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Dream team

The First Nations snowboard team that's about way more than just shredding

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On any given Sunday, Merlin's Bar in the Upper Village plays host to a scene that's at once fabulously improbable and deeply heartwarming.

With the help of parents and coaches, kids and teenagers bundle up and strap on snowboard boots. Like most kids, they can barely contain themselves, bursting at the seams as they ready to hit the slopes for their weekly shred.

What's different is who they are. These are not the children of vacationing Europeans or moneyed Vancouverites. They are, rather, members of two Indigenous communities — the Lil'wat and Squamish First Nations — who have called this territory home for millennia.

The kids are part of the First Nations Snowboard Team (FNST). With six divisions across the country and around 230 members, the club, which started in the Sea to Sky, has provided a pathway to snowboarding for thousands of kids who might otherwise never get into the sport.

Kelvin Johntson, an Ojibwa man from Manitoba with a grandkid on the team and a passion for snowboarding, has been involved from the start.

One of the group's diehard volunteers, he spends Sunday mornings knocking on doors and driving kids up from Squamish.

"I gots four that want to come all the time — they're at my place at quarter after seven," he tells me, as we watch the kids file out. "I find it fun. It's so different just coming up here. In the beginning, they're trying to outdo each other. At the end of the day, they're all having a good time."

The team, however, is currently facing some financial hurdles. Growing out of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, over the years the team has grown dramatically, but recently its budget has shrunk and it is financially strained.

It's a paradox that the club's brass and coaches find deeply troubling. For them, the team is about far more than just snowboarding. It is, rather, about instilling a new generation with a set of experiences that will serve them — and their communities —for the rest of their lives.

Later, Johnston and I watch a young girl as she learns to ride the beginner-friendly slope beneath the Magic Chair. She's adorable, wearing red-framed, black-tinted sunglasses under her helmet. On the way down, she sticks on her heel-side edge. But at a flat section — with her coach's assistance — she puts the board flat, accelerating quickly. Her face lights up.

It's a frigid February day — temperatures dipping below -20 Celsius — and once we reach the base, I'm thinking it's high time for a hot chocolate.

The girl, however, has other plans. "Should we go again?" her coach asks.

She smiles and nods — that's a yes.

A real escape

In typical fashion, the day starts as a scramble for Court Larabee, vice president of the FNST and coordinator of the 66-member Sea-to-Sky chapter.

Larabee spends his morning coordinating with parents by phone, organizing rides and urging kids to bundle up for the icy conditions.

Then, as everyone starts to file in, he realizes he has a problem on his hands: instructors are missing. Five of them.

There is a "huge stomach bug" going around, he tells me. So Larabee — who's a lead-hand instructor at Whistler Blackcomb (WB) — jumps into action, recruiting a handful of WB coaches to fill in. "It's good to know people," he says.

Armed with an easygoing charm, he greets kids by name, asks what they're working on, and makes sure they're enrolled in groups that reflect their ability. "If we have someone who has just learned their linked turns, and they're ready to be challenged some more, then they get punched into (a more advanced class)," he explains.

Though the club is designed to give Indigenous kids their first taste of the sport, it also produces athletes on the competitive circuit, boasting a high-performance team who take part in snowboard cross and slopestyle events around the province.

Just that day, two FNST members — Ryan Johnson and Zoe Kostuchuk — competed in a Ride On provincial snowboard series event on Mount Seymour. "They're just entering the world of big opportunities," says Larabee, sporting a proud smile.

Larabee fell in love with snowboarding at a young age and describes it as a way to cope with some of the challenges he faced growing up in foster care in Thunder Bay, Ont. "You grab your board, you grab your bindings, and you ride off all that pain," he says.

A city with a reputation for being a bit rough and tumble, Thunder Bay has been singled out for its mistreatment of Indigenous groups, most recently in Tanya Talaga's 2018 RBC Taylor Prize-winning book, Seven Fallen Feathers, which tells the story of seven Indigenous high-school students who died in the northwestern Ontario city between 2000 and 2011.

