It’s easy to misunderstand what exactly systemic racism means and to wonder what it has to do with snowboarding. But when we look at the history of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, it becomes clear that our laws and policies have formed the basis for discrimination and oppression based on race. As we begin to understand what Indigenous communities have been through, it gets easier to see why we should make personal efforts to move the situation forward—even if we’re just a bunch of boarders. Here’s what you need to know –David MacKinnon
• First of all, let’s clear up a few definitions. “Indigenous” typically refers to Métis, Inuit, or First Nations people. “Indian” is still used in our legal system, and in the legal sense, it refers to First Nations people who are eligible for status in the eyes of the government. “Indian” is one of the essential terms of understanding systemic racism in Canada. That’s because having Indian status grants access to social services and resources, and legally speaking not all Indigenous people are Indians. We should define systemic racism, as well. Essentially, it means that our laws and social infrastructure have features that allow for oppressive treatment of racialized communities, even if it’s at the subconscious level or a lingering result of historical injustices.
• Canada’s legislative relationship with Indigenous peoples dates back to 1763, and a document called the British Royal Proclamation. The BRP provided Indigenous people some official recognition, protection, and fairly significant land rights. Under the BRP, all land in the colonies was considered Indigenous unless sold or ceded, and only the crown could buy Indigenous land.
• In 1850, legislation was passed that defined “Indian” for the first time. This law would form the basis for status. From there, laws passed that focused on assimilation, the goal of the new legislation was to remove legal distinctions between “Indians” and settlers. Keep in mind that in doing so, the government could lay a framework for the acquisition of property by settlers.
• The reserve system developed through the 1850s. The size of reserves was often calculated per registered Indian, meaning the fewer registered Indians there were, the more land was available for settlers. In 1869, the Gradual Enfranchisement Act changed the definition of “Indian” so that status only flowed through men. That meant that any woman who married a non-status man (and her children) lost status. In that time, you couldn’t live on a reserve if you didn’t have status. You couldn’t be a registered member of your First Nation, you couldn’t access health care or other services on reserve. As a result, many women migrated to cities. It’s estimated that one direct result of the Gradual Enfranchisement Act is that today, 60-80% of Indigenous people live in urban centres as opposed to on their traditional land.
• The first Indian Act was passed in 1876. This Act and its reforms would form the legal basis for a long period of aggressive and oppressive programs aimed at full assimilation. An 1894 Indian Act amendment formally required First Nations children to attend residential schools, where thousands of kids died of untreated illnesses like typhoid and tuberculosis, being forced to do hard labour, exposure to the elements, fires, accidents, abuse and suicide. Tens of thousands more survived, but experienced physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The residential school era lasted until 1996, and as of 2015 there remained 80,000 survivors. When we talk about intergenerational trauma and its effects on Indigenous communities today, often we refer to abuse cycles that started with victims of the residential school system.
• Other atrocious policies were implemented in the 19th and 20th centuries. We don’t have space to detail all of them, but we encourage further reading on the Potlatch Ban, Indian Hospitals, The Pass System, the 1927 Indian Act Amendment, High Arctic Relocation, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and the Sixties Scoop. This period is often referred to as a genocide, and for good reason—it’s estimated that Indigenous populations declined 93% between contact and the 1900s.
• There have been some federal actions to move towards reconciliation. In 1985, Bill C-31 was passed in an attempt to make Indian status laws less gender-discriminative. In 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed. It heard testimony from residential school survivors, and in 2015 made 94 calls to action based on its findings. As of this writing, 10 of those 94 actions are complete, 22 are in progress with projects underway, 38 are in progress with projects proposed, and 24 are not started. In 2016, Canada endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which has significant wording regarding rights to autonomous government, cultural expression, and land rights. The 2017 Indian Act Amendment Bill S-3 aimed to further repair lingering sex-based inequalities.
• Today, a host of issues still plagues relations between Canada and Indigenous peoples. Many (but not all) of these issues stem from questions of land use. These issues are complicated and tend to hinge on who can give consent on behalf of an Indigenous community. Other problems are a little more straightforward, such as addressing the long-term boil water advisories still in place on 61 reserves—that’s an infrastructure issue and something the federal government should be able to address (there is a plan in place with a target date of March 2021 to end all advisories, and this is an excellent place for citizens to demand the government stays accountable).
• A lot of the snowboarding we do, a lot of what you see the pros riding in the movies, takes place on Indigenous territory. Recognizing this empowers us to build respect for Indigenous communities into our riding habits, and you’d be surprised how a few small tweaks to your day-to-day can make a difference. Sandy Ward, a backcountry shredder from the Lil’wat Nation and a Co-Lead of Indigenous Women Outdoors’ Backcountry Mentorship Program, offers this advice: “Just learning about the Nation whose territory you are on is huge, check out the Whose Land app to get started. Visiting cultural centres is a great space to start your own personal journey to learning about Indigenous culture and history. Stopping in at an Indigenous-owned gas station or shopping in Indigenous communities usually goes towards health and healing programs or to youth recreation programs. So next time you are passing a First Nations community on your way to your adventure destination, think about grabbing snacks for your trip at the local grocery store.”
• If you want to do more on your personal journey towards reconciliation, recognize that snowboarding and other outdoor activities can make an enormous impact in the lives of Indigenous people. Think about what boarding means to you—now imagine that, plus discovering a connection to your ancestors, land, and culture. The problem is that snowboarding is prohibitively expensive—that’s where organizations like the Sea-to-Sky’s Indigenous Life Sport Academy (ILSA) come in. ILSA’s mission is to provide Indigenous youth with access to unstructured and semi-structured sports like snowboarding, skateboarding, rock climbing, biking, and hiking. Court Larabee, the executive director of ILSA, says: “It’s very evident that the ski and snowboard industry is not the most diverse industry out there because there are such large barriers to accessing the sport—not only the cost of the equipment but also the time away from your family. The gift of equipment is a saving grace to these youth, when they’re going through intergenerational trauma and dealing with problems at home, picking up the snowboard or the skateboard or whatever it is is transforming the mindset takes them to a place where they can build a foundation for better mental health. It’s character building, it’s self esteem, it’s relationship building, and it provides a productive way of using discretionary time. There’s actually a lot of research that point to life sports dramatically reducing suicide rates and youth crime rates in Australia—we look at that and it aligns with what we see here at home.” We strongly encourage readers to donate money or equipment to organizations in their area that support Indigenous access to snowboarding and other life sports.
We want to acknowledge that this article overlooks challenges faced by many non-Indigenous Canadians experiencing racism. We sincerely hope that readers examine their relationships with other racialized communities, and strive to make snowboarding a means for everybody to find passion, joy, and welcome.
“Through programs like the Indigenous Life Sport Academy and Indigenous Women Outdoors, I have had the opportunity to socialize and get to know other like-minded Indigenous folx. Before finding these outlets I rarely spoke about being Indigenous and almost tried to hide my heritage. I found that meeting and snowboarding with other First Nations peoples sparked my interest in learning more about my culture and our rich history. It's what keeps me wanting to learn more traditional place names and the stories linked to the areas in which I get to snowboard. Being out on our land is very important as it helps us to connect spiritually to our home and surrounding areas.” —Sandy Ward, Backcountry Mentorship Program Co-Lead at Indigenous Women Outdoors
Whose Land App