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Making room for everyone on the mountain

Machismo and bravado—two words frequently used to describe ski and snowboard culture. There’s a performative aspect in mountain sports; you’re judged if your gear isn’t “steezy” or stylish enough, and beginners are deemed yetis, gorbs, or jerrys. How someone describes mountain conditions in the gondola is dissected by strangers and assumed to be indicative of their ability. 

Being different isn’t easy, especially in mountain sports. 

But locals in Whistler, Squamish, and Pemberton recognize the flaws in the culture, and are working to make snow sports more inclusive. 

Indra Hayre, the founder of Incluskivity (in·clu·ski·vity), offers backcountry courses for women and gender-diverse folks of colour. Her non-profit organization removes barriers women of colour often face while participating in snow sports, such as cost and the feeling of not belonging due to the lack of racialized representation in the sport. 

Part of Hayre’s motivation to start Incluskivity was because she felt intimidated by backcountry spaces and courses, where she felt her ethnicity and gender were how people perceived her, over factors like her personality or ability. 

“It’s nice when you go into a space and that’s not what people are focusing on—you’re not a skier of colour, because everyone else is a skier of colour,” says Hayre. 

Indigenous Women Outdoors (IWO) is another organization breaking down barriers. In the winter, they host low-cost beginner ski and snowboard lessons, backcountry courses, and social ski/ride days. 

IWO is entering the fourth season of its backcountry mentorship program. This is the first year where previous participants can take on a leadership role with the guidance of Sandy Ward. Incluskivity also has past participants leading programs this year, contributing to a greater diversity of leaders in the backcountry. 

Ward, a member of the Lil’wat Nation, wears many hats. She co-founded IWO, is a certified trail guide and mountain-bike coach, a talented athlete, a volunteer leader, and a longtime Whistler Blackcomb instructor. She also recently produced a documentary. 

She was an inaugural First Nations Snowboard Team member and a BC Freestyle Team athlete in her younger days, mainly competing in the snowboard halfpipe. 

While she always felt supported by her coaches, Ward says it was uncomfortable being the only Indigenous snowboarder at times, and she didn’t have Indigenous athletes to admire. But she sees representation growing. 

“Kids can now look up to someone who looks like them, has gone through the same traumas, comes from the reservation and understands them a bit more,” she says. 

In 2020, the First Nations Snowboard Team became the Indigenous Life Sport Academy. ILSA offers year-round outdoor sports programs for Indigenous youth. Ward leads the ILSA mountain biking and climbing programs. 

Finding a sense of belonging

Community evokes a sense of belonging. But that feeling can be surface-level for members of minority groups on the mountain. 

In skiing and snowboarding, to look and move like the standard is to be accepted. 

But those standards can inspire feelings of exclusion and inadequacy for many—particularly minority groups related to ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

“I don’t know if there is anything I like about traditional ski culture,” says Hayre. 

“I started mountain sports again [in my adulthood] to find a way to fit in and find a piece of identity, a sense of belonging. I wasn’t finding it because I never felt like I could actually be myself. How are you going to belong somewhere if you’re not being who you really are?” 

Hayre couldn’t find a ski community where she felt unconditionally accepted, so she created her own: a ski community of Incluskivity, where being on the mountain is about learning, getting outside, and simply “showing up.” 

And once you start showing up, you might be surprised by what you find.

Outdoor sports photographer and filmmaker Ryan Collins says his sense of belonging has oftentimes been contingent on his performance. 

“People don’t care if you’re gay if you’re a good skier or a good photographer,” says Collins. “When you’re good, that’s when you end up feeling like you belong in [mountain towns].” 

Collins says there’s a perception that “the straight guy is more likely to fit in with the group,” so there’s even more pressure on him when competing for a job. 

According to the Canadian Ski Council, in the 2021-22 season, 16 per cent of skiers and snowboarders were members of a visible minority, which was a four-per-cent increase from the previous decade, when the percentage of minority skiers and boarders was stagnant at 12 per cent.

