Ticket to glide: Manitoba First Nations kids get chance to cross-country ski through Spirit North program

Young people from five Manitoba communities gathered on the trails at Grand Beach Provincial Park this week, some stepping into skis for the first time.

Program supplies First Nations with ski equipment, helps set up ski clubs at community schools

Lorne Wood and Everett Peters say they love cross-country skiing, and will keep up the sport now that their school has a program. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

A new program in Manitoba is giving First Nations children their first chance to cross-country ski.

Young people from five Manitoba communities — Nelson House, Berens River, Hollow Water, Bloodvein and Black River— gathered on the trails at Grand Beach Provincial Park Tuesday.

Some, like 10-year-old Lorne Wood, stepped into skis this winter for the first time.

"Me and my friends are always having fun," Wood said.

"I liked going down the jumps," said Amberly Ducharme. "I like when I fall and get up and try again."

"Some people crashed on the bottom, but they still went and tried again, so that's good," Elizabeth Bushie added.

Elizabeth Bushie and Amberly Ducharme were among the students taking part in Spirit North's new Manitoba cross-country ski program. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

The program, called Spirit North, was started a decade ago in Alberta by cross-country Olympian Beckie Scott.

It supplies First Nations with ski equipment and helps set up ski clubs at community schools. This December, the skiing program expanded to Manitoba.

"We got all the ski equipment out to the schools, and we started with basic drills: teaching them how to stand up when they fall over, getting them to do some gliding down hills," said Laura Filipow, the program director for Spirit North.

After months of practice, the young people in grades 4 through 8 gathered Tuesday to show off their new skills. 

"We hope in the future, the kids are the ones that are mentoring the younger kids, and they're the ones that are then leading the program for their communities and their schools," Filipow said.

Waylon Hinchcliff Brass says since he's started skiing, he's been much happier. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Spirit North, which now includes B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, reaches 8,000 youth each year. 

"We've had schools talk to us about the mental health benefits they've seen of getting kids outside," Filipow said.

Laura Filipow says the program starts with schools, but the aim is to expand the love of cross-country skiing across communities. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

"We've seen community members start coming in skiing with their kids," she said. "It expands very easily into the greater community."

Black River's coach, Nathan Nepinak, said at first it was hard to get his students interested.

"Once they saw what we were doing, they started signing up more," he said.

Spirit North works to start up cross-country skiing programs on First Nations, supplying young people with ski boots skis, and polls. The hope is to get young people enjoying the health benefits of outdoor exercise. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

The new ski supplies mean young people have an exciting new type of entertainment and exercise.

"There's no cost to it. So when we have all the equipment for them, all they have to do is sign up and we can bring them out," he said.

Nathan Nepinak, here with his son, is the cross-country ski coach from Black River First Nation. He says teachers have told him they've noticed a difference in their students since the program started in December. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Nepinak says cross-country skiing outside is making a difference for the kids indoors too.

"They have to behave in class in order to be a part of the program, so the teachers noticed a big difference there. They see the other kids going out, so everybody wants to," he said.

"They're showing up for class more and getting their homework done."

Students from five different First Nations gathered for a day of skiing on March 5. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Student Waylon Hinchcliff Brass said he wants to keep up skiing, now that he knows how.

"It's easy and fun for all the kids here," said Hinchcliff Brass. "Every time I ski it makes me feel like I want to be happy for my whole life." 

The Spirit North program supplies First Nations with ski equipment and helps set up ski clubs at community schools. 2:24

About the Author

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Winnipeg. She previously worked for CBC in Halifax and Sudbury. Connect with her @CBCMarina or