Adventure Studies course links mountain biking with reconciliation

Exploring the beautiful trails of Chu Chua. Photo provided by Tom Eustache.

This article contains content and mentions about residential schools. Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers 24-7 support at 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.

Fostering the complex topic of reconciliation while sculpting mountain bike trails seems like a far fetched idea, but Thomas Eustache of the Simpcw First Nation, Thompson Rivers University (TRU) instructor Craig Campbell and chief executive officer of First Journey Trails Thomas Schoen, are working to seamlessly weave the two.

Trails to Reconciliation is a 12-day field course where students travel throughout the Interior to different Indigenous communities to help build biking trails while aiming to understand the impacts of community-based tourism development and learn about traditional land use.

While the structure of the course requires pre-reading, written summaries, letters of intention and a post-trip personal reflection on the student’s personal journey towards reconciliation, Eustache said a lot of the important learning is during casual conversations while building trails or riding them.

“I begin the [field course] with a meeting. We sit and I let them know who [the Simpcw] are and our history and how we got to where we are today,” explained Eustache.

“They ask questions and I fill them in a lot and I tell them stories of my life or other people’s lives who I know that have been affected by residential schools.”

Unfortunately the course, which has been running since 2016, has been on hold the last two years due to the pandemic.

Back to the land, differently

Not only does the course stir up meaningful conversations, but Campbell added the trails are a conduit to get students out on the traditional land of various Indigenous communities who have invited them there, including Eustache’s home of the Simpcw people whose territory borders Sun Peaks.

“Our people get out there and go for a walk daily. It’s something that we’ve sort of lost,” he said.

For Eustache, getting back on the land is a means of connecting to a tradition that his father showed him, even if it’s on a bike instead of on foot.

“If you met my dad, that was one of the things he would love to do, is go out and hunt and get out on the land. He just loved covering miles and miles and that was one of the things he loved to do because that’s what he did with his parents. My grandparents were some of the last people that still roamed up and down the valley, fished, hunted and lived off the land.”

Eustache makes sure he continues to pass on tradition to his own children, which has been how he and his son have scoped new trails for mountain biking.

“I think that [getting on the land] is in our genetics from my dad, because my dad, because of residential school and stuff, we were never really fully connected. He had alcohol problems and all kinds of different things so he never got to show me all of [those traditions],” Eustache explained.

“I never got the full picture until I started getting out there because it’s a place [my dad] loved to be in.”

Tom Eustache riding more beautiful trails on Simpcw territory

The connection of the land to the identity of the Simpcw people is something Eustache makes sure to teach the TRU students; his people have an identity in the valley and continue to care for it. In fact, the Simpcw First Nation is doing so as a major economic force as one of the biggest employers in the region.

“We’re still taking care of this valley, we want to keep our hand in doing that.”

Not only is the Simpcw First Nation providing high levels of employment, trail building is also creating its own economic and social impact in communities.

“Trail tourism in B.C. in the last 15 years has just taken off. We’re seeing communities getting more and more organized working closely with Rec Sites and Trails BC who administer trails on Crown land, and [trail organizations] have been structuring themselves to become stewards of the landbase and working with First Nations because part of the consultation process is to get approval from First Nations,” explained Campbell.

Campbell includes teaching his students about sustainable trail building, international mountain biking trail standards, master planning and community consultation processes.

“We look at trail building as economic development and community development,” he added.

On the social impacts side of things, Eustache has witnessed many members from his community engaging in outdoor recreation, boosting their physical and mental health since the expansion of the Simpcw trail network with the help of the TRU course and its students.

“It’s made me feel really good that there’s been such a positive spin off. When my son and I started building trails it was just so we could get out there ourselves,” said Eustache.

“Before the trails there wasn’t a lot for [people] to do other than an indoor exercise group. Now there is something free that people can do. There’s run clubs and snowshoers who use the trails in the winter; it’s changed their lives.”

Of course there’s also the economic impacts from mountain bikers who travel to the Simpcw Nation from all over. Eustache has noticed an influx of regional travellers from Barriere and Kamloops.

“We’ve got 18 kilometres of trail now. And, they’re mostly intermediate trails so people can ride them all day with their family, and of course, it’s also much more quiet than other popular riding areas around,” Eustache added.

But, what is reconciliation?

While reconciliation can mean different things to different people or groups, the TRU course was born on the heels of the 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was influenced by various other factors including the Tsilhqot’in decision, a gap in the TRU adventure guide program curriculum and a moral responsibility that Campbell felt.

“Basically, [the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report] outlines government and public sector institutions have to do better,” said Campbell. 

“The Tsilhqot’in decision was a big court case that led to rights and title for the Tsilhqot’in, a nation north of Williams Lake. That meant it’s not just about consultation with the First Nations as a stakeholder anymore. It’s really looking at them as a partner and someone who is managing the landbase and has been since time immemorial.”

Campbell then applied the momentum to the adventure studies curriculum at TRU which included some Indigenous knowledge and awareness pieces woven throughout the program, but he felt it needed to be taken further.

“We didn’t really tackle some of the bigger topics like the impacts of colonization, residential schools and the Indian Act,” explained Campbell.

Many of the students who take part in the course are international, and have not been educated on Canada’s history of colonialism, residential schools and complicated relationships with Indigenous people.

TRU students from the course pose for a photo from years passed.

Campbell said for many of the domestic and international students, it’s an eye opener to try and begin to understand the complex relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

For Campbell, being of Canadian settler descent, he said his view on reconciliation is about learning more about First Nation cultures to build a future that is inclusive and meaningful for everybody.

“It’s taken 200 years to get into this mess…Through the Indian Act [colonialism] has imposed a whole system of governance whereas First Nation peoples have their own system of governance before we were here that had worked really well, so how do we move the needle towards becoming equal partners and forge a future that is inclusive?”

As for Eustache, he emphasized the importance of telling people about the history of the traditional land use, and that Indigenous peoples have always been here.

“We’ve been in this valley forever. This valley was once a place where we roamed freely, hunted freely and [gathered] subsistence here. We live in harmony with nature and that doesn’t happen as easily now because of all the landowners. I want people to know we weren’t these people you see in movies that were poor starving Indians. [We] thrived and lived with nature, it wasn’t someplace where we suffered.”

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