We All Belong on the Trails and No Skier Left Behind

April 12, 2023

We All Belong on the Trails and No Skier Left Behind


The idea began to ferment in Donald Wright’s mind as far back as 2016.


“That year Fredericton received, as did many parts of the country, a lot of Syrian refugees,’’ recalls Wright, president of Wostawea Cross-Country Ski Club. “My daughter (Harriet) and I became a host family through an initiative called First Fredericton Friends.


“We adopted a Syrian family, the Albrdans, two parents and five kids, and worked very closely with them for several years. That was totally outside the ski club.”


But after seeing firsthand the challenges faced by newcomers to Canada in trying to fit in, he and other members at Wostawea began to envision cross-country skiing as a way to help newcomers settle into their new communities and acclimatize to our winters. They joined forces with the club’s outreach program.


“We started thinking: ‘We should really work with the multicultural association to get Syrians and others in similar situations on skis, in order to introduce them to winter.


“Many were struggling – with the cold, the snow, the ice. And, as a result, becoming quite isolated. They just didn’t see winter as a possibility, the way you and I see winter as a possibility.”


To that end, Wostawea is one of a dozen clubs spread across our vast Canadian landscape to divvy up almost $285,000 in federal grant money through the Canadian Sport for All and Nordiq Canada Equity Initiatives, to help offset the costs of introducing equity-deserving groups to cross-country skiing and ultimately build strong communities where all people thrive.


Indigenous people. Low-income people. 2SLGBTQIA+ people. Racialized people. People arriving here from faraway lands.


Helping the community-building process via an introduction to ski trails has proven, at no small number of clubs across the country, to be richly successful.


There’s absolutely no pressure to continue skiing. Just give it a try to see where the experience might lead you.


And the initiative is growing.


“Nordiq Canada is committed to building a safe, inclusive and welcoming community without borders that provides all Canadians the opportunity to get in shape while finding their stride on a pair of cross-country skis,’’ said Stéphane Barrette, Nordiq Canada’s chief executive officer in announcing the initiative.


The River Ridge Nordic Ski Club just outside of Saskatoon has used its money to stimulate the first year of an Indigenous Community Sport Development Program. A group of 25 or so was initially expected. Forty-four applied.


“We’re going to keep skiing until there is no snow, but we had our wind-up and the kids are just amazing,’’ enthuses club vice-president Kira Nelson, who is also in charge of the youth programs.


“They’re having a blast. From the first lesson to now, well, I’ve heard so many parents just in awe of being there to see the improvement, not just at the skills level but in the kids’ confidence, their independence, and their ability of being able to work as a community within themselves – not needing that facilitation anymore from an adult, which is really, really great.


“We’ve really aimed at low-income Indigenous youth. We ended up having everything from low-income families, Indigenous Metis children, newcomers. A wide variety of that demographic.


“Our goal is to create a community, safe space, to learn the sport, learn independence, the opportunity to get outside for children, with cost being such a barrier for youth.”


What’s been particularly rewarding, adds Nelson, is the way in which the program has been embraced by the entirety of the community.


“We’ve received a lot of social buy-in,’’ she says. “Not because people feel indebted because they basically got to take part in this program for free, which is unheard of, but because they feel a connection to the program and want to find ways to give back in order to keep it going.


“We didn’t want to push anything down anyone’s throats at the beginning but as the program went along, they saw that, hey, to be a community coach you don’t have to be a pro skier. We can put you through the coaching course and you can be out here, helping.


“We just need people.


“The more people we have helping, the ripple effects will help us offer the program to more people and carry it on.


“It was really intimidating at first. ‘Oh, no, I can’t be a coach! I can’t help.’ But we really encouraged the parents to come out, be with the coaches and join the lesson. We had some equipment they could use and gave them the chance to see that it didn’t have to be intimidating.”


Marlene Alt is past president of Kanata Nordic in Ottawa.


The grant money her club received, she says, has been obviously most welcome in terms of essentials – the cost of new gear, transportation and the like – but so, too, is the simple sense of sport body/government commitment it evokes.


“In a way, it validates us, in the sense of: ‘Yes, this equity/inclusion initiative is important to the whole sport’,’’ she says.


“This wasn’t really part of our core business at Kanata Nordic but because it was supported by Nordiq Canada it feels more like what a club should be doing, besides teaching the little kids, and running races and training racers.


