A new initiative in Burns Lake aims to support First Nations youth in pursuing healthy lifestyles by engaging them with skiing.
The Spirit North program introduces cross country skiing to Indigenous students and helps their communities lead culturally-relevant outdoor sporting activities.
Started in Alberta and originally known as Ski Fit North, Canadian Olympic cross-country skier Becky Scott took over the program last year and renamed it Spirit North.
From Alberta the charitable organization has expanded into British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
“[There are] challenges facing indigenous communities in terms of lack of access, lack of opportunity and lack of accessibility especially when it comes to sport and recreation,” she told Lakes District News.
Scott has a background in Sport for Development – “The concept of using sport for a tool to achieve development goals” – which she has leveraged into her work with Spirit North.
“We’re aware that Burns Lake has a strong ski community and a strong culture of nordic sports. We’re looking forward to facilitating partnerships there,” and the ultimate goal, she said, is for the communities themselves to take over the programs.
Rachelle van Zanten is the Community Program Director for the Burns Lake area, and leads the training courses for students at Morris Williams Elementary School and Woyenne Youth Centre on Lake Babine First Nation, and at the Wet’suwet’en First Nation.
“This has been a dream job,” she said. “[The kids are] so excited to be out on the land. And that’s one of the big goals of the program…They’re all really athletic and this opportunity to develop their skills that much further is going to be incredible for them.”
Spirit North integrates Indigenous culture into the training, such as with the Aboriginal medicine wheel concept of the interconnectedness of all things, and a holistic approach.
“In the first session we went out to the forest and discovered the plants and animals right around the school. And then they went over those things in their [Carrier] language classes,” van Zanten said.
She started the local iteration of Spirit North on Nov. 1 and, even though the program is ski-focused, the lack of heavy snow on the ground has been no barrier to getting the kids active and outside.
On Dec 12. Van Zanten, along with trainer Chris Paulson and educational assistants Donald Lacerte and Gavin Michell took nine Morris Williams’ students in Grades 6 and 7 out for some trail running, stretching and a game of Wolf Tag.
The children dashed down the snowy trails behind the school as if it was the Vancouver Marathon, and during a brief stop, Chris Paulson explained that running at a leisurely pace has its place in a proper training program.
“Training doesn’t always mean going full out,” he said. “It’s ok to run at an average pace and be able to have a chat with your friend.”
Grade 7 student Kendra Sebastian explained that the Spirit North program gives her a more complete experience than she gets when she plays with her friends outside.
“It gets us prepared [for other sports]. We get outside and off the playground. We use all our senses out here,” she said.
In northwestern B.C. Spirit North has also opened programs at Witset, Kitsumkalum, Kispiox and Kitamaat Village.
The initiative across four provinces receives $1 million in funding from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.