Feature Story

New initiative aims to root out sexism and racism from the professional avalanche industry

 | October 26, 2020

Initiative is being led by the industry’s largest players and follows troubling report

Rachel Reimer getting outside. Photo suppied

A recent report and survey focussed on Canada’s avalanche professionals, a category that includes winter mountain guides, has identified some significant issues related to racism and sexism. 

Commissioned by the industries largest players—the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG), the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) and the Canadian Ski Guides Association(CSGA)—the 2019 report focused on inclusion, gender discrimination and harassment and mental health in the avalanche professional community. 

It found workplaces are sometimes challenging and unwelcoming for female staff and clients, people who identify as non-heteronormative, and for people of colour. 

The industry is made up of primarily white participants and is male dominated, with unofficial averages putting the industry at about 15 to 20 per cent women. 

Of the women who do work in the industry, many have faced issues related to sexism. 

46 per cent of females reported experiencing gender discrimination, with the most significant factor being a perception that females are “less competent” than males.

Moreover, 27 per cent of female respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment. Of that 27 per cent involved inappropriate touching, and 60 per cent was initiated by peers or supervisors. 

Visible minorities working in the industry also reported high rates of mental heatlh challenges, with one in four reporting to have experienced suicide attempt or thought. 

Peter Tucker, executive director of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, said the organization is in the process of creating a more inclusive workspace and doing its best to address the issues identified in the report, including unconscious bias.

“The ACMG is pretty much white, straight and male,” he said.

Over the years, society has put up barriers “consciously or unconsciously” that have discouraged minorities from pursuing careers within the outdoor industry, he said.

“The elimination of those barriers is the way ahead for our society,” said Tucker. “To just stand on the sidelines and go, ‘yeah, yeah, you know, you all go ahead and do that,’ that doesn’t cut it.”  

So far, the ACMG has organized sessions on gender in the workplace, LGBTQ2S+, unconscious bias, and leadership training for its members. 

It has also committed to ongoing meetings with the CAA and CSGA , who have also committed to reforms.   

“We have begun training our leadership and instructors around gender discrimination and just had a panel discussion for members where the panel included transgender people, people of colour and an Indigenous person, all of whom have a strong outdoor recreation focus to their lives,” he added. 

“In November, we are presenting a session on suicide prevention to our members. We will be repeating the training until the majority of the membership have been able to attend and will be adding more sessions.”

The survey was sent out to all three organizations’ memberships, and was completed by a total of 514 guides and avalanche workers from across the country.

According to an executive summary, guides also reported a desire to see more minority representation in the industry and increased increased support, education and awareness and accountability for gender discrimination and sexual harassment issues. 

Following the release of the report representatives from the three parties, along with new additions from HeliCat Canada, met for a meeting in Revelstoke , B.C. in November, 2019, to discuss the best way forward. In two half-day meetings last November the collective drafted versions of its vision, mandate, and guiding principles, and named their effort, The Inclusive Mountain Culture Initiative.

The parties also agreed to continue meeting regularly to see to it that objectives are met.  

Rachel Reimer, a doctoral candidate focussing on inclusion, diversity and resilience in the mountain guiding industry in Canada, New Zealand and the US, conducted the 2019 report that is galvanizing change within the Canadian industry. 

Reimer has worked in the ski industry for the past seven years as a tail guide and patroller and is now a candidate in the ACMG’s apprentice ski guide program.  

She said her research has revealed there are significant problems with male-dominated mountain guiding culture, and that there is a culture among guides that is problematic. Reimer refers to it as “mountain masculinity.” 

“There’s an association between strength and masculinity, meaning if you act in a hyper-masculine way, you’re seen as strong, you’re seen as a good leader, you’re seen as a good risk manager,” she said.“It’s a certain type of masculinity that’s based on proving one’s physical skill sets and strengths, because the general messaging around it is that you need to be self sufficient and always right.” 

Reimer said one of the unfortunate side-effects of all this is that asking for help can be seen as weak. 

“The general idea is that if you need help, there will be some ridicule or shaming about that,” she said.        

Reimer added that “mountain masculinity” can contribute to mental health issues for both men and women.

“When you have rural workforces combined with a competitive skills-based workplace task, then you have high rates of mental health challenges and suicide rates,” she said.  

With buy-in from the industry’s biggest players, Reimer said she’s hopeful about the direction of the initiative and prospect of change. She added that working together can lead to the creation of cost-effective supports, like an anonymous reporting process, as well as additional mental health support. 

“There’s every indication that people are willing and ready for this change in the profession, and that they want to have these conversations,” she said. “But you know, there are also people who really benefit from these cultural norms.” 

Moving forward, the organizations will meet regularly to discuss their approach. Tucker acknowledged there may be pushback, and that the issues must be approached in a sensitive, but effective, way. 

“I have no doubt that there are people there will be people who may feel threatened,’ he said. “So this is part of our challenge, is to do this in a way that that is inclusive of everybody and not threatening to anybody and not keeping anybody on the outsides, including the white straight man. The only way that this works, is if we really are together.”