For the past six years, the Aboriginal Youth Mountain Bike Program
has worked with dozens of Indigenous communities throughout British Columbia. From humble beginnings of a single miniature bike park in the Nlaka’pamux community of Boothroyd in the Fraser Canyon, it has grown into a model for reconciliation not only throughout the province, but increasingly across Canada and around the world. For those of us in the program, we often find ourselves somewhat mystified. What is it about this project that has captured the imagination and attention of so many communities who have been willing to open their doors and invite us in?
Recently we met with documentary filmmakers Casey Routly and Stephen Dreaver and spent some time discussing our experiences and lessons learned. Their short Film “Allies” highlights some of the conversations we had.
As the Founder and Director of the AYMBP, the passion of this program really came from riding with the kids and seeing how it impacted their lives, helping them gain greater self-esteem and confidence, allowing them to reconnect with nature and the land and get outdoors and live healthy active lives.
Photo: John Wellburn
Thomas Schoen, owner of First Journey Trails
, Ride the Cariboo
, and a founding director of the AYMBP explains how he feels the key to our success is about process, of doing things in a good way that fosters interest within the youth that percolates up to the leadership and then catalyzing action.
“We often start by hosting workshops in communities, we do bike clinics, teach them basic bike skills and do a little bit of trail building. That process sparks the interest. They want to see some trail development they want us to come back to their communities.”
Photo: Thomas Schoen
Initially, the AYMBP was about riding, getting kids on bikes, but it quickly evolved into trail development. Many of the communities we visited would thanks us for teaching their kids and getting them excited about bikes, but would lament there was no place for them to ride, no trails. Quite often the only space they had for outdoor recreation was a busy, dangerous road or highway that cut through the centre of the community. It was then that we turned our attention to helping communities create trails and the program really started to grow.
Of course, we were not the first to raise the spectre of trails for First Nations. In BC, as across Canada there is a long history of proposals for large regional trail systems for recreation and tourism. Typically, someone would approach a First Nation community and they’ll say, “We want to do this big trail, it’s going to be great for tourism, lots of people are going to be coming here.” And, more often than not, the response from the community will be, “No. We don’t want that, that just means more people on our land, more garbage and impacts to our sensitive areas. How are we going to benefit from that?”
It’s a legitimate question and one for which we didn’t have an answer. The key was, when we were invited to a community, we came without the expectation of convincing them to consent to a project designed for non-Indigenous people visiting or living on their territories. We came to listen and understand how we could assist them in trails that would work for them. “Forget about tourism,” we would respectfully suggest, “Let’s get your kids out and moving around, we’ll train your kids to build trails so they can do it when we’re long since gone.”
We would start with a small trail, perhaps a track leading up to a hill overlooking the community. When they see their kids out using the trails, their elders out on the land that’s when the interest really started to grow. Before we knew what was happening we found ourselves working in numerous communities across the province and receiving emails and calls every other week. What was going on?
For Thomas, it’s about building something positive for the youth. “First Nation communities are proud of what they are building. I have elders coming up to me on a weekly basis telling me that for the first time their kids are not spending the entire weekend sitting in front of a TV. They are outdoors, enjoying the trails, they are buying mountain bikes, it’s a life changer for these communities.”
Photo: John Wellburn
From the rapidly growing number of trails Indigenous communities are building to the increasing number of youth riding, with women’s groups starting up running clubs, to elders using trails to access their favourite berry patches, the utility and benefits of this approach are clearly evident.
I often wonder if there isn’t something more, something deeper we’ve tapped into. I recall an elder with whom I walked a trail to a view point overlooking her community. When she reached the top and looked out over the valley where she had lived her entire life, she turned to me and said, “I’ve never been up here. The government built our community like it was a prison, to keep us off the land. Our youth built this trail and they are digging us out from under that history.”
As a non-Indigenous Canadian, as a mountain biker, it was a profound moment. By helping communities building these trails we have the chance to give something back, to allow people to heal and reconnect to the lands that were taken. And riding the trails, along with the youth and our Indigenous friends had become more fun and fulfilling then we ever imagined.
When Europeans first came to North America, the only way they could enter the interior of the continent was through trails they were shown by Indigenous guides. In this era of reconciliation, it only makes sense that we return to the trails where it all began to rebuild those relationships and then ride and shred, together.
Photo: Patrick Lucas