Building Belonging: Ski Fit North Alberta

As we continue our Vital Signs exploration on belonging and connection to community, we’re sharing stories of how community foundations across Canada are actively building belonging in their communities. Check out our second of three Belonging: Exploring Connection to Community reports released on October 2, 2016 that explores the connection between social participation and belonging.

If you ask Beckie Scott about her time as an Olympian, she’ll tell you.

She went three times for cross-country skiing, in 1998, 2002, and 2006, and wound up bringing home a gold medal from Salt Lake City, and a silver medal from Turin.

But you can tell that these days, she’s every bit as excited to talk about sharing her passion for skiing with others.

It was seven years ago that Scott helped found Ski Fit North Alberta (SFNA), an organization that introduces Alberta’s First Nations and Métis youth to cross-country skiing.

SFNA had a mere 25 pairs of skis, but with Scott’s expertise, began to run workshops that reached out to remote communities in Alberta where children might not have had the benefit of the kind of elite-level instruction Scott had enjoyed growing up.

Although she had no prior connection to First Nations or Métis people, Scott felt an immediate connection. Her early experience was “one of an incredibly warm welcome”, but that feeling grew into a much deeper feeling of respect.

“It was a discovery of a very beautiful culture and people who are incredible on so many levels … I feel so privileged to engage with our friends and neighbors,” she says.

As the years went by and the program grew, so did its impact. Scott and SFNA were visiting more and more communities, getting more students and more teachers involved, and soon, the skiing was having a positive impact on whole communities.

Students began to be more interested in the effects of skiing. They were engaged in a community, they were outside more often, and they were healthier. Soon, this success began to spill over into life at school.

“The kids that come out, they’re all learning at the same time and growing, and then they’re going back to their school with the skillset and gaining a real sense of empowerment … and they feel proud,” says Scott.

That sports could be the beginning of a holistic approach to community health was not lost on SFNA. The organization received support from many, including the Banff Canmore Community Foundation, for its Multi-Community Ski Festival Day. It has also brought in other educators such as nutritionists and mental health experts to talk to the students at the skiing workshops.

Roughly three years ago, SFNA started tracking the impact of the program via surveys about physical and mental health, but also perceived value to each community. The results have been encouraging – “astounding,” even.

“We have had some schools pursue [skiing] on a competitive level … so we assisted them in getting coaches trained and starting to travel to little races within the province and going around and taking part in competitions. … Out of this was formed a leadership team to which the kids felt an extraordinary sense of belonging and group strength, and we can never underestimate that power of belonging and opportunity for kids who are at a vulnerable age and circumstance.”

One school, the Kikino Métis Settlement School, even sent 4 skiers to the Alberta Winter Games, a provincial event held every two years for youth aged 12-18 – and the students did well.

“They’ve created a strong sense that this is OK, [that] this is right, and that indigenous people leading the communities can go out and compete,” says Scott.

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