S1 E3 Aaron Marchant - Dreaming Big


Hello everyone. And thank you for joining me on theBIPoC Outside podcast. I'm Kris Cromwell. And today we're sitting down with Aaron Marchant. He is the founder and original president of theFirst Nations Snowboard Team. Which over the last 20 years has grown across north America and has now joined up in partnership with the Indigenous Life Sport Academy.

So let's get into it. Aaron. Thank you so much for joining me today. I'm really excited to have this conversation and appreciate your time. So you are currently in Squamish, looks like a beautiful day and you grew up there. So tell me about your introduction to snowboarding, to snow sports.


My introduction to snowboarding was in grade four when I went skiing and I learned how to ski for about three years and then snowboarding came out and I skateboarded. So it was a natural fit. I wanted to try it. I was very fortunate. I have. I'm half Indigenous and my grandmother, my mom's side of the Caucasian side supported me, get me seasons passes to go to Whistler Blackcomb, living about a half an hour away from there.

It became my new weekend activity. I loved it. I did it with a lot of other friends I went to school with, but I did not do it with my cousins, my Indigenous side very often, or that side of the family. And as I got older equipment got more expensive. You know, people who have the privilege to have good equipment got it.

And I had my pass and I would go to the used swap meets to get my new snowboard. I was very excited. And and I just love had the passion for it. And then I moved to Smithers with my mom and there was nothing to do. So I just found a jump and built a big jump. Would be out there all day. And and then I came back to Vancouver. Because I moved around a lot as a young child. And I went to many different schools, met many different people and realized that like, snowboarding was just a good outlet. It was a nice place where you just, you and the mountain is very calm and fun, but it was when I started to work for the Squamish Nation community.

And. I was up snowboarding one weekend. And and I seen some kids from the Squamish community, three of them. I was quite surprised to see them up there. And I worked with them during the youth program. And so I said to them, let's go with this, go do it. We went to go do a run. We went to go do a run and they were really good. They were really good. And so I thought it'd be good to get them into competition if we could. So I checked into it and you have to be part of a club. The entrances were like $3,000 to join the club and that's just to join, and then you need the equipment. You need to go training at different places.

So I realized that this is pretty challenging and working with Squamish Nation, the communications department, the Olympics were coming to Vancouver. So there's a lot of talk about doing things, program sport. So friend of mine, We put a budget together, what it would actually cost to give us a group going to compete.

And it was quite deflating because there's no way we can get that much funding. Until we

Won the games and there was going to be an Aboriginal youth sport legacy fund. So. Our Chief said, Aaron, let's get that program going. And then he introduced me to Steve Podborski from CORECTION who said lets not just do it for your community, but do it for all BC, if not Canada, if we can.

And so that was great. We had momentum. We had a program, the mountains were calling us, wanting to partner, and we were building relationships at many different ski hills and because we had the capacity, we had the funding with sport and the desire the momentum was there. And so I think we got up to about 24 divisions from coast to coast.

And. We, we ended up giving out thousands of snowboards. I would say thousands. We had a membership of about 400 plus some years, but we also have the capacity and the staffing to do it. And then it was all competitive driven. We wanted metals, we wanted to get somebody on a podium. We wanted to be at the Olympics.

And so by the fifth person we had put on Team BC, I realized we had hit that wall again. If you make provincial team, you should have about 30,000 to compete that year, if you want to even try to get onto national team. So again, I hit another level of the, what, what you have, what you don't have. And it became a little deflating.

I started seeing our athletes, our members. Feel you know, it was their fault. They had done everything they could to get there, but there was this no support systems to get them to the higher competitive level. And then I think we really looked at the model and we said, okay, We can't keep doing this.

So let's just focus on getting numbers and more kids out there. And we started to ease off of the competitive focus and just giving kids that opportunity to get out there and then realizing that maybe the whole competitive focus is more pressure than they even needed in the first place. And so it was a lot for me.

It was a lot of letting go I mean everything. These athlete agreements, you see pluses, these attendances, all these, this training pressure to become someone was really w my competitive drive. And so, and I was tired of it. 16 years of it wasn't getting any better or each winter having a job and other stuff on the side of doing this.

