Salmaan Farooqui is a Toronto-based freelance journalist.
The first time I walked into a Mountain Equipment Co-op store as a teenager, I was in awe. My friends were introducing me to the world of outdoor sports, and this store in Burlington, Ont., had all the shiny new gear.
But also I felt tremendously out of place. There wasn’t another person of colour in sight, either in the store or on its posters.
Getting into outdoorsy activities for the first time was daunting enough. Those well-versed in the outdoors always poked fun at clueless city folk like me. There was the money involved, not to mention safety issues to be aware of. But there was another barrier in getting started: everybody around me was white.
I didn’t have family members who could introduce me to things such as camping and hiking. Rather, my family would quip that a lot of these activities are more often done by white people – and they were right.
I usually brushed off this subtle feeling of not belonging. Then I saw the validating apology from MEC on how their advertising has always focused on white people and featured white models.
“Do white people dominate the outdoors?” began the apology from the company’s CEO, David Labistour, on their website last week. “If you consider every advertisement you’ve ever seen for skiing, hiking, climbing and camping, you might think that’s the case.”
They’ve promised to hire and support more diverse workers, represent diverse people in their marketing and to share that experience with other leading outdoor brands.
Places like MEC aren’t just stores where you buy things. They’re places where you can take a class to learn how to fix your bike. It’s where I chat to sales staff about the best places to go rock climbing. It’s a place that organizes jogging groups. When I can’t spend hundreds of dollars on a piece of equipment, I can rent it there. If something’s too advanced for me, I can sign up for a class there.
People of colour must see how they can fit in to this vibrant community, because places like MEC are a gateway for those looking to try an outdoor activity for the first time. I’m sad to hear, for no good reason, a lot of my family members won’t bother with a getaway from the city to nature, or to challenge themselves by going down a ski run that scares them.
Since I started snowboarding as a teenager, I’ve never stopped hearing jokes about being the only brown guy on the hill. In six years of mountain biking, only one of the people I’ve ridden with was a person of colour. And when I took my first rock climbing course, I was one of two people of colour in the class.
But the demographics of people who take part in these sports are changing as they become more mainstream – thanks to feature films, increased media coverage and the addition of extreme sports such as climbing to the Olympics. Outdoor sport has never been more accessible because of that attention.
One prominent example this year was Alex Honnold’s rope-free ascent of El Capitan, a 900-metre cliff in California. American media called the climb one of the greatest feats in sporting history. The movie about the climb, Free Solo, won the Toronto International Film Festival’s people’s choice award for documentaries. People such as Mr. Honnold help bring outdoor sports into the mainstream, so more people from all walks of life can become interested.
Incidentally, climbing is one of the more accessible sports I’ve taken up. The growing popularity of climbing gyms means you can be fully equipped to take part in the sport without spending much more than a couple hundred dollars to buy all the gear you need. When I go to the climbing gym in Toronto’s particularly diverse suburbs, it’s nice to see, for once, there are more people of colour than white people.
As sports such as climbing, snowboarding and mountain biking become more diverse, people of colour must see themselves represented so they feel like they belong as a part of the community. And so they can have mentors who’ll help get them started.
MEC has made a change and a promise to show that all Canadians are welcome to enjoy the outdoors, however they choose. And that everyone, no matter your skin colour, can enjoy Canada’s natural beauty.