Canada's residential school system — which systematically sought to eradicate Indigenous culture and languages — had a heavy toll on Larabee's family, he explains, noting that food experiments, where kids were deliberately malnourished, were commonplace in northern schools.

After a stint in Toronto, Larabee moved to Whistler — and never looked back. "There was always discrimination in the environment I grew up in," he says. "But as soon as I moved to Whistler, people wanted to know about my culture. I've never felt that in another place in Canada."

Snowboarding has brought joy to Larabee's life: friends, a successful career, and indelible experiences in the mountains.

But for some Indigenous kids, coming to a place like Whistler can be intimidating, he tells me "A lot of the youth don't feel that Whistler or the surrounding area is home to them," he says. "So when they come here, they have anxieties. They feel the pressures and social constructs."

Having a sizeable Indigenous presence on the mountain — the teams roll deep, with plenty of parents in addition to kids — helps. Once they throw on their gear, "it breaks down barriers," and gives them a sense of belonging, Larabee says.

Skills building

Members can use the team as a stepping stone to a new job. The team supports kids in becoming certified instructors through the Canadian Association of Snowboarding Instructors. It's a popular option, according to Larabee.

"Fifty per cent of the coaches we have used to be four-foot nothings (on the team)," he explains. "They grew up with the program and did a little competing here and there ... The youth want to give back because they know how beneficial the program has been for them."

The FNST helps add stability to the kids' personal lives as well. At the start of every season, riders sign "an athlete's agreement" agreeing not to drink or do drugs, to maintain a C+ average, and "retain good community standing."

That must be tough for some, especially the older kids, I point out, noting that everyone experiments in their teenage years.

Larabee acknowledges there are issues at times — but says that when coaches work with kids who are struggling, they do so with a "firm culture of understanding."

"Our coaches have to have a holistic view for how they're handling our kids. If one isn't performing a certain way, it might not be his physical attributes — it might be an emotional or spiritual problem. It's something we have to be aware of," he notes.

The members, he says, understand and appreciate the tremendous privileges that come from being a part of the team. "If you don't drink, you don't do drugs, and you do well in school, you can be a part of this snowboard team. The team can help you get jobs — it's everything."

The beginnings

In the early 2000s, Aaron Marchant — a special projects coordinator for the Squamish Nation, who founded the program — saw a group of young First Nations snowboarders riding Whistler Blackcomb.

For Marchant, who fell in love with the sport after watching a snowboard movie featuring legendary rider Craig Kelly, it was a rare but welcome experience. "We went and did a run and I was just floored — they were really good," he says.

Marchant managed to secure some funds to support the Indigenous riders in competition. Then, he started to think bigger. With the support and encouragement of legendary ski racer Steve Podborski, a former chair of the organization, Marchant established the FNST in 2004. It was small to start, with just 10 members: five from the Lil'wat Nation, and five from the Squamish Nation.

But with access to the Olympic Legacy fund — an endowment to the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations designed to promote sport — he was able to grow the program quickly.

The budget covered the salary of Marchant, two full-time administrators, as well as seasons passes and coaching. Though unable to go into specifics, the administrators have struck deals with different ski resorts — including Whistler Blackcomb, Cypress Mountain Resort, Sun Peaks, Mount Washington, and Loch Lomand Ski Area — that have resulted in savings when it comes to lift access.

In those early days, Marchant would make the pitch. A key, he says, was the messaging: Steer clear of discussions involving contentious land claims, highlight the benefits that come with local Indigenous groups enjoying the mountains.

"I think that we have really helped build the relationships," says Marchant. "When (kids) grow up skiing or snowboarding, they understand what it's like."

By 2012, the club reached its high point, with around 12 divisions and 400 members.

Yet, over the years, the enrollment numbers and program budget have dropped significantly. In 2007, the FNST boasted a budget of $230,000; it now operates on less than $70,000 a year.