I think it was Court really helped me see that we can just make it fun. And that's what I liked was the fun of it. I don't need to feel all this pressure from all of these provincial organizations to get our membership in. We don't have to do all this. We don't have to do all this. Just got to get the kids out there so, but with that, all the funding partners started to drop. You're no longer in the system. You're no longer competing. You're no longer this. Right. So. It's okay. Cause we just let it go. And the mountain partners were very supportive. The Nations are really supportive, but we no longer fit into sport Canada's model of the group to be funded because we're not trying to get to national team because we've already tried.

We realized the challenges with that. So. often we'll get the call. Even somebody from recently from Alberta, whose child on the beat, on the provincial team, really trying to get to the national team, willing to move to Whistler. And I'm sorry to just tell them my experience. I wish I had the answer, but I don't have the answer.

And so it's really. Fortunately for those who have had the support to get there and just had the drive and made the national team because once they get to national team, they have the support, the sponsorships, but we, we don't. So also realizing that there's more, that can be done with the mountain partners, like hiking and mountain biking and other sports.

And I really. The concept of unstructured sport. Cause I was also starting to unstructure my life. I had been very ambitious with the goal to make it very big, have a huge membership and manage a whole bunch of different systems and people. And I realized at the end of the day, like what for, I mean, yes, we're getting lots of kids, but why am I doing this to myself?

And. let that go. Court Maya. And so I started to go up there. There's no picture, there's no attendance and they're just going to go over there and I just have to be quiet and watch it just totally transformed to something that I never imagined.


Well, it seems that I'm sorry. I didn't mean to step on your


yeah, no worries.


there's been a transition from like podiums and, and champions to sort of like community leaders and role models.


Yeah. Yeah. And, but those, those came from the competitive ones, the ones who were, were competitive and, and trained hard and met those practices and really went for it. Those are the ones who come, who are coming back with or going for their MBAs and have, you know, got educated and have come back or started their own families and doing great things.

I mean like Sandy, she was, she was for running the world cup up at Cyprus, Sandy Ward and, and others. So, I mean, it really gave a lot of people, unique opportunities, but I think with everything you have to evolve and let them do what they want to do with it and just support. 'cause yeah, there's been so much change in with COVID and everything else as well.

So yeah. It's it's been quite a, quite a good, a good, good experience.


I mean, you guys have been running for, this is going to be your 18th year, right? And so now you've got people who are coming back as parents, people who are coming back as coaches, that must be really amazing to see.


Yeah. Yeah. I think probably for me, the most amazing thing I'm seeing is how physically fit my son is. He started, he started university this week, last week, how well balanced he is. And. When he was 11 years old, competing at provincials on a world cup course and qualified to go to the semi-finals and he goes, daddy, I don't want to race anymore.

Thank goodness, because I don't want to watch you


It's a commitment.


At the pressure to the, like the pressure, the nerves, the, the, what if your kid gets hurt? Like this is big, right? And so he, and he does it for, for fun. He does it for, for enjoyment. It's a life sport and, you know, watching his growth and the memories that he got along for the 18 years, since he's just turned 18 has been, it's been a great success with with a lot of families, I think.


So taking that, taking those lessons, you're learning on the snow to your life outside.


Yes. Yes. And yeah. And just, you could see, I remember there was two boys and a girl they're about 11 years old and I was sitting up on a cliff and I could see them below me. And one boy goes, he goes quiet. So-and-so remember when you first started. We had to wait for you. And the three of them were trying to figure out how to get down the hill. And they all did. They all got down the hill and they have to be out there active figure out problems and how to work together and work as a group is they're enjoying the sport that sometimes out of reach for a lot of our communities.


And huge development of self-confidence.


Yeah, totally. Gives them something to do. Right. And so, yeah.


So in an article I was reading, I was, when I was preparing for this interview, I found an article where you were interviewed with Indian country today. And you said many Squamish men would leave the community to go to the mountain to find their power. And now we're going back to them. I think that's incredibly powerful.