Language of the land

Whistler Blackcomb supports Incluskivity, IWO, and ILSA with lift and rental packages. The mountain operator also provides free season passes for Indigenous youth aged 12 to 18 from the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations. Whistler Blackcomb and the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) also launched a program this year to provide 49 SLCC employees with packages of season passes, rental equipment, and lessons. 

Hayre and Ward say access to the mountain is a huge deal, since the cost of skiing Whistler Blackcomb, even for the day, is prohibitive for many people. 

In addition to supporting local non-profits, Whistler Blackcomb recently revamped the Raven’s Nest restaurant on Whistler Mountain to include Indigenous-inspired cuisine and art. Riders can now stop in for venison chilli or a smoked salmon sandwich, among other dine-in and to-go options. The menu was created in partnership with the SLCC and lists items in the Squamish (Sk_wx_wú7mesh Sníchim) and Lil’wat (Líl’wat7úl Ucwalmicwts) languages, in addition to English. 

Ward is excited by this change to Raven’s Nest, as well as the addition of Squamish and Lil’wat names to the new Fitzsimmons Express chairlift. The Squamish language name for the lift is Sk_wexwnách, translating to Valley Creek. In the Lil’wat language, the name is Tsíqten, which means Fish Spear. Both of these names appear on the upper and lower terminals of the lift. 

Language holds a lot of significance for Ward. She values learning the traditional names of the places she rides and the stories behind those names. 

“It’s important for us to get back into understanding why these places are called what they were, and why it was important to have language connected to the land. Our language comes from the land,” says Ward. 

Slides on the Mountain is the translation of Ts’zil, the Lil’wat name for Mount Currie. It’s also the name of the short film Ward produced and appeared in. Slides on the Mountain screened at the Whistler Film Festival, and follows two brothers from the Lil’wat Nation, Talon and Riki, as they embark on the challenge of skiing Ts’zil. The Lil’wat name demonstrates the significance of language—the name itself reveals a defining feature of the place. 

Whistler Blackcomb plans to include both Nations in naming the upgraded Jersey Cream Express chairlift next winter. 

People like us

In addition to the non-profit sector, creatives are also paving the way for change. 

For a long time, ski and snowboard films have told similar stories about the same types of people. It’s a genre historically chock-full of hyper-masculinity and “one-upmanship,” as professional skier Cody Townsend has put it. But that’s finally changing. 

In 2011, Sherpas Cinemas’ All.I.Can ignited a new wave of ski films. The artful film focused on themes of climate change in addition to the sheer talent in “ski-porn” footage. Most notably, it contains a street segment of the late J.P. Auclair as he skied through urban areas of Trail, B.C., illustrating that you don’t need a pass to the best mountain—all you need is a shovel and a pair of skis to have fun in your own backyard. 

In the 13 years since that film, more and more ski films are telling important stories. 

Collins’ directorial debut, People Like Us, also screened at the Whistler Film Festival last month. His documentary discusses the experiences of queer skiers and snowboarders in small mountain towns like Revelstoke and Pemberton. It features Pemberton-based snowboarder Bruce Johnston. 

Johnston was trepidatious when he was approached to be in the film, but the thought of kids who feel different having someone to relate to on-screen motivated him; he didn’t have that growing up. He wanted to contribute to the new era of ski/snowboard films. 

“If you’re a young person and you’re different and you’re into something that doesn’t have people who are like you doing it, then you think: ‘Maybe I’m not supposed to be doing this,’” says Johnston. 

“Hopefully, some skier or snowboarder, or even just an outdoor enthusiast, will see this and go, ‘Oh wow, there are people like me who are different and doing rad stuff.’” 

His aspiration is that no one puts down their skis or board because they feel different. 

In the documentary, viewers are reminded by Johnston that snowboarding was born as a counterculture—so why would we outcast people for being different? 

Representation was also a salient theme in Slides on the Mountain. Ward says the filmmakers’ biggest goal was to empower the Lil’wat Nation. Not only was the film revered by the community, but the Whistler Film Festival’s jury also acclaimed it with the Best Mountain Culture Short Film Award

“We wanted to show our community how awesome it was to get two of their youth onto this mountain that people from all over the world come to ski and snowboard, but we’ve never had this opportunity ourselves. We’re coming back out onto the land, but on our own terms,” says Ward. 

