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Peak Performance: First Nations Youth Learn Life Skills on the Slopes

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A young man in British Columbia stands on a precipice. Wind and ice and the fresh feeling of his own youthful power compel him to lean, angle and fly. He soars, twists, lands strong on his snowboard and, in the sudden connection of mind, spirit and body, takes a step closer to adulthood.

He has made his way to the mountain, and the experience has given him the gift of gazing out at the expanse of earth and sky, into the boundless possibility of his future self. Many of his peers are kicking off their adult years in a crowded mall, or crouched in the back seat of a compact car, or leaning in the corner of a smoke-filled room.

But with the support of Nike and the Aboriginal Youth Sport Legacy Fund, Canada’s First Nations Snowboard Team (FNST) will pull more emerging women and men out of those dead-end spaces and into the open freedom of their true personal potential.

Founded in 2004 by 34-year-old Aaron Marchant, the FNST has grown from 10 members to 245 this year. In that time, the team has sent six members to competitions at the national level, and 45 members have become instructors (including one, Marchant says, who is “almost certified to certify”). By providing the means for young people to become professional athletes and trainers, FNST is creating sustainable, intergenerational change that benefits individuals and the First Nation communities that are their homes.

Marchant points to Sandy Ward, an FNST member who has created a new life for herself through snowboarding and now lives part of the year in New Zealand, where she trains and competes. In winter, she flies back to Canada to help more young people leap into a new life through the group.

FNST members range in age from 6 to 25 and must maintain a C-plus average to participate. Some members end up becoming so focused and empowered by the team-building and problem-solving involved in maintaining their place on the team, Marchant says, that they begin to excel in other aspects of their lives. For many, the first change occurs when they begin to make the honor roll at their schools.

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“We’re getting kids to the mountains and into healthy activities,” Marchant says. “We’re using snowboarding as a vehicle for social change in our communities.”

In addition to the obvious physical benefits of snowboarding, the team provides nutritional guidance, team-building workshops, and strategies for setting goals. Once they are on the snow, young boarders must work together to get to the bottom of the mountain. If someone becomes injured on the way down, they must stop and work as a team. These experiences build life skills that members can use to get through adolescence and continue to use into adulthood.

As innovative as FNST is, much of what the organization does is as old as the First Nation communities it serves. Traditionally, Marchant says, “Many Squamish men would leave the community and go to the mountain to find their power…so now we’re going back to the mountains.” Managing the power of their own speed, developing control, finding the will to get back up again after a fall, and other key skills emerge among FNST’s young women and men as they train together.

Marchant himself is a member of the Squamish Nation. “I grew up off the reserve,” in the town of Squamish, about an hour from Vancouver, he says, “but I would go on weekends and visit my family there.” With his middle-class background, he had the kind of access to ski resort culture that FNST now provides others, and his family could afford to buy him equipment, clothing and lift tickets. But for many of his cousins, he notes, the idea of spending resources on expensive gear instead of basic necessities like food and clothing made the mountain “out of reach.”

Athletic both on the slopes and off, he participated in everything from mountain biking to skateboarding. But once his current sport became popular in the late 1980s, he says,“I converted from skiing to snowboarding and never looked back.”

When he began to develop his idea for FNST, Marchant and his team crunched the numbers and figured that it would take $24,000 to train each member for competitive snowboarding. But the organizers were able to reduce that figure by partnering with local resort communities and coaches who were happy to support Marchant’s vision. The Aboriginal Youth Sport Legacy Fund has been FNST’s main source of funding since its inception; more recently, Nike N7 provided all the instructors with backpacks, jackets and other products. Nike N7 Ambassador and Olympic snowboarder Caroline Calvé also supports FNST.

With the help of its many partners and sponsors, FNST now has 12 divisions, two of which are located in the state of Washington. Ultimately, Marchant wants to expand down the West Coast and bring the benefits of membership in FNST to more Native youth in the United States. The task doesn’t daunt him. For he knows the hard work and focused dedication his members bring to the slopes pay off in their communities, in their families, and, most importantly, in their own changed lives.