History from below – Creating a more inclusive outdoor narrative

By Judith Kasiama 

On October 22, 2018, David Labistour, CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-Op (MEC), wrote an open letter that asked, “Do white people dominate the outdoors?” In it, Mr. Labistour wrote, “Historically, the model we’ve used in our catalogs and campaigns and on mec.ca have been predominantly white. This imagery has perpetuated the vastly incorrect notion that people of colour in Canada don’t ski, hike, climb or camp. This letter is about recognizing the role we’ve played in underrepresenting people of colour in the outdoors and committing to change.” 

Sadly, Labistour is correct. The outdoor narrative has always been white men climbing the world’s tallest peak and boasting about their adventures afterwards. Often, they forget to mention the local guides that assisted them on their voyage. Those in power and privilege decide which story is to be told. As a result, there seems to be an ongoing assumption that people of colour, people of varying abilities or people of different body sizes do not engage with nature.  

As a black woman, I enjoy the outdoors and I love hiking, camping, snowshoeing and skiing. Yet, people are amazed when they see someone like me on the slopes. The way I experience the world is based on my race and my gender. I can quickly scroll through the social media accounts of most outdoor brands and see a distinct lack of diversity.

Many people who feel unrepresented in most outdoor marketing campaigns have taken it on themselves to tell their own stories via social media. Instagram is now giving groups like Melanin BasecampWaypoint Adventure and Diversity in Adventure the power to start a grassroots movement – a movement that shares their experiences and breaks down barriers to access.

Social media also offers these people a level of visibility that rivals the reach of large corporations, and challenges marketing that predominantly caters to a narrow audience. 

For many Canadians who have invested in the outdoor space all their lives, it is difficult to perceive the absence of those who aren't represented. It is challenging to acknowledge and listen to those who feel left out. However, people like me often have to deal with exclusion from certain spaces. If we don’t see people like us in outdoor magazines and marketing, we feel discouraged about getting involved in conservation projects or volunteering. Therefore, representation on social media and on trails is essential for everyone to feel welcome. It’s also crucial for our personal health and the health of the planet.  

In the 1960s, historians on both sides of the Atlantic began to challenge each other to recognize the importance of history “from below” – the idea that the perspectives of the working-class, immigrants and slaves are key to telling our shared human story. This idea is still relevant today. History has repeatedly taught us to listen to, respect and empower those who challenge the mainstream versions of the past and the present in order to create a brighter future. In essence, all movements, catalysts of change or even common interests – like enjoying the outdoors – benefit from including all people.