Community organizations across Canada are working to make recreational and wellness spaces more accessible to Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC).
Organizers say social and economic barriers often prevent racist communities from accessing and feeling comfortable in outdoor recreation spaces. Through free outdoor gear libraries and inclusive outdoor group activities, organizers across Canada aim to make these places more accessible.
Alizah Bright, a black rock climbing instructor in Edmonton, said she hopes to build community connections through BIPOC-focused outdoor groups. She said she has felt left out of recreation spaces in the past.
“People talk about camaraderie and community and team and sport, but I never felt that,” Bright said.
Campers prepare food during a trip to Fitzroy Provincial Park in Ottawa in September 2021. [Photo @ Asiya Hilowle]
Bright’s sense of exclusion is common among racialized people who want to venture into outdoor recreation.
A 2021 Nature Canada report showed lower participation rates in sports and recreational activities for non-white ethnocultural populations. According to the report, lower participation rates in racialized populations are attributed to physical, economic, cultural, and language barriers.
Asiya Hilowle, a black Muslim woman living in Ottawa, said many of her friends and family members consistently say they don’t feel like they belong in resort areas.
“My friends and family said to me, ‘Oh, black people don’t camp,'” she said. “Activities that I enjoy doing, camping and hiking, are ‘whites only’. And I’ve heard that, especially from younger BIPOC students… Those are very, very harmful stereotypes.”
Hilowle co-runs the Ottawa-based blog Adventure Report with local blogger Megan Kelly. The blog examines hiking trails in Ontario and highlights their accessibility for new hikers.
A halal kit for Muslim campers that Adventure Report offers as part of its gear library. [Photo @ Asiya Hilowle]
Not only does Adventure Report have room for campers and hikers of all backgrounds, it also has a gear library. The goal is to make camping accessible to all, as cost and education barriers can make accessing gear difficult for some people.
“One of the obstacles (that BIPOC campers encountered) was just the equipment. It’s difficult for them to access or they don’t know where to start,” Hilowle said. “Starting this camping kit program kind of helps with the barrier that people are facing.”
The Gear Library is open to anyone over the age of 18. It even includes a halal kit so that Muslim campers can continue their religious practices while en route.
Other organizations, such as the Ottawa Outdoor Gear Library, also provide free recreational gear to residents.
In addition to equipment rentals, organizations like BIPOC Yogis of Ottawa offer financial incentives to members of the BIPOC community who wish to pursue yoga teacher training.
After the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US, and the 2020 killing of Georgia jogger Ahmaud Arbery, sparked calls to action for racial justice, Ottawa yoga teachers Kethy Sosso-Kolle and Stéphane Ippersiel began photoshooting the BIPOC yogis the city. Her work resulted in a 2021 BIPOC Yoga Teacher Training Scholarship Fund.
What started as plans for a $1,500 grant turned into four awards after crowdfunding support exceeded Sosso-Kolle’s expectations.
Sosso-Kolle said the scholarship was designed to reduce financial barriers for BIPOC yogis and encourage community engagement.
“The fundraiser shouldn’t say, ‘Because you’re BIPOC, you need the money.’ It’s more of a booster to say, ‘Because you’re BIPOC, we’re giving you a little boost here, feel encouraged to do your training,'” said Sosso-Kolle. “BIPOC is in no way synonymous with being financially unstable or having no money. At the end of the day, like any scholarship, it’s really all about helping someone.”
Women of Color Remake Wellness, Brown Girl Outdoor World, and Color The Trails are among other groups formed in recent years to encourage racialized community members to get outdoors and build community through inclusive events.
Kethy Sosso-Kolle practices yoga in front of the National Gallery of Canada in downtown Ottawa. [Photo @ Stéphane Ippersiel]
These organizations say it is important for racialized people to feel safe in environments that have not traditionally served them.
“If people don’t see themselves in green space — and if they don’t feel safe — they won’t come,” Ambika Teneti, lead researcher at the Toronto-based study Race and Nature in the City, said in a May 2021 news release from Nature Canada who commissioned the report.
“We need more partnerships between nature organizations and agencies that serve racialized urban communities,” Teneti said.
Ottawa Free Fitness coordinator Stephen Bierbrier said it is important for outdoor coordinators to ensure racist communities feel included.
Bierbrier: “It really tears down a barrier where communication channels open up and shared experiences can be discussed.”
This shared experience of such activities interests Bright, who has yet to attend any BIPOC-specific event.
“If I attend one of these BIPOC events,” Bright said, “maybe I’ll have an opportunity to find that, to feel included and not just be the only one.”