IWO team member Sandy Ward, Lil̓wat. Photo by Morgan Fleury

Indigenous women ‘explore the mountains and identity together’ in new hiking mentorship program

Indigenous Women Outdoors is hosting the low-barrier program as a way to create community while reducing systemic barriers to outdoor sports

Even though no one knows the land better than Indigenous Peoples, the outdoor industry has often excluded their perspectives — and Hayley Gendron wants to see that change.

“Historically, the outdoor industry has largely served and showcased white men,” she says.

“This industry is beginning to recognize that intersectionality is necessary — and that when folks do not see themselves represented — they do not feel welcome.”

Gendron is of Algonquin ancestry, mixed with English and French from Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation. She is the co-lead of a new hiking mentorship program for Indigenous women and gender-expansive community members that was announced May 11.

The program is the latest offering by the registered non-profit Indigenous Women Outdoors (IWO), and will run from June until August. Participants will take part in regular outdoor activities including day hikes, skill and cultural workshops, medicinal plant knowledge-sharing, and backcountry camping. 

Gendron says the mission of IWO is to reconnect Indigenous women to the land, and honour that reciprocal relationship.

“This will begin the process of decolonizing the outdoor industry and shift away from the idea that we must ‘conquer,’ bringing in Indigenous perspectives,” Gendron explains.

“Rather than the narrative that often exists in the outdoor world and mountaineering world, where, you know, we must ‘go out and conquer.’”

Located in Sḵwx̱ú7mesh and surrounding territories, the hiking mentorship program also comes with some practical certification — it will include 40 hours of Wilderness First Aid certification and begins the process of obtaining Association of Canadian Mountain Guides certification. 

Hayley Gendron, Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation. Photo by Taylor Burk

Program organizers hope this will equip Indigenous women with outdoor leadership skills, and reduce systemic and financial barriers of entry into outdoor spaces.

The program is meant to be accessible to all, Gendron says — there is a $100 fee to cover basic costs. However, “if that fee is a barrier, we can work something out,” she says.

The goal of the program is to provide each participant with the tools necessary to lead hiking tours for IWO, mentor subsequent cohorts, and obtain gainful employment in the outdoor industry, explains Gendron.

IWO founder Myia Antone, of Sḵwx̱ú7mesh Nation, says she believes in the importance of supporting Indigenous women’s growth into confident leaders. 

Though the program is for all Indigenous women, Antone created the initiative specifically as a way to empower Sḵwx̱ú7mesh matriarchs to reoccupy their land through outdoor activity. 

This is done by fostering empowerment and positive wellbeing, bringing skills learned from the mountain into workplaces, and daily life. Workshops and skills training will include navigation, risk assessment, group management, along with backcountry skills. 

According to IWO, this is the first mentorship program of its kind in Canada in that it’s ongoing.

IWO founder Myia Antone, Sḵwx̱ú7mesh. Photo by Rachel Barkman

Inspired and motivated by inclusion

Gendron says Indigenous-only spaces are important and allow for exploration of identity and resiliency.

Through her work, Gendron highlights the importance of inclusion when discussing the outdoor sports industry — however, representation is only part of the issue. 

Indigenous peoples and minority groups often face economic, accessibility, and social barriers that prevent them from pursuing outdoor activities, explains Gendron. 

These barriers increase with activities that require more expensive gear and more specialized knowledge — which is why IWO is offering the use of gear through their program.

Gendron expands this understanding to include the full scope of racialized economic policies, employment discrimination, unequal access to quality education. 

“These are fundamental tools that can build a person’s economic standing, [and] have historically been denied to BIPOC communities; this makes camping, hiking, or any similar ventures inaccessible,” says Gendron.

“We ultimately want to remove different barriers that  exist and have existed for Indigenous folks getting into outdoor spaces,” says Gendron.  

Left to Right: Participants Justice Jacinto, Anishinaabe, Kayla MacInnis, Cree-Métis, and Myia Antone, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh.  Photo by Rachel Barkman

Health through outdoor activity and connecting to the land  

During the workshops, women connect by sharing their experiences and learning together. 

The groups are Indigenous women-identifying folks living in Sḵwx̱ú7mesh, Líl̓wat, səlil̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territories. The group will be hiking in various locations around Vancouver and the Sea-to-Sky area.

“We like to learn in a circle and learn from each other. We believe everyone is a mentor in some way, we all have something to share- something to offer the group,” says Gendron. “We’ll all be learning from each other and learning new skills together.” 

Past offerings have included a winter backcountry ski program, which included AST 1 and AST 2 Avalanche Skills Training

Sandy Ward, Lil̓wat. Photo by Morgan Fleury

Further, Gendron explains the range of health benefits of time spent in nature, such as reduced stress, anxiety, and blood pressure, as well as an enhanced immune system function. 

When Gendron speaks of the outdoors, it’s a tie to her family, and her heritage, she explains. 

All of her family’s vacations were spent canoeing, camping on the land, and hiking. She’s been outdoors since she was a baby, and when she moved to B.C. for school ten years ago, she increased her outdoor skills to climbing, mountaineering and kayaking. 

In recent years, Gendron has been increasingly focused on learning her Algonquin dialect of the Anishinaabemowin language, and connecting to her ancestry and culture. 

Hopes and plans for the future include fundraising for a gear library, to remove barriers of expensive outdoor equipment like skis, tents, and sleeping bags. 

Providing opportunities for Indigenous women to access outdoor spaces is IWO’s focus, and Gendron notes this involves more than the sports themselves. 

“It’s exciting to explore the mountains and identity together,” she says.

Editor’s note May 26, 2021: This is a corrected story. A previous version of this story referred to an avalanche training course as “AFC.” In fact it is AST (Avalanche Skills Training).