Finding your place in a scene that hasn’t historically included people like you can be an uncomfortable proposition. Whether it be skiing, biking, hiking or fishing – all activities that have become ever more popular through the pandemic – the postcard images of these sports have always been very white. Lack of diversity in the outdoors is a complicated problem, but one, it turns out, that women are more apt to tackle.
Do a Google search of leaders advocating for BIPOC in Canada’s outdoor communities, and they’re almost all female. Vancouver’s Judith Kasiama is one of them and has some insights into why. Four years ago, she called out the outdoor-sports megachain MEC for having no diversity in its marketing material. That same year, MEC signed Kasiama, an African Canadian, as a brand ambassador, in a bid to reverse its mistake. Representation quickly became the chief concern of the company’s advertising, but Kasiama ultimately felt it amounted to tokenism and didn’t do anything to resolve barriers to entry for BIPOC at the ground level. So she started her own organization, Colour the Trails, to offer programming that helps get racialized people into adventure sports, together in groups. Most of that uptake, she said, has been female.
“Women of colour are more likely to push through their fears and discomforts,” the 31-year-old told me during a backcountry skiing trip to Revelstoke, B.C., last January. “Women have more humility. When it comes to the mentorship level of things, men drop out.”
Kasiama, whose organization puts together introductions to everything from rock climbing to rowing, highlights the fact it’s exceedingly difficult to enter the communities and cultures that form around these activities as an individual outsider. It feels much more approachable with other BIPOC.
“There’s safety in numbers,” she says, “and if we have a bad experience we can talk it out. But it’s also recognizing that we do have a right to be in these spaces.”
Having others to reaffirm that with is incredibly helpful. But in her experience, men are less amenable to being watched when they’re beginners at a sport. Women, on the other hand, bond over vulnerability.
“I fell a lot today,” Kasiama says at the end of her ski trip, “I was so tired, but having everyone cheer me on was so encouraging.”
There’s another piece to the success of the all-female dynamic, too, and that’s the male gaze. It can be a major drain on focus, not just for BIPOC but all women. Removing it, along with other hurdles such as access to gear, locations and partners, allows women to more fully immerse themselves in the learning experience, Kasiama says.
In that spirit, she often partners with another organization called Indigenous Women Outdoors, founded by Myia Antone, of the Squamish Nation, and delivered with the help of Sandy Ward of the Lil’wat Nation (both north of Vancouver). Ward, an accomplished snowboarder who co-leads IWO’s backcountry mentorship program, says having someone take charge and put a group together is often the biggest step in opening up space.
“There’s not a lot of Indigenous leadership in the outdoor community. We want to see more women in leading roles,” she says on that same backcountry skiing trip, adding that IWO now has four such leaders in its fold.
Meanwhile, Demiesha Dennis has her own questions about why BIPOC women are populating the outdoors quicker than men. Originally from Jamaica, Dennis works as a law clerk in Toronto but is an avid fisher and lover of wild places. She started her organization, Brown Girl Outdoor World (BGOW), because she was too often the only person of colour out angling on a river.
She recently returned from leading six other women on a canoe-based fly-fishing trip in Temagami River Provincial Park in Northern Ontario, and the big question was how to get BIPOC men outside, too.
“The trip we took last week had women of various global identities, sexual identities, religious identities,” she says. “One girl felt so safe she said she forgot you could possibly drown on a lake. … How do we find men who are willing to broach the topic of not feeling safe in the outdoor community?”
Shelly Vo, a 34-year-old Canadian of Vietnamese descent who lives in downtown Toronto, was one of the women pondering that same question with Dennis. Although she’s been fishing her whole life, fly fishing is new to her, and she confirms that feeling safe is at the core of getting into a new outdoor sport.
“Not seeing yourself represented on the river, in fly-fishing films and in fly shops, it really makes you feel unwanted in certain spaces. This leads to issues of confidence and belonging. And at other times it makes you feel like a unicorn – just an object folks stare at. It’s really awkward. Name another female Southeast Asian fly angler in Toronto. If you’re out there, I want to meet you by the way!” she says. (She is @shellytales on Instagram.)
In the meantime, Vo has been able to find that safety and community through BGOW, which takes care of transportation, logistics and ensuring even the group’s contracted outfitter is sensitive to “women, queer folk and people of colour,” she says.
That’s a lot of work, and Brown hopes to benefit men, too. But while many perceive access to gear as the biggest barrier – BGOW has created a free gear library to overcome this – she says there are cultural and notional concepts that need to be addressed, too, particularly for new Canadians. Men of racialized identity, she says, often worry about leaving their families behind.
There’s also a question around language.
“You use the word camping … a lot of people who immigrated to Canada came from camps. And those camps are not the same idea of going out into the woods and having a great time. People lived in camps, they were forced into camps, so changing the idea of what people see or think when they hear camps [is part of it].”
Those sensibilities, in the end, are just something BIPOC women are better tuned into right now.
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