Do you want to talk about that a little bit?


Yeah, I think it's incredibly powerful. I think on my dad's side, his side, they're very like still live off the land and fish in the rivers and, and my dad's the forest is his home, not the house he has. So, and he always talk about different medicine, men that would go to the mountains and do this.

So I was at, I was at. Big White we're at a competition, I think as a group of like 30 or 40 and then popped into the Bush. And I was like, why am I here? My, you know, what am I doing? I need to see a sign, show me a sign in three, like little dogs came out of the tree. I was right. Cause I'm like, you got to be kidding me.

And so, and so I think like, yeah, we always when we went to a new mountain, just go off and do a little offering to the ancestors, the area, why we're there, what we're trying to do. And we led it in a good way, just like with our teachings. And we're not trying to take more than we need when we're just trying to get back to where we used to be and just enjoying our own territory and doing things that help our soul within our own territory without restrictions, costs, or rules.


Right. So is there still quite a lot of cultural elements in your programming?


I think, I think so. I think they're doing quite a good job. I think there's like language teachers who are now instructors and mentors and oh yeah. And Chelsea Mitchell she's right into Indigenous culture, different practices. And I would say it's definitely evolved. It's yeah, it's evolving. I be honest with you.

I don't do much with the program anymore. This is great.


You put your time in it. I mean, you put a ton of time in, and this is volunteer effort that, you know, you have your own family, the rest of people on your team, you know, your work, your own family. So like what inspires you to keep going?


What inspires to keep going? I think just that, you know, you're doing good for other community members, like they're gonna, you going to give kids a good time like that. They've never had, you're gonna be able to probably get out there yourself and just building community rather than watching it grow around us. But I do think, and I did warn Court about this, that it is a lot of work and there is no finish line and it does, it is a tremendous amount of pressure.

And I think if I could press rewind, I probably would do it a little bit differently because it really took a toll on a lot of work on not only myself, but our team that helped me, the people that did it, the the expectations, the traveling experiences yes were good, but it shouldn't be that hard. And then once, once we stopped we're right back, almost like ground zero. So I don't know.


We're seeing, we're seeing a lot of new, you know, smaller groups popping up across Canada and the Rocky mountains and the coastals trying to put together, you know, trying to foster participation in different ways. And, you know, with the struggles that you've had over the years, what sort of recommendations would you give to these new group leaders on how to be successful or what, how to manage their expectations?


Be there for the long-term have a long-term plan. A lot of these communities have seen programs come and go and like workers come and go. You have a worker that's into the program and the next worker is not so. Have a long-term plan be there thinking for five, 10 years, this program will be they're go in with that approach.


As we're, you know, there's more of a discussion these days of. Of changing the culture in snow sports and changing the demographic of who is participating. You've got a platform. If you had an opportunity to speak backwards to the ski industry what would you tell them? What sort of changes do you want to see them making.


Work with it work with the local First Nations. Work the local Indigenous cause? We got to work together. They're not going anywhere. We're not going anywhere. The more you strengthen that relationship, the better it's going to be for both parties.


Yeah, absolutely. And that's, that's sort of what you've been doing throughout the, the entirety of this program is, you know, community partnerships and developing relationships. And would you say, would you say that's a priority to focus on the development of relationship?


I would say yes, I would say sometimes it can be very challenging though. Like, it doesn't matter what you say. It's like, our kids got to be escorted when they use the washroom. Like it's, it's quite challenging. We've, we've had some very unique experiences, just use the term unique. But I mean, building relationships, most groups and people today want to see that happen.

But you will get to those small little rough places where it's going to be quite challenging.


So you got to stay strong.


Yeah. Yeah


Thick skinned

Thick skinned. I was speaking last week, actually with the co-founder of the Native American Olympic team foundation and she had amazing things to say about, you know, your programming in Canada and the initiative you started, that's grown, you know, internationally now. And what she had said is that she was looking at some of the things that you had done and lessons learned so that they could be shared with American organizations.

So do you think that there's lessons learned to be shared across the border between Canada and America in terms of fostering participation in outdoor sports?