“I love that aspect to it.”


Kanata’s programs are organized in partnership with a variety of local organizations (among them Women of Colour Remake Wellness, Black Ottawa Connect and the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization), free of charge, and designed to suit each group.


“Many communities within the city just have no idea even where to start. They might have heard of cross-country skiing or seen it on TV but they have no idea.”


“We have a young Russian boy – we call him Stan, short for Stanislav (Korobeinkov) – he came through the MCAF (Multicultural Association of Fredericton) program,’’ says Wright. “You put skis on him, he’s in his happy place. He was a bit of a wet hen at first, flopping around. With some lessons we were able to teach him a few basic skills and by the end of it, he was doing double-pole one-kick.


“Just unbelievable.


“He wanted to join his peers already on the junior racing team, after just five or six lessons. We said: ‘You know what, that’s such a crazy idea, let’s make it possible.’


“So, we bought him boots, poles skis – skates and classic. We bought him outdoor clothing.


“Now his parents take him to races across the province, he’s at all the practices. He skied in the Loppet, was a bit mad that his mother would only let him do the 60km there.


“He’s 14 and about nine feet tall. But both his parents are about nine feet tall, so he comes by it honestly. Imagine coming to a different country and not knowing the language.


“But he’s blossomed. He’s fallen in love with the club. So, outgoing now.


“It’s just so wonderful.”


Stan could not agree more.


“Every practice,’’ he says. “I wait for it to start. I want school to finisher faster so I can get to practice.


“The Wostawea Club is a big part of the Fredericton community. On the trails, I pass someone, and I know them because we’re a part of Wostawea.


“It’s helped me physically. Now at school I’m one of the best athletes.


“Volunteering in my culture is not really developed, but here people are always volunteering. I got a chance to volunteer at some of the activities. People are so kind to help, for nothing. Just share.”


“I want to keep skiing. I want my siblings to ski. I have a little brother, he’s only seven months (old) and I want him to start skiing earlier than I did.”


Stan’s mother, Elena Vladimirova, can’t say enough about how much the experience has meant to her son.


“It’s an amazing program for newcomer kids,’’ she praises. “They are able to get acquainted with Canadian culture and a sport, skiing, that is very interesting, not easy.


“With this program, all the equipment is provided, there are a lot of great volunteers and coaches who help. I was in this program also, with my kids. We learned basics, how to ski.


“The kids are just starting to develop interest in this sport. They are asking us: ‘Can we just go outside and go skiing?’


“My son is growing and getting strong and now he’s a member of the Wostawea team. We are very grateful to the Club. They invited him, helped him with his gear and he’s training three times a week for two hours.


“He’s more active, stronger, not spending a lot of time with the computer. Now he’s a busy boy.”


From the NWT to Roseisle, Man., from Uncas, Alta. to Gatineau, Que., from Oliver, B.C., to Halifax, N.S., ski clubs across Canada are benefiting from the funding provided.


“We need more programming like this, all over the place,’’ Kira Nelson enthuses. “In our case, sport is such a huge part of Indigenous culture and it’s been largely removed from schools and recess and gym time.”

“We even had a Metis elder come out and land teachings are part of the program.


“It’s really a great program and we’re just happy to be a part of it.”


During his tenure at Wostawea, Donald Wright has happily embraced a variety of differing roles. Jackrabbit coach, head waxer, organizer, fund-raiser and now president.


“I do wear many hats at the club,’’ he acknowledges, “but this is the best … well, let’s say the most rewarding … hat I can wear.”


Marlene Alt can certainly relate.


“This is so far beyond some people’s realm of experience, so you try to make them feel as comfortable as possible,’’ she says. “And the difference between when they put on their skis – we’re about an hour and a half on the snow – to the end, well, it’s just remarkable, the improvement.


“I had a woman a week or so ago, near the end of the session, just skiing along, look at me and say: ‘I can’t get enough of it! I just love this!’


“Smiling, selfies happening … amazing. Any volunteer I’ve had help me is like: ‘Oh yeah, I’m for sure coming back and helping out again. Count me in. This is so much fun.’


“Let’s face it, they’re giving us as much as we’re giving them. And I always thank them for letting us share our love of Ottawa winters with them. We want them to see there’s actually an upside to when we’re expecting a lot of snow.


“We want them to know about, and to join, that secret society of people who don’t mind when there’s snow in the forecast.”