UBC grad Erica Baker is helping Aboriginal snowboarders go the distance
Erica Baker got to live the dream of many a ski bum: earning a grade for snowboarding.
As part of her requirements for graduation, the First Nations Studies student completed a research project, in collaboration with the First Nations Snowboard Team (FNST) and B.C.’s Squamish Nation, that explored the benefits of having First Nations athletes participate in costly sports like snowboarding that have a high barrier to entry.
Established in 2004, the FNST serves roughly 300 competitive and recreational Aboriginal snowboarders across Canada, providing them with equipment, coaching and a season pass to the mountains.
Hanging out in Whistler may sound like fun, but it led Baker, who is non-Indigenous, to think long and hard about the issue of access and athletics.
“Are the people with the most talent and potential making it to the Olympics or are we simply weeding out the people who can’t afford to compete?” she asks.
How Aboriginal athletes can own the podium
Baker’s research led her to explore another question: What supports are necessary to help Aboriginal athletes reach the Olympic podium?
Baker spent several weekends atop Blackcomb Peak, interviewing athletes, parents and coaches on issues of access, opportunity and cost.
“The cost of the sport is tough,” says Charlie Johnston, who has three children on the team. “My son can burn through a pair of boots in one season and that’s $120.”
Baker found some necessary supports were needed such as reinstating a summer dry land training program and finding sponsorship for athletes to participate in key International Ski Federation competitions to qualify for Team Canada.
Speaking from experience, world champion snowboarder Spencer O’Brien, who competed in the women’s slopestyle at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, says she was lucky enough to find sponsorship at a young age, taking the financial burden off her parents. But more than anything, she says, the key to her success was having someone to look up to.
“My cousin was a talented figure skater and another cousin was a hockey player. They inspired me to be athletic at a young age,” says O’Brien, one of four Aboriginal athletes to represent Canada in Sochi, and now a role model herself to the FNST.
The benefits of being part of FNST went beyond the mountain, says Baker.
Some athletes told her the team helped them grow closer to their families, develop job skills like public speaking, and find work such as part-time jobs on the team managing equipment.
“If I wasn’t on the team, I wouldn’t be this far in snowboarding,” says Charlie’s son, Ryan Johnston, who claims to have benefited most from the team’s coaching. The 19-year-old slopestyler has been on the team for five years and has a lofty goal of representing Canada at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Many of the snowboarders expressed greater confidence in self-identifying as Aboriginal after one season with the team. “The FNST is an opportunity for Aboriginal peoples to show that they are ‘still here’ in an urban setting,” the research report reads.
According to Aaron Marchant, executive director and founder of the FNST, the report will be used to develop a strategy to expand the team and increase the number of Aboriginal athletes in mainstream competition, both provincially and nationally.
Baker hopes her research helps First Nations build on the accomplishments of Aboriginal athletes like O’Brien.
“It was really important that this research was done for the community,” says Baker. “Existing research about Aboriginal peoples in sport typically focuses on the barriers they face, but is blind to their successes.”
Baker will continue to explore the topic of Aboriginal participation in sport as she pursues a master’s degree at The School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in September.