With the Legacy funding coming to an end in 2016, the principal backers today are: Whistler Blackcomb, the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations, the Squamish Nation Trust, and the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

It takes around $500 to cover a kid's participation, according to Larabee, who explains that the lack of money has forced him to make some tough decisions. Just this past year, he had to tell 14 kids they couldn't join the team.

"It's the hardest thing I could do, to determine who makes the team and who doesn't. I want everyone involved," he says.

Healing on the board

Many of the team's coaches have been with the program for years. During my time with the team, I meet Chelsea McCutcheon, a youthful mother of two who came to Whistler by way of Moricetown, a Wet'suwet'en First Nations community outside of Smithers.

McCutcheon grew up ski racing. Her parents saw outdoor recreation as a way to expand her horizons and experience life outside of her small, insulated community.

Her family had to get innovative to raise money for competitions, organizing raffles and carrying out other fundraising events.

For McCutcheon — who is warm and easy to talk to — skiing was a "complete game-changer."

"Wherever you grow up, it's easy to get sucked into the negativity and get in trouble," she explains. "I had the accountability of having to get up to go skiing.

I recognized how outdoor sports has pulled me in a way where I was able to reconnect with nature."

The discipline that comes with a life in athletics, the sense of purpose her family gained from rallying around a common cause — all of it helped make for a happy childhood.

The club, McCutcheon explains, is filling a critical role for the Lil'wat and Squamish Nations, helping to build capacity and instill confidence.

And the impact goes beyond just the kids. To take part, the kids require buy-in from their parents: Permission forms need to be signed, arrangements need to be made before each Sunday session.

"Activities like this allows the youth and the whole family to have a focus," says McCutcheon, adding that parents often take on an especially active role if kids start competing.

Ultimately, she sees the club as a form of reconciliation, helping, in its own way, to "rebuild trust" among an Indigenous population who has been historically wronged.

As an instructor, McCutcheon has seen her fair share of challenging students, something she puts into context by explaining the legacy of Canada's residential school system. Some of the kids she's taught have been pegged with behavioural issues and haven't experienced much success at school, which can lead to self-esteem issues.

Snowboarding can be a huge source of pride. "Snowboarding is fear-based. If you are able to go beyond the fear, speed is your friend," she says.

New beginnings

At the end of the day, Larabee waits at the bottom of the Wizard Chair, greeting kids as they file in, rosy-cheeked from another frigid, fun day on the hill.

I chat with some of the kids, who talk about the progress they've made, about how they like going up the hill, even without the team. "It's really awesome. I wasn't good at first — but after two years, I'm really good," says Sam Birken. Another tells me that, although his first sport is basketball (he wants to go pro), snowboarding is still rad.

Larabee is in his element here — big grin, friendly demeanor. To him, the team is about way more than snowboarding: it's helping raise a generation who, like him, celebrate their First Nations heritage and give back to their community in a positive way.

Just days before we meet, a Saskatchewan jury handed down a decision that sent shockwaves through Canada's Indigenous community. The reportedly all-white jury acquitted Gerald Stanley of second-degree murder charges in the case of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man from the Red Pheasant First Nation.

Stanley acknowledged holding the gun that fatally wounded Boushie — but argued it had misfired.

The decision laid bare Saskatchewan — and Canada's — ugly racial divide, leading some Indigenous activists to call it major setback to reconciliation and an egregious example of how Canada's judicial system and jury-selection system is still stacked against them.

In Merlin's, at the end of the day, Larabee is clearly bothered by the decision, but he strikes a hopeful tone about the future.

"(Racism) is alive and well in Canada, and it's an unfortunate thing," he explains. "But I see it as an old mentality. As soon as this new generation moves forward, hopefully we can leave that negative stuff in the past.

"We're the eighth generation that has been born through the struggles of colonization," he explains, and there are "prophecies that we are the ones that are the shining star, that we're the ones that will lead the others out of darkness.

"There's not a lot we can do about our broken parents. But we're the ones that are not broken.... Things will be much different in the years to come."

The FNST is currently seeking volunteers, gear donations, and the help of a good grant writer. To help out, please reach out to fnsnowboard@gmail.com.

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