The Adventure Gap: Why minorities are less likely to pursue outdoor recreation

When Jacoby MacDonald started hiking she didn't see many other Indigenous people on the trails. Her experience mirrors some other minorities who say they feel alone and intimidated in B.C's outdoor community.

'You don’t want to be outside because you don’t feel like you belong there'

Jacoby MacDonald's roots are Manitoban Ojibway, but she grew up in East Vancouver. (Minerva Foundation)

The great outdoors are often painted as free and open to all, but some minority groups say they feel apprehensive about heading into the wild because they don't see themselves reflected in the outdoor industry and media.

Because of that apprehension, there are fewer people of colour, people with disabilities or LGBT people on the trails, according to advocates from those communities.

There are few Canadian statistics, but American author and journalist, James Mills, has been researching the issue for more than a decade and detailed his findings in his book, The Adventure Gap.

Mills said the lack of minority representation means some people feel unwelcome in the outdoors. He said the reasons are varied and complex, ranging from cultural to socioeconomic to historical, such as the suppression of Indigenous cultures.

"You don't have multiple generations of grandfather, uncles, aunts cousins, sharing and passing on the relationship with the natural world," said Mills.

He said discrimination and violence against people of colour has kept some people indoors. 

"They are constantly asking themselves, 'Do I belong here? And If somebody believes that I don't belong here, will they do something to harm me?'"

Mills also runs The Joy Trip Project, an outdoor reporting project, which began with Mills' work putting together the first all black mountaineering team to summit Alaska's Denali peak in 2013.

Economic and social barriers

Minorities may also face economic, accessibility and social barriers that prevent them from pursuing more intense outdoor activities such as mountaineering or mountain biking.

Those barriers can increase with the intensity of activity as cost of gear, access and acquiring essential skills also increases.

Jacoby MacDonald is an Indigenous youth with Ojibway heritage who grew up in East Vancouver.

MacDonald said her family didn't have enough money to drive to the trails, and transit was too unreliable so she didn't spend time outdoors as a young girl.

When she was 17, she was invited to spend nearly a month at an outdoor camp program for Indigenous girls, a program run by Minerva BC, a non-profit that works to elevate women.

"For me, it matters because I didn't really have many spaces growing up where I was with people I could connect to culturally, especially not girls of my age," said MacDonald, 18

According to a North Shore Mountain Bike Association membership survey, 82.6 per of current members are male and and 55 per cent have a total household income of more than $100,000 per year. (NSMBA)

MacDonald's experience at the Minerva Foundation Indigenous Roots program inspired her to keep pursuing the outdoors. But when she was on the trails she said she was intimidated because she felt there were mostly older, white males out there with her.

"It just makes me think, why do they have access to these things and why don't I see other people out here?," said MacDonald.

Mixed response

In B.C., some organizations and outdoor businesses have already started the work of increasing representation.

Amil Reddy is the coordinator for Mountain Equipment Co-op's Outdoor Nation, a campaign to get more young Canadians outside.

"As a queer person of colour, I very much know that the lack of representation exists because I see it, or I guess, it's a lack of seeing," Reddy said.

Reddy said Outdoor Nation is trying to attract people from diverse backgrounds to its annual summit, which this year, is focused on diversity in the outdoors.

This week, the North Shore Mountain Bike Association released a statement promoting inclusion in its sport. The statement received a mixed response from the public, with critics asserting that the sport is already welcoming.

According to the mountain bike association's membership survey, 82.6 per of members are male and and 55 per cent have a total household income of more than $100,000 per year.

Christine Reid, the association's executive director, said negative comments came from a small group and the board stands by its position.

"You can't escape sexism, racism, inequality . . . and if you are able to escape it, you are privileged," she said. 

The Great Wide Open is an outdoor column that airs on CBC's The Early Edition. Listen to it here:

When Jacoby MacDonald started hiking she didn't see many other Indigenous people on the trails. Her experience mirrors some other minorities who say they feel alone and intimidated in B.C's outdoor community. 9:13

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