Absolutely. Absolutely. I think we had divisions with Tulalip and Lummi. We have programs down there and they go to different mountains in the, in the states. Yeah, the model it's I think it's yeah. It's for any Indigenous community. It's just really a matter of like, whether it's golf, surfing, skiing, whoever. Owns or manages those resorts to reach out to the local people, get the kids involved, make it a long-term growth or organic growth.


So you started on the Sea to Sky highway, grew across the nation and into the United States, and now you've become partners with the Indigenous life sport academy. So what is the future?


The future. Really what, whatever they're going to do, it'll evolve. We've given them the capacity and they are free to do whatever they want to do.




Just keep, yeah. It's amazing. It's amazing watching them. They're doing things I would never would have thought of. So.


What are some of the things that you never would've thought of that they're doing?


Like back country certification in the Alpine, you know, groups like different ethnic groups going climbing way up in the back country with skis and putting skins on the skis and hiking up there and skiing down. I just never would have crossed my mind to do that. Rock climbing, like rock climbing, like women's rock climbing groups.

So like, I just never would have thought. So, yeah, they're, they're doing what they want to do and utilizing the landscape that we have to do it.


Huge safety element with those, those, you know, further a field activities though.


Yeah. Yeah. That's good. That's good though. But they're getting certified. Great. They're getting certified in like these very challenging areas and while being out on the land and like doing it on the weekends with their families. It's so cool.


Yeah. Yeah, that's incredible. That's a huge progression. Are there any other progressions you're seeing from, from the kids, but based on, you know, when you guys started 18 years ago, when were, when your guy was little to today?


Yeah. Screen time. Screen time is our worst enemy, right?


Everyone has said that I've I actually, someone just straight up said, tick tock.


Oh, yeah, that's one of them bro box. Right? There's lots of, we have lots of competitors out there. I mean, just get anything to get the kids off screen time and being active as good. So I'd like to think by diversifying all of these skateboarding and different rock climbing in that is, is a great strategy because not everybody wants to snowboard and it could be useful all year round.


Yeah. And that's important too.


Oh, yeah. Yeah. Actually I remember when I was skateboarding, when I was a kid, I was so excited the night before I was going to skateboard, shop those, going to go get a new skateboard. And I had exactly what I was going to get exactly my budget there. And I was like sleepless the night before and I was going to go skateboard park right after we got it. And for, for a Court and the team to be like rolling into communities with like 20 skateboards and getting these kids to camp, it's like, wow, you even have coaches are doing this as quite. It's funny because after the camp here in Capilano in Squamish territory, in west Vancouver, after the camp, I seen that I seen a bunch of kids, little kids on skateboards going down the road with the mom.

Ah, it was Court and them


That's amazing. And it's an Olympic sport.


Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It used to be like really frowned upon, so


It did. I remember, I mean, when I was in high school, skateboarding was banned like in every public space.


yeah, but it's not a crime.


I was never a skateboarder. I was always on a bike, but all my friends skateboarded.


Yeah. Yeah, I, yeah, I don't think they're going to evolve to like piano courses and stuff, but they're evolving in a very outdoorsy area.


Right on. So, but what about yourself? I mean, now that you are sort of moved this onto the next generation and you're getting some of your own time back, what are you, what are some of your bucket list objectives? What are you, what are you doing now?


I'm working for our Rights and Title department. That was my dream job in my mid twenties. So, it's, it's good. Cause there's a, I mean, it's, it's, it's a job in this work and it's helping for future nation members and what they'll have to deal with within the territory.

I really enjoy it. And I think for me, I just want to try and do less and enjoy more.


That's important you, so you must be getting more time outside yourself on the board.


Actually to be honest, the mountains are so busy in Vancouver. Now I'll go. If it's like a, if it's like a powder day in, early on a weekday I, I, and I broke my leg two years ago.

Yeah, I, I broke my leg thinking I was still in my mid twenties and yeah, I did one big jump and another big jump in the last second, I realized it didn't have enough speed.

