By Mark Colley
When Marlene Alt first started cross country skiing as a student at Western University, she wasn’t athletic at all. Her roommate had to talk her into trying the sport for the first time.
But when she got into skiing, it gave her confidence. She joined the rowing team and started running marathons, then ultramarathons. Eventually, after running the Boston Marathon twice, she realized it might be time to consider herself an athlete.
The confidence Alt got from cross country skiing is one of the driving factors behind her spearheading the We All Belong program at the Kanata Nordic Ski Club. Launched in 2019, the program provides gear and introductory coaching free of charge to community groups with the goal of lowering the barrier to winter fitness.
“A lot of the groups that we have come here, they don’t see themselves on the trails,” Alt notes. “They just don’t know anybody that does these things, or they feel they’re not necessarily comfortable just going out and trying it. So with these groups, the idea is it’s a safe space for them to try some things.”
The program started with a grant from the Ottawa Community Foundation in 2018 and was buoyed by another grant from Nordiq Canada’s equity initiative last year. Kanata Nordic now has about 30 pairs of snowshoes and around 40 sets of ski gear allocated towards the program.
The program has seen lots of participation from groups around Ottawa. Earlier this winter, members of Women in the Wild — a support group at the Carlington Community Centre — skied and snowshoed.
Participants from Black Ottawa Connect also enjoyed the snow and trails. Black Ottawa Connect started as a Facebook group to better unite the Black community and grew into a not-for-profit organization with a number of initiatives, including the Let’s Move program.
The program is led by Nadia Mackenzie, who snowshoed with her group in March following a ski session earlier in the season. She says it’s a challenge for some in the Black community to engage in winter sports.
“Most of our community are coming from warmer countries, so depending on the generation, you could be new to it, or perhaps you weren’t exposed to it because your parents weren’t participating in that sport,” highlights Mackenzie, who was thrilled to get her own pair of snowshoes this winter. “It’s just gonna be a long season if you’re doing nothing. So this is why we’re like, ‘Come on, get out. Try it.'”
Black Ottawa Connect’s Let’s Move program allows participants to experience a sport for the first time, without being a significant minority in that setting.
“Our goal is to create safe spaces for our community to be like, ‘I know you might be intimidated or shy to try it, but let’s try it all together,’” Mackenzie explains. “Programs like Marlene has put on, they’re very important. These grants to support these programs, to get the equipment, are essential.”
The program also helps tackle a bigger issue of Black representation in winter sports.
“You don’t want to create tokenism, but … we do want to show that we have representation and we want more folks in this community to come out,” Mackenzie signals. “We’re gonna show them that we’re here. We’re showing up. You should come, too.”
When Black Ottawa Connect came to Kanata Nordic, the community showed up. The group had to create a waiting list due to the demand for the event.
“There’s definitely a thirst, a hunger for things like this,” Mackenzie indicates. “People want to be among kinfolks, they want to be amongst the community.”
Kanata Nordic isn’t alone in providing gear to increase participation in sport. The Ottawa Outdoor Gear Library is another local initiative that supports equity and access to nature and the outdoors. The Library collects donations and allows individuals to borrow equipment, and also offers pop-up events in communities where expensive equipment is often in short supply.
The funding Nordiq Canada provided to Kanata Nordic was one of many inclusion initiatives activated in different parts of the country, with others supporting LGBTQ+ and First Nations communities, for example.
“To me, it validates that this is a core part of what our national sport organization wants us to do,” Alt underlines. “It wants us to teach kids, it wants us to own the podium, but it also wants us to just get people on the trails.”
Ultimately, seeing the program succeed is what Alt appreciates the most.
“A lot of the volunteering you do is sitting at a computer writing emails, updating the website,” Alt says. “But then you come out and people so much appreciate it and for many of them, it’s really pushing their comfort zone, but the laughter and smiles and the sense of accomplishment, it’s really rewarding.”
– with files from Dan Plouffe
This article is part of the Ottawa Sports Pages’ weekly Inclusion in Sport series. Read more about local sport inclusion initiatives at: OttawaSportsPages.ca/Ottawa-Sports-Pages-Inclusion-In-Sport-Series/.
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