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Colleen Elep standing with students outside in the winter

Representation in the "Great White North"

Why Feeling Connected to the Outdoors is More Important Than Ever
Colleen Elep and Chad Mills

Outdoor education is an area of teaching and learning that doesn’t come easily to everyone. It is an area of pedagogy we have both managed to evade for many years. We had always assumed that activities like ropes courses, orienteering and food cycle games were best left to the “experts.” In our view, we had done our due diligence as teachers by participating in the occasional trip to a board nature centre, welcoming a science expert to guest speak to our classes, or by taking part in a school environmental initiative.

Our reluctance to take outdoor education seriously largely stemmed from the idea that neither of us considered ourselves to be, for lack of a better word, “outdoorsy.” When we thought about outdoor educators or outdoorsy people in general, we had always pictured someone – typically white, male and able-bodied – setting up camp or canoeing along a lake.

The assumptions many Canadians have about who belongs in the outdoors is largely shaped by the stereotypes portrayed in the media and historical narratives. The outdoor aesthetic that has dominated the Canadian imagination has created a sense of exclusion from the outdoors among those who do not “look the part.”

This sense of exclusion is far from being anecdotal: research over the last 60 years indicates that racialized communities are underrepresented in outdoor leisure in North America due to constraints related to race, ethnicity and sociodemographic characteristics (Stone et al, 2018). As Jacqueline L. Scott and Ambika Tennetti point out in their report for Nature Canada, Race and Nature in the City, “Outdoor recreation use and the perception of nature is strongly influenced by culture and cultural norms, but it is the normalizing of the whiteness of culture that leads to issues of under-participation and under-representation of ethnic minority groups.”

Why Representation Matters in the Canadian Outdoors

So why does representation in the outdoors matter to educators and schools? Outdoor play and experiential learning are valuable resources for supporting the mental health and well-being of students, particularly during a time when technology has made human connection and play increasingly challenging. And yet, a feeling of belonging outdoors is seldom felt by diverse students in Canada. Studies have shown that children are spending more time indoors than outdoors. As educator and emotional health consultant Hannah Beach points out in her book Reclaiming Our Students, “over the past two decades, children have lost 12 hours of free time a week, including eight hours of unstructured play and outdoor activities.”

It’s important for all kids to feel connected to the outdoors, right now. Not only do our students need respite from the virtual world, they have every right to experience joy from nature and feel included within it. With mental health and violence issues increasing significantly in Ontario schools, and climate change devastating our planet and changing delicate ecosystems in Canada and around the world, understanding and protecting the environment is a survival skill in the 21st century. Disaffection and disconnection from nature leads not only to a loss of the wellness benefits associated with it, but to a lack of care, concern and stewardship for the Earth.

As educators, we can facilitate a stronger connection between students and nature by critically examining and revising the way we teach students about the outdoors across different subjects. Representations of the Great White North are rooted in colonialism, myth and popular cultural assumptions around who belongs in the wilderness. Let’s explore some of these concepts to understand what we can do to help all students feel connected to the outdoors.

Colonial Narratives Dominate the Canadian Wilderness

Canada’s cultural identity is one that is deeply connected to land: in most textbooks, Canada is characterized as a vast, inhospitable wilderness “discovered” and tamed by adventuring and enterprising Europeans. Ask middle-grade students what they know about Canadian history and settlement and the usual suspects come up every time: Samuel de Champlain, Jacques Cartier, the Jesuits and the Hudson’s Bay Company.

History textbooks tend to misrepresent and ignore Indigenous and Black people in accounts of exploration and the fur trade, supporting the colonial mythology of adventurous Europeans conquering and “civilizing” the North American wilderness.

Indigenous Peoples in Canadian history are depicted as stunned, passive or rebellious when defending their land against Canada’s European forefathers. They are easily tricked into accepting presents that contain disease from the wily British, attack each other in tribal warfare and foolishly exchange their resources for alcohol and tobacco.

Indigenous culture is shown as resourceful, but only insofar as it helps European settlers and missionaries adjust to the land, such as showing the fur traders how to use canoes and snowshoes. Indigenous Peoples are shown to be quaint, mystical and arguably socialist in their approach to sharing the land and rejecting a system of private property. They are murdered and robbed of their land and moved to reservations where they are surveilled and deprived of clean water.

As far as history is concerned, the ties Indigenous Peoples have with the land are violently severed by their European counterparts; Black people, by contrast, have a connection with the land that is almost always mediated by slave narratives of escape and labour. Enslaved people are traded to work on plantations; they move under cover of field and forest as they follow the North Star to freedom. Histories that suggest otherwise are overlooked or categorized as footnotes in broader Canadian history.

With the exception of Mathieu DaCosta – the explorer and interpreter who worked with Champlain and others – stories of Black people in the Canadian wilderness tend to be centred on the Underground Railroad. Texts and media emphasize themes of injustice and cruelty over the outdoor survival skills someone like Harriet Tubman would have required to help so many people cross into Canada.

As Jacqueline L. Scott points out in a 2018 article in The Conversation, Black people have a long history in the Canadian outdoors. Matthew Henson (arctic explorer), George Bonga (fur trader), Joseph Lewis (fur trader) and John Ware (cowboy), are all historical figures who lived and worked in the outdoors. As Scott also writes in a separate Conversation article, a group of Black soldiers in the War of 1812 snowshoed a thousand kilometres to defend the Canadian border against American invasion.