Hayre is an avid Slides on the Mountain fan and believes films made by minority storytellers will help more people see a spot for themselves in the ski community. 

“In order for us to broaden what it means to be a skier, the stories we tell have to be diverse in nature,” says Hayre. 

A source of Pride

In addition to diversity being highlighted in films, all gender identities and sexual orientations will be celebrated with the fast-approaching Whistler Pride & Ski Festival. Eight days of snow sports and social events run from Jan. 21 to 28. Mountain enthusiasts can go heli-skiing, or recreational riders can join a free social ski/snowboard group. There’s also no shortage of après activities, from relaxation at Scandinave Spa to Drag Bingo at Nita Lake Lodge. 

As the festival enters its 31st year, it continues to be an exuberant way to show Whistlerites and visitors from afar that Whistler welcomes everyone. 

Dean Nelson, the former longtime producer of Whistler Pride, recalls the festival’s early years and how emotional it can be for some attendees. 

“People started sobbing as they entered Whistler Village because they saw rainbow flags for the first time,” he says. 

The event will culminate with a ski-out and parade through the village on Friday, Jan. 26, and the noteworthy Snowball event—a dance party in the Sea to Sky Ballroom at the Whistler Conference Centre, which lasts until 4 a.m. on Sunday. 

Inclusion is also a pertinent theme in competitive sports. 

A former Whistler Mountain Ski Club (WMSC) member—who wishes to remain anonymous—stopped competing to pursue other extracurricular activities. He came out as transgender after he left the club. 

He had a non-binary role model at the WMSC, and says their openness about their identity was a beacon of hope for him. 

He thinks things are moving in the right direction. However, he hopes the conversation about differing identities in competitive snow sports continues to gain traction, as that conversation was never had with athletes when he was a ski racer. 

“An equitable ski culture is a place where everyone feels welcome and they don’t feel excluded because of their identity. They can talk about these things without being ostracized,” he says. 

BC Alpine’s Gender Inclusion Policy states, “Athletes in developmental and recreational sport should be able to participate in the gender category in which they identify, without any further disclosure or other requirements.” 

In an email, Sandy Nattress, executive director of the WMSC, said the club takes inclusion very seriously.

“As such, we support gender inclusion. At registration, we invite families to share gender information if they wish, and to indicate if they have a gender preference,” he wrote.

“We support our members’ and athletes’ freedom to choose how they would like to identify, and their privacy as well.”

Room to grow

Whistler Blackcomb encourages initiatives like the Rainbow Room, a 2SLGBTQIA+ employee affinity group bolstering employees’ confidence and space for authenticity. While Nelson acknowledges these groups as a crucial step, he sees marketing as an area for growth. 

“Vail Resorts’ marketing needs to be updated to have diverse imagery on the website, printed materials, and in spaces on the mountain. There could be more pride, or progress flags, displayed in food and beverage locations,” says Nelson. 

Dane Gergovich, Whistler Blackcomb’s senior manager of communications, says the pride flag is displayed in the Chick Pea Hut and Merlin’s Bar and Grill. 

Like Nelson, Collins believes the normative “ski image” appeals to the majority. He traces the cause to the sport’s history. 

“The [marketing] industry knows people want to be like the pros,” says Collins. 

Those pros have traditionally been white men. Marketers know people will buy into the “bro brah” culture, and it’s the white man who has historically epitomized that image. 

Just as IWO and Incluskivity champion backcountry leadership, Nelson hopes to see more members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in senior positions, too. 

“Until we have diverse leadership, we’ll never have true diversity. When you have leadership that is binary and heteronormative, that’s the commentary that’s pushed forwards,” he says. 

There is still ample room for progress, but courageous individuals and non-profit organizations are making meaningful strides to ensure everyone is accepted in ski and snowboarding communities. There is plenty of room for everyone on the mountain.