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Alpine skier Cassidy Gray and Shuswap artist Trinda Cote have collaborated to elevate the struggles of Canada’s First Nations peoples to the world stage.

Gray, from Invermere, B.C., grew up learning about local First Nations peoples in school. Ahead of the 2021-22 World Cup season Gray decided to honour them by reaching out to the Shuswap band and asking them to connect her with an artist to design her helmet.

“It didn’t hit me how much people missed out on [an education about First Nations people] across the country until I left Invermere and realized it wasn’t as present in other places,” Gray said. “I think I was really lucky to get all this experience and get all this knowledge at a young age, because it’s really normal to me.

“I want to bring that into a community, which is alpine skiing, that doesn’t have as much representation.”

The Shuswap Indian Band put Gray in touch with Cote, who Gray had already met through her sister.

“It’s a small town, everybody knows everybody,” Gray said.

Cote then set about creating a design that paid tribute to the Shuswap but also drew on elements of the Every Child Matters movement.

“It is a massive honour and I also think it’ll help bring awareness, especially to people who don’t know much about First Nation bands or the trauma of residential schools,” the 17-year-old Cote said. “It’s super, super important to me, because I actually had a close family member who endured the residential schools.

“I think it’ll definitely bring light to residential schools and Indigenous communities. … I think it’ll just help every Indigenous community as a whole.”

Gray has worn the helmet throughout the 2021-22 World Cup season, competing in giant slalom and Super-G events in places such as France and Austria.

Alpine Canada will announce on Thursday its team for the upcoming Beijing Olympics, where Gray hopes to compete.

Cote is rooting for her friend to compete at the Winter Games and eager to see the helmet she designed on sports’ biggest stage.

“I’ve always been proud of being First Nations,” Cote said. “Also growing up in my valley, I’m really proud to share my Indigenous history.”

Cote drew her design on an iPad, with the file then printed off as a decal that Gray had affixed to her helmet.

A salmon is the base of Cote’s drawing. The Chinook salmon was originally from the Columbia Valley and the Shuswap are known as the salmon people. Cote also incorporated valleys into the illustration because both she and Gray are from the Columbia Valley. Nearby Mount Nelson is also included, as is a large dorsal fin.

Cote made the salmon orange to honour the thousands of children who experienced trauma in Canada’s residential schools.

Including a salmon in the helmet’s motif was about more than symbolism for Cote and the Shuswap. It’s an ongoing political issue in the region.

Mark Thomas, who is on the Shuswap’s band council, said that restoring salmon to the Columbia River is a critical part of reconciliation for local First Nations. The Secwepemc, Ktunaxa, and Niitsitapi have been in a nearly century-long fight with different levels of government to restore the fish to area waterways.

“That, I think, was [Cote’s] intent, to draw that attention to some of the losses that we’ve had as a community in terms of salmon, and what it has done to us as a people,” Thomas said. “I’m so proud that she’s done that and been able to express herself in that form and to draw light to the plight of what we’ve been doing for the last 80 years, since we’ve lost our salmon.”

Gray said that she is “really proud” of Cote’s work and she appreciates all the thought the artist put into the work.

“Everything that she put in there, there’s a meaning behind it,” Gray said. “It’s cool that I get to wear this on my head all the time and represent people that don’t get the representation they deserve in the alpine skiing community.”