Five busloads of 10 and 11-year-old Indigenous cross-country skiers pour into the Canmore Nordic Centre stadium and begin to climb the steep slopes above.
Coats unzipped, herring bone technique locked in, they rush up the Olympic trail hills before tucking in for a screaming downhill ride. Their teachers scramble to keep up, while 10 Olympians do their best to corral the students away from danger.
Meanwhile, six 10-year-old girls trade shy glances at the base of Centennial trail. Three are members of the Stoney Nakoda Lost Wolves, a new Indigenous ski team in the Bow Valley. The others are members of the Canmore Nordic Ski Club.
Sara Renner, the Olympic cross-country skier, gives them a few pointers as they tackle the gradual climb, offering encouraging words along the way.
For Beckie Scott, Canada’s most decorated cross-country skier and driving force behind Ski Fit North, these are small strides not only on the way to health and fitness, but also towards reconciliation.
“One of the goals is to create an environment where children feel like they belong. That is what today is about,” Scott said. “We are on the right path for reconciliation. It’s a small part, but it’s something.”
More than 150 Grade 5/6 students from Morley, Exshaw, Bighorn, Eden Valley and Tsuu t’ina nation gathered at the Canmore Nordic Centre on Wednesday (March 8), with many of Canada’s top skiers and retired Olympic legends, including Scott, Renner, Haley Wickenheiser, Kelly VanderBeek, Megan Imrie, David Ford, Jesse Cockney and Knute Johnsgaard. This is the third year in a row Ski Fit North has hosted such an event, bringing together indigenous students to celebrate skiing and their culture after a winter of ski lessons.
“This has become a signature event for Ski Fit North,” said Scott. “Generally it is for students in Grade 5 and 6, but we have families and elders who come as well. The idea is to create a full day of activity and inspiration through sport. We have Olympians, we ski and we honour the culture as well.”
Drum ceremonies and traditional friendship dances gave way to hours of skiing with Olympians, an inspirational talk from Siksika runner Rilee Manybears, and a celebration of new friends and new sport.
For Tristan House, one of the founders of the Stoney Nakoda Lost Wolves ski team, the program is essential for raising healthy young people in his community.
“On the reserve, we’re losing our Indigenous youth to early pregnancy, drugs and that kind of stuff. At this age, we want to show them there are people who want to support them, and achieve what they can. I’m one of them and I’m happy to be part of that,” House said.
“The kids need something to be part of. The ski program is a good way to expose their talent. On the reserve, we’re about hockey and baseball. Cross-country skiing can open new opportunities.”
House drives the 10 Lost Wolves skiers to the Nordic Centre once a week, where they improve their skills with Scott and former Canadian national team ski coach Justin Wadsworth. There aren’t many opportunities for youth in Stoney Nakoda, he said, so thanks to House, they can train at a world-class ski facility, with a world class coach.
“After the first two sessions, they didn’t know what they were getting into. Then they realize there is a guy who wants to train them at a good level, so the reaction has been positive,” House said. “We’ve got big goals. Maybe one can make a career in cross-country skiing.
“Also, it will help them with their livelihood, get outdoors, and have fun. It’s a healthy thing … hopefully one day we can have an Olympian from Morley. Swing for the fences. I think we can create something great.”
Jeff Horvath, principal of the Tsuu T’ina High School, brought 35 of his students to the celebration. The program helps his students connect to the land, he said, and learn how to live a healthy lifestyle.
“We started last year, and we are expanding the program at our own school, using traditional territory of Tsuu T’ina to start getting out there and get skiing,” Horvath said. “We have kids who started last year who are getting faster and stronger.”
The school plans on starting its own team next year.
That’s exactly what Scott loves to hear. The program reaches more Indigenous students every year and is prepared to expand into new provinces. That will require more funding, but thus far they have had luck with community and corporate sponsors.
“It’s evolved from a program with 25 pairs of skis going to four or five communities. Now we are in 25 communities, we have two ski teams and we hosted a loppet in Tawatinaw. It’s so grass roots, it can go in any direction. The ultimate goal is to bring the power of sport and play to Indigenous communities,” Scott said.
“Sport has the power to transcend racial and socio-economic barriers. This is a great example of that. Most communities fully embrace the program, as it is a way for youth to feel included, and get the health and mental benefits of skiing. They learn a new skill and hopefully it sparks some passion for wellness.”