British Columbia

Who's adventuring in B.C.'s outdoors? Not just the stereotypes shown in advertising

When Juju Milay walks into an outdoor apparel store in Vancouver, she always does the same quick test: in all the posters, advertising and images plastered around the shop, is there anyone who looks like her?

‘It’s about showing a whole spectrum of people enjoying the outdoors,’ says one adventure sport advocate

Juju Milay says she noticed a lack of diversity in outdoor adventure sports when she started hiking, skiing and trail running. She's one of a group of women pushing for change. (Submitted by She Summits )

When Juju Milay walks into an outdoor apparel store in Vancouver, she always does the same quick test: in all the posters, advertising and images plastered around the shop, is there anyone who looks like her?

Milay, 30, a former refugee from Democratic Republic of Congo who came to Canada in 2010, noticed a trend when she became more active in outdoor sports like hiking, trail running and skiing in college a few years ago. 

"There's really a lack of representation in terms of who is in the outdoors," she said.

"The reality is that there's a lot of black people, or other communities of colour, who do these activities but for some reason that's not how brands are portraying it."

Milay isn't the first to express concern that the image of who adventures in B.C.'s outdoors is narrow and based on stereotypes. And it's something big name companies in the industry are aiming to address. 

"It's a matter of hearing the words of people with different backgrounds," said Carla Cupido, organizer of a week-long festival highlighting diversity in the outdoors this month. 

Cupido said she noticed a similar one-track narrative about who's playing outside in films and marketing — prompting her to seek out other voices and launching She Summits series, which brings together athletes and advocates from across the board for a series of film screenings, seminars and workshops. 

"If we become aware of these things, hopefully then [it will] change the way that we see the world."

She Summits focuses on women in the outdoors in sports from mountain biking to running to climbing. (Submitted by She Summits)

'Outside is for everyone'

Those conversations have already had an impact.

Last year, Milay caused a stir online by calling out companies like Mountain Equipment Co-op for what she says is a lack of diversity in their marketing. 

David Labistour, the CEO of MEC, responded to her comments with an open letter, acknowledging the problem and promising change. 

"White athletes hold the spotlight in advertising, while the diversity that exists and continues to grow in outdoor spaces isn't represented in the images we produce and promote," Labistour wrote.

"Outside is for everyone. It's time we acted like it."

A sample of MEC ads that was posted alongside the open letter from the company's CEO, who promised to bring more diversity to the outdoor imagery. (MEC)

Milay has since become a brand ambassador with the Vancouver-based company, connecting the company with under-represented athletes and pushing the conversation forward about diversity in the outdoors.

"When you hear diversity, people think it's just about race but it's not," she said. 

"It's about looking at ability, body size, where people are at … it's about showing a whole spectrum of people enjoying the outdoors." 

She's one of several women advocating to make B.C.'s outdoors more inclusive and participating in a panel She Summits this week. The community festival focuses on female empowerment and is supported by outdoor giants like MEC and Arcteryx. 

Adaptive mountain biking in B.C. hubs

Tara Llanes, a former professional mountain biker who's also part of the panel, has seen similar change come from her advocacy. 

A biking accident in 2007 left her semi-paralyzed and in a wheelchair. 

"There was a good amount of years there where I was a bit lost and not really sure of what was next," said Llanes, now in her 40s.

Tara Llanes has been leading the push for adaptive mountain biking in hubs like North Vancouver and Whistler. (Submitted by She Summits )

She later started playing wheelchair-based sports — she's currently training for the Paralympics with the Canadian National Wheelchair Basketball Team — and leading the push for to make mountain biking more accessible for people with different physical abilities, in hubs like North Vancouver and Whistler.

She herself uses a specially-designed bike for riders with spinal injuries, which is pedaled by hand instead of leg-powered. 

"It really opened my eyes to different things," she said.

Llanes works with companies that design and sell these specialized bicycles for people with different abilities and with municipalities to make the trails wider and more accessible to accommodate the bikes. 

"It's really picking up steam … the amount that the sport has grown in the last three years is mind blowing," Llanes said.  

"It really comes down to having an open mind." 

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