We were tired of reading about other people’s epic outdoors adventures. And weary too of daydreaming about our own. It was time to either take that step or to forget about it. This was the birth of the Black Canada Hike.
Nobody looks like us – two Black women – in the classic adventure stories. Instead the tales are filled with white men and women on grand tours of the wilderness. They did these because they were fun, a challenge, or a quest to walk in the footsteps of bygone explorers. It seems to me there was a subtext to these grand treks – people were recreating colonial fantasies of exploring, mapping and ultimately conquering exotic lands.
Our Black Canada Hike is a counter-narrative. It’s an alternative take on what it means to do a transcontinental expedition. And the exotic land we are exploring is our own country. The hike is on the Great Trail, the outdoors recreation path that links Canada from coast to coast, and across its three oceans. We will hike along the places where the trail connects to Black history.
Outdoors recreation can be a gateway to such high performance sports as skiing, canoeing and cycling. Black faces are absent in these sports on Canadian Olympic teams.
The Great Trail is about 24,000 kilometres long. We don’t have two uninterrupted years, the money or the sponsorship, to walk its entire length. So, our trek combines road trip and hiking. This Summer we will do the western half of Canada. The following summer we will do the eastern half.
The Black Canada Hike marks, celebrates, and remembers the Black history of this country. It begins with acknowledging that the trails we follow are on Indigenous territory, and that we are guests, sharing the space in this ancient land.
A few words on the history we are exploring: most people are familiar with one slice of the Black history in Canada – the Underground Railroad. The country was a haven for Black people fleeing slavery in the USA. This began in the 1840s, yet, Black history in Canada is a much older story.
Mathieu Da Costa was the first Black person here. He sailed to Canada in 1608. He was a translator, businessman and explorer. Olivier Lejeune was the first enslaved Black person in Canada. He was sold on the auction block in Montreal in 1628. When slavery was finally abolished in Canada in 1833, it freed about 500 Black and 1,500 Indigenous people.
We will start the Black Canada Hike in Victoria, B.C. with a walk along the Waterfront Trail. This is to honour the few hundred African Americans who trekked and settled there in 1858. Their Canadian descendants still live on the island today. Next, we will head north to hike part of the Chilkoot Trail in the Yukon. This hike commemorates the Black miners who used the trail in the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush.
In Alberta, we will hike the Calgary-Banff section of the Great Trail. This remembers the hundreds of African Americans who made the great trek north in 1882. Among them were John and Mildred Ware, who were pioneers and cowboys. The Black legacy in Alberta includes the ranching industry and the Calgary Stampede. Every Canadian province has a Black history.
Who are ‘we’ by the way? I am a PhD student at the University of Toronto. My research examines how to make outdoors recreation a more welcoming space for Black people. Twitter: @BlackOutdoors1 My hiking partner Judith Kasiama is a community activist, and her focus is on encouraging diversity and inclusion in outdoors recreation. She is a fellow at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Instagram: @jujumil
Between us, we have enjoyed decades of fun in the outdoors , hiking, skiing, canoeing and camping. Our outings have included day trips , weekend or week-long stays in national and provincial parks and conservation areas. We lead hikes, bike rides and ski trips for local outdoors clubs.
We have never tackled anything on the scale of the Black Canada Hike. But we do know how to put one foot in front of the other, we can put up a tent in five minutes, and we can read a trail map. Backtracking counts as a map reading skill.
Until recently, Black and Indigenous people were mostly ignored by the outdoors recreation industry. You did not see us in advertisements, featured in stories in adventure magazines or in websites and catalogues selling outdoor gear. Our absence sent a message that Black people were not wanted, or expected to be, in the Great Outdoors in Canada.
We have spent years hanging out in national and provincial parks and in conservation areas. We have yet to see any Black people on their staff. Maybe there were hiding? We are not talking about remote parks that are difficult to reach. We mainly visit parks that are within driving distance of towns and cities.
It is the beginning of a new decade. Here is a great opportunity for the outdoors recreation sector to actively encourage diversity among its members, users and staff. We are tired of being the only Black faces in what seem to be coded as white spaces.
The Black Canada Hike is our fun, our daydream epic adventure, and a way to highlight how Black history connects to outdoors recreation in Canada.
(Top and bottom large images courtesy Pavel Boiko @neverbadtimeforchanges; Middle large image courtesy author.; Map, public domain, from "The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom" by Wilbur H. Siebert, The Macmillan Company, 1898)
The Jacqueline L. Scott edition
Q: The best book you've read?
A: The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.
Q: Must-listen podcast?
A: Code Switch on NPR
Q: Best advice you ever received?
A: Listen to your daydreams, they tell you what is important.
Q: If your life is a movie, what would it be called?
A: Still Restless.
Q: Word or phrase you over use?
A: If only…
Q: Skill you wish you had?
A: The ability to sit still and meditate.
Q: Something no one would guess about you?
A: Still trying to improve my one finger piano playing.
Q: What scares you?
A: Salads for dinner in the winter.
Q: Who gets an invite to your ultimate influential dinner party?
A: Michelle Obama, Rita Marley, Marie-Louise Coidavid, Winnie Mandela, Dionne Brand, Harriet Tubman.
Q: What makes you cry, every time?
A: Sappy romantic comedies.
Q: Next goal?
A: Some part of the 1,000km snowshoe trek from Fredericton to Kingston, following the Black men of the 104th New Brunswick Regiment of Foot who did it in 1813.