Pretty Fly for a White Guy

By Adam Mertens - Community Stories

Discover our True Nature: so goes the slogan of the Canadian Tourism Commission. Access to nature and wilderness is widely considered to be a part of what makes us Canadian. This is perhaps true nowhere more than in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia, where our gaze is forever fixed on the mountains, rivers and oceans just outside our windows. Many of us consider it a fundamental right that comes with living in this place, one that anyone has equal access to should they choose to engage with it.

However in a country as large and ethnically diverse as Canada, it's important to consider the demographics of who is participating in outdoor recreation and whether access to these activities is uniform for members of our community or just a select demographic. In the pages of skiing and climbing magazines and the websites of outdoor retailers, images of young, white, predominantly male participants adorned in the latest gear abound.

This is not a phenomenon isolated to media and advertising; ethnic diversity is decidedly lacking in outdoor recreation and participation in these disciplines by people of colour is proportionately low with respect to the entire population. That is not to say that there are not exceptions, but more often they are just that: exceptions.

My own desire to explore farther, deeper and higher into the outdoors was instilled in me from an early age on camping and cycling trips with my parents. Being outside and participating in outdoor recreation was just something that we did, plain and simple. Why anyone wouldn’t do the same was a mystery to me.

After moving from Nova Scotia to South East Asia, I began working in the outdoor education field. Instructors from all over the world flew in to participate in our programs, but all of them shared a common trait. We were all white, coming from various English speaking countries: Canada, USA, Wales, New Zealand, Australia, UK.

It wasn’t until starting university in Vancouver and immersing myself in highlining (slacklining at elevation), climbing, and kayaking communities that the racial homogeneity of my friend groups started to become more obvious to me. It’s no coincidence that I should spend my time with like-minded individuals who share a mutual love for the outdoors, people with whom I want to pass leisure time scaling walls and bombing down rivers. The outdoors is the thing that binds us together. But in a city like Vancouver where almost half the population is nonwhite, shouldn’t we expect a proportional representation of ethnicities within our outdoorsy circles of friends? After all, some of my best friends are nonwhite.

There is a long history of outdoor recreation in Canada that is embedded with racially exclusionary practices that are relics of colonial institutions. Original models of preservation in the United States and Canada depended upon the image of an uninhabited wilderness. The appreciation of wilderness was born in cities, and envisioned as a place to escape the mechanized life produced by the city. White, middle class, educated and urban males were the principal participants in outdoor recreation.

Fast forward to present day, and we see a similar scene playing out. The progression of environmental attitudes and accompanying practices of outdoor recreation are sites where masculinity, whiteness, and national superiority are reaffirmed. Participants in outdoor recreation often view their interaction with nature as mutually positive for the individual and the environment, overlooking the potentially exclusionary effects their participation in these environments may have for others.

At the same time, there is an entrenched attitude among many who participate in mountain cultures: issues that affect broader populations are not ours to deal with. In the mountains everything is blissful, they do not inherently express racism. And after all, I’m having fun so why should I be concerned?

Media and marketing outlets provide idealized images of recreational interactions with nature; the wide open spaces and unexplored backcountry that we seek out. These landscapes are usually represented as devoid of other humans, and rarely is the depiction of the participants anything but white. If the image represented by these platforms is one of a white adventurer, it is likely to be perpetuated within society.

In the same way, these historical and contemporary representations of outdoor recreation can produce damaging consequences for participation by other groups, such as women and non-heterosexuals. Deviations from this norm are regarded as novelties and spectators, rather than active and equal participants.

Race is of course not the only deciding factor in who participates in outdoor recreation. Cultural factors play a role in recreation attitudes that are equally important, including religion, education, income, transportation availability, knowledge and gender. The function and purpose of outdoor recreation and parks may not be experienced and understood in the same way by different cultures; yet what appears to be true is that there are historical and institutional barriers for ethnic minorities wishing to participate in outdoor recreation. It is not enough to say that these populations do not want to participate, nor is it enough to say that it is not my problem because I am not affected by it.

There is a large body of evidence that shows the benefits that can be derived from outdoor recreation, including improved psychological and physical well-being, spiritual values, social values, societal benefits, environmental and educational benefits, and economic benefits. While these benefits will be experienced differently by individuals, they are relevant across a wide spectrum of cultural backgrounds and have implications for our collective appreciation and preservation of the environment.

In The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, James Edward Mills stresses the importance of having role models who can inspire the uninitiated to experience and enjoy wild places. If the friends and families of young people do not engage with the outdoors, and no role models of people that look like you appear in publications, you’re less likely to take the plunge into these activities.

“As the demographic landscape of the nation shifts toward a non-white majority, the conservation movement's current lack of racial diversity could become its downfall. Environmental groups will need minorities (who will soon become our majority as Canada continues to diversify by immigration) to support state and federal legislation to preserve our wild places," Mills says.

Increased representation in and awareness of the wilderness will beget further increases in participation in ways that are culturally and ecologically appropriate, in turn challenging existing social exclusions.


By Adam Mertens

Adam is a West-Coast based adventurer who likes to kayak, pick mushrooms, climb rocks and generally spend time in the great out of doors. He is presently a student at the University of British Columbia where he has a drive for exploring the social issues on his doorstep. He found a particular interest in the uniform culture of outdoor recreation in this part of the world when he realized that pretty well all of the folks he met in the woods looked the same.

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