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Racism in Recreation and Parks

The NWT Recreation and Parks Association (NWTRPA) crafted an ambitious vision statement during its most recent strategic planning process in 2018. Ambitious because it stated that “we envision a territory where everyone has access to recreation programs and spaces that foster healthy families, strong cultures, and vibrant communities” (emphasis added). While we work every day to make that vision a reality, the truth is not everyone has access and those excluded are from oppressed populations, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC).

In recent weeks, the widespread and violent realities of racism have been hard to ignore as Black people and their allies take to the streets in cities and towns across the continent and around the world to protest the deadly consequences of anti-Black racism and police brutality.

As recreation leaders, we are asking ourselves what we can do to combat racism generally, and anti-Black racism specifically, in our sector and communities. Black activists have repeatedly urged non-Black people: to listen; to take the time to educate themselves on the historical and ongoing realities and effects of anti-Black racism; to speak out against racism when they see it in their households, workplaces, and communities; and to agitate for change in their workplaces, communities, and beyond.

The NWTRPA takes the principle of truth before reconciliation seriously; we cannot pursue equity in recreation and parks without understanding the truth of recreation and parks—past and present. The truth is that racism and colonialism have played and continue to play a substantial and often ignored role in recreation and parks in Canada, and in the NWT.

Anti-Black racism in recreation is perhaps more often discussed in the United States (see, for example, this work on parks and pools), but that doesn’t mean the situation is any better in Canada. Black people have long documented their experiences of racism in this country (recent examples include Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In and Until We Are Free, an anthology about Black Lives Matter that includes northern content), and recreation here is not immune to prejudice and discrimination. There are, for instance, the experiences of Black hockey players at all levels of the game—though to be clear, no activity is exempt from racism.

In the Northwest Territories, the histories of recreation and colonialism are deeply intertwined, racism being a central feature of colonialism. As the work of historians like Gwichyà Gwich'in scholar Dr. Crystal Gail Fraser has demonstrated, residential school administrators in the North used recreation as a tool of assimilation. Activities like Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, and sports like basketball and skiing were intended to civilize the Indigenous children who were forced to attend residential schools, hostels, and Indian day schools. It’s important to note that some Indigenous students also used recreation to survive the difficulties and in some cases horrors of residential school life—evidence of their strength, creativity, and resilience.

As a result of colonialism, activities that are vital to Indigenous way of life and identity have been recast as “recreation.” This is something that we have been coming to terms with at the NWTRPA. Even as we believe in the importance of recreation and understand recreation as essential to our personal and collective wellbeing, we recognize the problems with identifying way of life activities like hide tanning, snowshoe making, and gathering medicine as recreation. To be clear, we remain committed to supporting these activities, regardless of definition, because they are central to Indigenous identity and sovereignty.

The NWTRPA is primarily a recreation organization, though at various times we have been involved in different ways with parks and trails. Racism is central to the history of parks in this country. Historians have documented the expulsion of Indigenous peoples from land set aside for parks beginning in 1885 with the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park and the subsequent laws passed to prevent Indigenous peoples from harvesting within park boundaries. The history of national parks in the NWT is a little different. The territory’s first national park, Wood Buffalo, which was designated in 1922, was the first in the country to allow Indigenous harvesting within its borders, though not all Indigenous peoples were granted equal access. This discriminatory privilege-based system remained in effect until 2005. Less well-documented is anti-Black racism in the history of Canadian parks; Alan MacEachern’s study of national parks in Atlantic Canada hints at the ways in which the parks system actively and passively excluded Black people.

Equally important to understanding the racism of parks is recognizing the differing experiences of Black people in outdoor recreation. Recently, a light was shone on the experiences of Black naturalists after a white woman in Central Park called the police on Black birder Christian Cooper. In the wake of this incident, @BlackAFinSTEM launched the inaugural #BlackBirdersWeek to increase Black visibility in

the outdoors (there is a pervasive myth that Black people don’t like the outdoors), but also to promote racial equality. Participants included Black outdoor enthusiasts living in Canada, who documented their love for the natural world, while also sharing their experiences of anti-Black racism in the outdoors. Not only do Black people have less access to outdoor spaces, including parks, they are often subject to overt and casual racism within those spaces.

In summary, we cannot understand recreation and parks, past and present, without considering racism and colonialism. Prejudice and discrimination are woven into the fabric of our sector and the first step in combating racism in recreation and parks is acknowledging that fact.

In addition to learning about racism in recreation and parks, both historically and today:

  • The NWTRPA is investing in anti-oppression training for our staff and board, training that will equip them to recognize and address racism and other forms of discrimination, including sexism, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia. This training builds on decolonization training we have been undertaking as an organization since 2017.

  • We also commit to creating ongoing educational opportunities for NWT residents that support anti-racist approaches to recreation and parks.

  • We also commit to using the lenses of anti-racism and decolonization as we revise the content and delivery of existing programs and develop new programs. For instance, this spring we initiated a review of our fitness leadership program. On a recent call, we heard from NWT fitness leaders that our current approach to fitness training is colonial and that a new approach is needed. We will be working with an advisory committee over the coming year to develop a culturally appropriate fitness curriculum.

We welcome suggestions from our members and others in the NWT as to how we can all build a recreation and parks sector in the North and Canada where Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour have equal access to recreation programs and spaces that foster healthy families, strong cultures, and vibrant communities.

Images of police brutality, stories circulating about the harmful and widespread effects of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism can be re-traumatizing for Black and Indigenous peoples. We hesitate to recommend mental health supports in the NWT because we recognize there is unequal access based on geography, as well as a lack of culturally competent practitioners. With that in mind, residents of the Northwest Territories have access to the free NWT Help Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (1-800-661-0844) and are entitled to free counselling through the Community Counselling program. The Indian Residential Schools Survivor Support Line provides crisis counselling and emotional support for survivors and intergenerational survivors 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (1-866-925-4419).

Other Resources for Recreation Leaders


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