What about Asian people in the outdoors? If students even hear about Asians in the outdoors, they are usually labouring, arriving en masse in boats or imprisoned. Elementary students will often hear about the 15,000 Chinese immigrants who worked on the Canadian Pacific Railroad in the 19th century, working in harsh conditions to lay tracks across the country only to have their contributions ignored and remembered as yet another human rights violation. Students will also be familiar with the immigration stories of the Japanese and Sikhs, flooding into Canada in boats to the chagrin of the white population. Of course, watchers of Historica Canada’s Heritage Minutes will remember the expropriation and internment of Japanese Canadians, the great mountainous expanse of interior British Columbia forming a prison for those wrongfully suspected of espionage.

Cottage Culture and Race

Historical narratives that disassociate Indigenous, Black and Asian cultures from the outdoors operate in our modern conception of outdoor leisure. Cottaging, the quintessential Canadian experience, points out writer Elamin Abdelmahmoud in a 2019 story for Cottage Life magazine, is invariably understood as “the white Canadian experience.” The concept of “the cottage,” argues Abdelmahmoud, is rooted “in a myth in which white settlers found an unforgiving landscape and tamed it, giving birth to a romance of triumph over terrain.”

Cottage country may not be openly hostile to non-white people – you will surely see diverse crowds migrating from the city to enjoy its offerings – but cottage culture is undoubtedly exclusionary. Writer Alan MacEachearn has researched and written about racism in Canadian national parks, identifying antisemitic and anti-Black racism in the documents archived in the National Parks (now Parks Canada) office throughout the 20th century.

One letter to National Parks in 1960 detailed professor and theologian Harold DeWolf’s complaint about the Bay of Fundy Chalets in New Brunswick. DeWolf had written the Fundy Chalets for an assurance that their Black guests would be accommodated with the same privileges as the other guests. The owner responded by refunding their deposit and stating that “it would be better if we did not accommodate your friends” due to their large customer base of guests from the southern U.S., though the park superintendent advised him that the park activities are open to any “nationality, colour or creed.” The Black guests in question were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

Moving Forward in Outdoor and Nature-Based Learning

To get students from diverse backgrounds feeling more connected with nature, educators can start by adapting learning content in areas like Geography and History to reflect a more inclusive and accurate portrayal of diverse people in historical and contemporary outdoor settings.

Critically examine how the outdoors are represented in the curriculum content you are teaching students. An increasing number of picture books and texts now show nature exploration from diverse perspectives. Alexandra Stewart’s We Dug up the World and Savannah Allen’s The Nature Journal are two rich and beautifully illustrated books that show children from a variety of cultural backgrounds engaging in outdoor exploration and play.

Shift away from traditional, colonial narratives about the Canadian wilderness and focus on incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing and learning about nature. TVO, for example, has an abundance of lessons, articles and media texts that provide great starting points for teaching students about environmental stewardship and sustainability from an Indigenous worldview.

Encourage students from different backgrounds to share the way they experience the outdoors with their families through writing, art and other media. Develop an understanding of the outdoors that also includes local urban and suburban spaces like parks, greenbelts, bicycle paths, creeks, ponds, community gardens, balconies and backyards. Use these local spaces in your teaching practice as areas for play, relaxation, meditation, sports and fitness.

Bring learning outdoors, whenever possible. Book your board’s outdoor learning facilities for a field trip or overnight excursion, should resources permit. Many boards also offer funding for experiential learning projects and field trips; find out if you can procure these resources for your school or classroom for a guest speaker or outdoor fitness event. Books like Valerie Bang-Jensen’s Literacy Moves Outdoors show how educators can take vocabulary building, decoding, storytelling and more into outdoor spaces like school yards and gardens.

Outdoor Education Matters

Integrating outdoor education into the school day is more urgent than ever, especially for those students who feel disconnected from the natural environment they live in. Being “outdoorsy” and having opportunities to play and explore in the natural world is essential to mental wellness and physical health. As the next generations are inevitably steered toward artificial intelligence applications, virtual learning, remote work and digital social lives, connecting with, understanding and learning about the land that sustains us will be as removed from their lives tomorrow as dinosaurs are to us today.

Chad Mills and Colleen Elep are members of the Peel Teacher Local.

10 Great Resources for Inclusive Outdoor Education

  1. We Dug Up the World: Unearth Amazing Archaeology Discoveries, by Alexandra Stewart, illustrated by Kitty Harris (Laurence King Publishing)
  2. The Nature Journal: A Backyard Adventure, by Savannah Allen (Penguin Young Readers Group)
  3. Bompa’s Insect Expedition, by David Suzuki with Tanya Lloyd Kyi, illustrated by Qin Leng (Greystone Books)
  4. Ganesha Goes Green, by Lakshmi Thamizhmani, illustrated by Debasmita Dasgupta (Barefoot Books)
  5. Walking Together, Elder Albert D. Marshall and Louise Zimanyi, illustrated by Emily Kewageshig (Annick Press)
  6. Race and Nature in the City: Engaging Youth of Colour in Nature-Based Activities, by Jacqueline L. Scott and Ambika Tenneti (Nature Canada)
  7. Literacy Moves Outdoors: Learning Approaches for Any Environment, by Valerie Bang-Jensen (Heinemann Educational Books)
  8. Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, adapted by Monique Gray Smith, illustrated by Nicole Neidhardt (Lerner Publishing Group)
  9. Nature Meditations Deck: Simple Mindfulness Practices Inspired by the Natural World, by Kenya Jackson-Saulters, illustrated by Sacree Frangine (Chronicle Books)
  10. Naturally Inclusive: Engaging Children of All Abilities Outdoors, by Ruth Wilson (Gryphon House)