Welcoming Winter: Uniting 2SLGBTQI+ Canadian Newcomers Through Nordic Skiing
The decision last October to flee Odessa, the third largest city in war-torn Ukraine, perched on the northwestern shore of the Black Sea, for a new beginning a world away was a difficult, but necessary, decision for Valentina Modryka.
For her life. As well as her lifestyle.
“I left because of the war. But Canada, for me, is also very open-minded,’’ explains Modryka, a proud member of the 2SLGBTQI+ community. “In my country, it’s pretty strict. You don’t tell people you’re from ‘another side,’ let’s say.”
This, then, was a place where she felt she could more be herself?
“It was still pretty hard (to leave). I have some relatives in Odessa. My parents had passed away. Not in the war but they were gone. But I did have family. Right now, it’s not that bad there, in Odessa, at least compared to the eastern part of the country.
“I know English so in Canada I didn’t need to learn another language, like I would’ve had to in Europe. I did some research on other provinces. The salary here is a little bit higher than other places. I also have some friends here. They told me about Alberta and Calgary.
“That’s why I chose this city.”
To that end, she began the settlement process, landing a job in quality assurance at a processing company, and began to integrate into the Canadian culture as well as the city’s 2SLGBTQI+ community.
Shortly after arriving, Modryka heard of a project being launched by the Calgary Gay Ski and Social Club in partnership with the Calgary Centre for Newcomers and the End of the Rainbow Foundation, a Calgary-based non-profit group that helps settle and support refugees who identify as part of the 2SLGBTQI+ community.
The project was an introductory cross-country ski lesson for 2SLGBTQI+ immigrants to Canada, to be held on February 26. Equipment and instruction absolutely free.
What could be more quintessentially Canadian than a day out on the snow?
Today, in the midst of Pride Month, the fun she experienced and the camaraderie she felt that day alongside other 2SLGBTQI+ immigrants to this country continues to resonate.
“As a newcomer to Canada, I’d never skied before,’’ Modryka admits. “I was expecting to meet new people, make new friends. That was a big part of it for me. And I did.
“Everyone made all of us feel comfortable.
“They were super nice. Prepared coffee and had sweets. There were funny moments. Everyone had to learn to fall down. Then learn how to stand up.
“Actually, it was fun.”
The project was part of Nordiq Canada’s Equity Initiative, funded in partnership with Sport Canada’s Community Sport for All Initiative, a grant created to remove barriers to increase participation in cross-country skiing for underrepresented groups. A dozen participants attended the program.
“Why do this? To build some connections with new Canadian gay people that live in Calgary,’’ explains club president Roy Strum. “It’s about developing a safe, inclusive, welcoming, caring environment. That’s the type of community we want to build here.
“Being gay, coming out as gay, is not an easy thing for a lot of people. So part of the motivation for doing this event is so people can openly be proud of who they are as people, as athletes, as members of society; where it’s okay to be you, and where you’re cherished for who you are.
“To connect those new 2SLGBTQI+ Canadians to a fun outdoor winter sport, spreading out tentacles into the community so that these people feel a part of what’s going on.
“We wanted to make those connections and to reach out to a community, our community, the gay community, that I think is under-represented and underserved.”
“We had people there from eastern European countries, Ukraine, Belarus, from Mexico, other Latin American countries. One girl was from Russia,’’ points out another of the event organizers, Harri Ulmer. “Some from the hot-weather countries didn’t realize they could do stuff in the winter. They thought winter was something to be endured. So this was a way to introduce them to a sport that’s pretty easy. To rent a pair of skis, poles and boots is about $20 for the whole day. There’s lots of places in town where you can go locally.
“When people arrive, sometimes they’re not really sure who else is here. So this was also a great opportunity to get know each other. To connect.”
Retired national cross-country ski team member Maya MacIsaac-Jones was brought aboard to helm the session.
“Great group to work with,’’ MacIsaac-Jones reports. “Really excited to get the opportunity to work with these new skiers.
“I approached it like any other coaching session; that’s what I was hired for. But it is called the Gay Ski and Social Club so there was an emphasis on the social aspect, as well.
“Roy and I had spoken before, several times, back and forth, about the plan for the session. I wanted to go in, get a feel for the group and then lead them through some activities that would push them a bit and some fun relay-things at the end.
“There’s a big demand for sport, both locally and nationally, to be more inclusive; sport where everyone feels welcome. Roy and the club have done a great job in kind of setting a precedent for this.”
The day itself, Feb. 26th, could not have been better, the event held at Calgary’s East Village Nordic Loop. Clear blue sky. Minus-2 Celsius as a high temperature. Ideal snow conditions.
“The day,’’ recalls Strum, warmly, “was filled with a lot of laughter.”
After the lesson, all participants gathered at a nearby coffee shop to discuss the day and get to know each other better.
Brenda Bonfiglio and her wife Leslie, both born and raised in Mexico City, were among those who took part.
“We’d both taken (downhill) ski lessons before,’’ says Bonfiglio, a cook by profession who had lived in Aspen, Colo., for a year before moving north 10 months ago. “And we’d had kind of … not so good experiences.
“So we were sort of worried. But everyone was very supportive, kind, friendly. In a way, it re-introduced us to skiing.
“It was our first time doing cross-country, and it helped that everybody was not super-advanced in the sport, which can be a bit intimidating.
“The program we took that day was awesome.”
Even a few of the volunteers hailed from far flung countries. Alan Martino, for instance, was born in Sao Paolo, Brazil, leaving at age 18 to live abroad and attend school. He’s been in Calgary now for 10 years and is a professor at the University of Calgary’s School of Medicine. While still a student, he met his partner, Tony Wang, on campus.
“I was super excited to support this,’’ Martino says. “I was in charge of timing – no pressure!
“It was amazing just to take the space and have the rainbow flag there. Events like this allow you to see that there is a community that is welcoming. There was such a positive attitude of spirit, of team.’’
Wang, hailing from Chengdu, China, joined the CGS&S last winter and had a blast.
“I will definitely continue with the club. I had a lot of fun. It’s funny, but I’m one of those people who actually wishes winter was longer.
A welcoming, inclusive environment. Comradeship aligned to physical activity.
Hopefully to be repeated, and expanded.
“Oh, yes,’’ responds Valentina Modryka. “I’d go again. Totally.
“I wish there were more activities, sports, set up like this.”
“I hope this is not the end.”
Story by George Johnson