of BelayALL, a climbing collective that originally began with organizing carpools and pooling gear but has now expanded to include events, meetups, grassroots organizing and advocating for equitable pricing at the climbing gym. Saatchi also writes for Melanin Base Camp, whose founder is Danielle Williams, the force behind Diversify Outdoors. “She was the first person to believe in my voice as a writer and critic of the toxic cultures that permeate the outdoors industry,” Saatchi said.
“The more I learn about decolonizing practices, anti-racist and anti-oppressive practices, grassroots organizing and the more amazing people I meet in community the more I feel rooted in the outdoors. Before, even though I grew up on a mountain and had a forest for a backyard, I didn’t feel I belonged outside. … I like creating spaces that are trauma-informed and disruptive to normative cultures. My immediate communities often feel the effects of the exclusion perpetuated by the outdoors industry. I love climbing beyond words and want to share it in a way that helps others use it, however they need to heal, thrive, be silly, play, grow and so on.”
When reflecting on what they hope to see from the outdoor industry, Saatchi said: “More spaces that centre community [over] profit. More trauma informed leadership. More white folks taking on supporting roles and not leadership roles. More deference for Black and Indigenous sovereignty and leadership. More place-based engagement with the outdoors and less narratives of international conquest or conquest in general. Endless iterations of what strength and resilience look like and less trauma porn for white audiences to pay the bills.”
“The dominant cultures of the outdoors industry reflect the dominant cultures I navigate on a daily basis. The barriers to entry for me continue to be a lack of representation from an early age, a lack of commitment to building equity and not prioritizing community over profit.”
Kendra Coupland is 36, meditates outdoors on a daily basis, swims in freshwater lakes and hikes up to the many waterfalls in her area. In addition, she loves to canoe, forest bathe and camp. Her process of loving the outdoors wasn’t linear.
“As someone who descends from both people who were immigrants on this land, but also people who were originally brought to Turtle Island as slaves, there is a disconnect from the land … [I’ve] had to overcome a general dislike for being dirty/stinky/covered in bug bites. Again, as a Black woman, I think my ancestors fought so much to get away from that because they wanted to be treated with basic dignity and survive during times of slavery. In times of slavery, the enslaved were forced to sleep outdoors, live with livestock — things like that. So there is something in my bones that resists being forced into unfamiliar nature, and I have to work to tend to my nervous system and remind myself that I have autonomy and can choose to be there or leave.”
In the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, Coupland held an outdoor healing retreat for 50 members of the Black community. “It was an opportunity to connect with traditional medicines such as African dance and drumming barefoot in the soil. We got to learn about community agriculture, got to camp on the land and eat a plant-based diet. People took part in workshops, but there was also space to just be in the trees and grieve, or be held by community, or go cool off in the river. To make it more accessible I ran a shuttle bus out from the city to the retreat space which was nearly two hours out of the city. … I have a dream to create a permanent retreat space where people can access nature, come and stay on the land, and rebuild connection and access traditional and Indigenous medicines and teachings. That’s where I would teach yoga and meditation. I dream of it being a space for Black and Indigenous people to heal with times and spaces when it is open to all to come and build and heal together.”
Kendra’s experience in the natural world is a sacred space: “outdoors is my church. It’s a place of spiritual renewal.”
“For me, reclaiming my participation in the outdoors is about putting down a stake and saying I have a right to be here, to live and thrive. As I connect more and more with nature I receive ancient wisdom that guides my life. The trees remind me that I am both growing and dying at the same time. That the separation between life and death is illusionary, and when I can settle with that truth there is very little that can shake me from that feeling of rootedness.”
Karen Lai is 46 and she kayaks, bikes and does light walks and hikes. She got involved in these activities through her friends and general love for the outdoors. She shared, “I just love the freshness of being in the outdoors, the quietness and just being away from … technology.”
Karen was born with Cerebral Palsy, Spastic Diplegia which affects her balance, coordination, motor dexterity, speech and mobility. “As a result, I wear a brace on my left side and use a walker for assistance,” Lai told The Narwhal. “I do have an outdoor walker with all-terrain wheels that makes going over uneven terrain easier, but I can’t go on tough climbs. … There has been many barriers for me to participate in the outdoors — everything from outdoor outfitters not having the necessary equipment, not having the knowledge; uneven terrain in the outdoors; or the expense of adaptive equipment. I always have to plan ahead, talk to the outdoor outfitters and find the appropriate adaptive equipment. There’s a lot of advocacy on my part too. … There’s a lack of awareness and knowledge about people with disabilities and the outdoors.”
Lai said that overtime her relationship to the outdoors has changed because she’s found “more acceptance for myself — my own abilities, vulnerabilities and limitations, and being curious with what I can or cannot do. I may not be able to join my friends in a massive hike, or going surfing, or something because I can’t do it. And being okay with that … and living through them. But I can participate in other things with them. But I need to be curious of my own abilities and think creatively of how to adapt to suit my needs.”
Accessibility and inclusion always takes two to tango. I have to realize that I can’t do everything in the outdoors or that I need friends or outdoor outfitters there to support [me]. I don’t believe in creating outdoor accessible pathways (those wooden platforms) as it wrecks the pristine and the messiness of the outdoors. But I do recognize that we, as people with disabilities, have to be okay that we can’t do everything, be open to have a dialogue with people to think creatively, outside the box and to make mistakes. It is about working together, working collaboratively and learning from each other.”