And I went in the tunnel and hit a wall of ice. He hit me and I heard a crack and I kicked out the back. So it kind of, that was, that was a week before COVID locked down. So it was I was in quarantine before everybody else. And then So now I don't think I'm going to go with as much my, leg hurt. I spent a lot of time up there.

The lineups are bigger. I will do it. You know, lots but it's not a goal of mine to go 40 times next year absolutely not.


That's fair. That's totally fair. And COVID has really changed the landscape. I mean, we're Banff and Sunshine is typically where I ski and yeah, really the landscape has changed people have, I dunno if they have more time on their hands or if they're just so bored, they're looking for any excuse to get outside.


Yeah. Yeah. So you, you got to see the increase everywhere. Increase everywhere. So yeah.


What can you do? So rounding out to some of my last questions. I mean, you have seen a few generations of youth come through and, you know, get out there first time on the mountain. And so some of our listeners have never been out on the mountain or their local ski hill. And they're you know, they look at the videos and they think that looks really cool.

Maybe I'd like to try it. So what advice do you have for them?


Just go for it, just try it and just get out there. And once you do it, sometimes the hardest part is getting there. And once you're there, you enjoy it so much. And don't give up, it will be hard at first, but then once you get the hang of it, it just starts to become more fun, more. And just make it your own, make it your own and just do it the way you want to do it. Yeah.


And my last question for you as a, as a veteran of, of you know, of this whole environment, I mean, you have done hundreds of interviews. I've, I've looked backwards. You've been interviewed by nearly everybody. What's a question that interviewers don't ask you that you, you wish they would.


That's a good one. Would you do it again? Yeah, I think I used to love being interviewed. I mean, doing the stories feel good things, and I don't know. I just, I look back on it and I think it's great for other people to have that opportunity, but. Again, like why was it so hard? Why did we have to work so hard and do so many unique things too, just to try and give Indigenous kids space in their territory?

And why, why is it still very hard to, to do activities? And just in general, I mean, for our kids to feel equal, not less than that, why is it still so. Within the communities, within the communities, I think part of it and it paints a great picture. Yes. We're up in the mountain. We're skiing and look at our boards, but the flip side is we're still down on the reserve.

You know, we probably have train tracks, hydro and water treatment plants to all types of issues. So it's good that they're up there, but let's not turn a blind eye on like what still reserved life is like in Canada, because that's why we're trying to do it.


Yeah, I really appreciate that. Really appreciate the idea that you're giving these kids, kids in your community, something to look forward to, but let's not turn it back on their, on their lives. They're going home to their lives.


Yeah. Yeah. And I think just with the unmarked graves and, you know, a possibility of land back and like, what does that look like? I mean, it's, maybe it's kids getting out back on the land, participating being visable while the general public is becoming more educated and yeah, cause I don't know, I I'm I'm on the fence about reserve system if it works or if it works against. Like it just can be quite challenging, especially for communities that face so much loss and grief. Like you should not become experts at funerals. You should not become experts at a lot of stuff kids become experts out by the age of 12. This should not be that tough.


no, absolutely not, not for any child. But thank you for the work that you've done in, in bringing joy and, and bringing an escape and an. And now you've brought that across Canada and into the states from, from, you know, a spark of an idea nearly 20 years. I appreciate that. How do our listeners find, how do our listeners find the FNST the Indigenous Life Sport?

If they want to follow up with what you're doing, definitely. If they want to support I know there's a lot of fundraising activities happening and so where do we find ya?


In Indigenous Life Sport Academy, it's a new agency, a lifesportcanada.org, and you can find all the new people running that program. There.






Excellent for our listeners. You'll find links to the website as well as all of the social media channels on which they are very active in the show notes. Aaron thank you so much for your time today.


Well, thank you. Nice to meet you.


Nice to meet you too.

Well, that's it for this episode. Thank you, everyone for listening links on where to find the Indigenous Life Sport Academy are available in the show notes at www.bipocoutside.com. I hope this conversation had you feeling as inspired as it had me feeling. And if it did, don't hesitate to smash the like button.

I hope you'll join us again for another episode of BIPoCoutside.

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