In the winter months, Sandy Ward, 35, is a competitive snowboarder and backcountry enthusiast. During the summer she spends her time mountain biking, rock climbing and going on the occasional hike. She is part of two organizations that “strive to break down the barriers involved in getting Indigenous people involved in these often high cost sports.”
Sandy began her snowboarding career after being invited to join the First Nations Snowboard Team in her second season of snowboarding. Since then, she has gone from “a recreational shredder to a competitive halfpipe rider to instructor and mentor.” At Indigenous Women Outdoors, Ward co-leads a backcountry mentorship program in the winter and runs a mountain bike program in the summer. With Indigenous Life Sport Academy, Ward said she volunteers as a snowboard coach in the winter and is currently organizing a bike program for this summer. “These kinds of programs are how I got into snowboarding and I think they are very important in getting more Indigenous people out on the land and exploring our territories. … I now see that as a backcountry snowboarder I have been able to connect with the land in a different way and it has pushed me to learn about our history and the stories that go along with it. So, in a way, snowboarding has brought me back to my culture.”
“I think it’s so important that we get out and connect to the land as Indigenous people and share our stories and knowledge with each other in order to keep our way of life alive,” Ward told the Narwhal. “During the backcountry program with IWO [Indigineous Women Outdoors] I saw the way that Indigenous women connect and how when we create a safe space for them to share, that is exactly what we do. We shared stories of hurt and stories of achievements and they helped lift us up and overcome any challenges we faced.”
“Reclaiming participation in the outdoors to me means that we not only get out and learn about sports, but as Indigenous people we also get to learn about our history, connect with our lands and to our ancestors in a different way. … When I started out all I thought of was sending it on the biggest lines and I always thought of the outdoors as my playground. I now know that we belong to the land and we need to show it respect. … The outdoors is now my sanctuary and where I go to find peace and get away. It is also my classroom, where I can go to learn about the plants, medicines and foods that it gives us.”
At 33, Filsan Abdiaman is an ultrarunner, trail runner and founder of a running collective called Project Love Run. The collective is open to all women, but recently Abdiaman decided to create a trail running clinic specifically for BIPOC women called ‘take it to the trails.’
“There are not too many running spaces that celebrate running and self-love or welcome diverse bodies and folks from different backgrounds and abilities,” Abdiaman told The Narwhal. “There are also not enough running spaces that allow women to be vulnerable and share stories; learning to collectively grow and heal. My love for running has allowed me to accept myself and my body, it has helped me heal from a disordered relationship with movement and I am motivated to share that with other folks in the community through Project Love Run.”
Abdiaman said she personally experienced barriers to entering the running world, “from a lack of diversity in the running spaces I was in making me feel unwelcome, to inaccessible trails and races because I didn’t have a car.” But she said she didn’t let those get in the way of her getting into the sport. “I found a way around those … including running to all the trails I liked to run.” Abdiaman said reclaiming participation in the outdoors has meant creating space for herself and other marginalized folks to “thrive in the running community.”
“It means being seen and acknowledged in those spaces for the experiences and expertise we carry.”
“I see myself as part … of a movement that draws attention to the intersectional identities some folks (Black, immigrant women in particular) carry and how that impacts and influences the outdoor space we move in. Through Project Love Run, I hope to encourage intersectional conversations about feminism, running and movement-advocacy and self-love/self-worth. We cannot do the work to dismantle larger systems of oppression if we are not tackling our internal oppressions and limiting beliefs.”
JennaMae Togado-Webb is 35, a freediver and a snowboarder. She has snowboarded, at times competitively, since graduating from high school and only began freediving one year ago but the sport has quickly become her main passion. “I have always loved swimming and slowly got into freediving with the exposure from my partner’s best friends” Togado-Webb said. “Once we moved to Skwxwú7mesh [Squamish], we were closer to the ocean. Ben (my partner) and I would go swimming, fishing and hang out by the sea almost every day. The progression happened from there.”
When asked about the barriers she faced getting into both sports, Togado-Webb said the high cost of outdoor activities stands out to her — but that was only part of it. “I did feel like there were barriers, mostly financial-wise and I worked many jobs to start snowboarding. Freediving was a bit easier in the sense that the ocean is close to where we live now. Summer swimming and a $20 snorkel set from Costco got me exploring and becoming more curious about what was beneath the surface. When my curiosity grew, I wanted to take a course to dive deeper safely, buy better equipment and the right wetsuit. I had to save up for my gear and buy my wetsuit online because the shops in the area did not carry curvy women’s sizes. This made me feel like there was a size barrier for getting into freediving like I had to fit into a small to medium to engage in this activity. Or because there aren’t many sizes available, it made me ask the question, ‘[why] not many womxn were freediving in this area?’ So I invited anyone interested in going for swims in the ocean to come with me. Since then, I have a more extensive community of womxn that join me in the water.”
“I feel my connection with the ocean has gifted me a sense of empowerment. I have learned the skills to provide food for myself and my family if need be. That makes me feel purpose and power. I would love to share and possibly ignite that connection for someone else. Having an intense bond with nature, I have found, translates to being more mindful and respectful of your environment, to protect what you feel is a part of your peace.”