“That was the mission, I wanted to bring hope to the community” Aaron says, as he reflects back on why he started the First Nations Snowboard Team (FNST) all those years ago. The team that started in 2004 with just 10 members would grow to serve thousands of youth, and eventually evolve into the Indigenous Life Sport Academy (ILSA). It’s been a long journey, filled with ups and downs, for the organization as well as Aaron. But despite the hardships and challenges one is faced with then trying to do something that really matters, Aaron is leaving a legacy of good behind him. Over the years he has seen young kids enroll in the FNST programs and emerge as leaders.
“You see the kids when they are young, and now they are out in the world, thriving and pursuing their dreams. It’s so great” he says. Aaron still keeps in touch with former members he has watched grow up on the slopes, and he goes snowboarding with them whenever they are back in town. And it’s something about snowboarding that can transform a person. For Aaron, he believes it has a lot to do with the confidence and independence it fosters. “The kids, they have to learn how to go up and down a hill by themselves which gives them independence. Helping them grow that is amazing” he says. “That goes against the narrative, so we really are providing a different narrative about Indigenous people” he continues.
Aaron shares a similar story with many of the youth in our programs. Growing up in Squamish, Aaron lived with his grandmother who also raised him. He would go skiing a few times a year with his school, and he spent a lot of time skateboarding with his friends. However it wasn’t until snowboarding began to emerge that Aaron found his passion. He was hooked right away.
“When snowboarding came out, it was like wow! I just had a whole new love for the sport”. Financially though, it was a huge challenge. A challenge that remains for many people in our community. Aaron’s grandmother, a school teacher, still got him a season pass every year.
Things took a turn when he was 15. For a few years, Aaron was hanging out with the wrong people and made some wrong choices. While it was a difficult time, it would also prove to be helpful later on, as it gave him an understanding of at-risk youth from his own experience. Once on the FNST, whenever Aaron would hear about young kids in trouble he would actively try to get them on the team. Despite warnings from others, his conviction of how snowboarding could help these kids would often prove to be right. “Snowboarding showed me that I could do good, that I didn’t have to be in survival mode all the time” Aaron says.
Eventually, Aaron managed to leave his old lifestyle behind and find his way back. He started working for Squamish Nation and began to snowboard again. One day when he was up on Grouse Mountain, he noticed some really talented Indigenous riders. For Aaron, this was the first time he realized he wasn’t the only Indigenous kid who could snowboard. They joined forces, and started dreaming about competing. However, the reality was that you need a significant amount of money to compete, something they didn’t have. At the same time, there was a big push to help. Vancouver had just won the bid to host the 2010 Olympics. Talks about getting Indigenous people to a competitive level seemed to clash with the fact that most of the youth didn’t have passes, let alone proper gear. “There was a huge disconnect between privilege and Indigenous reality” Aaron says. Even within his own community, the dreams seemed just as big as the barriers they had to overcome. “Some kids would have nothing in their bedroom except a snowboard poster and a snowboard” he says.
It was against this backdrop that the FNST was born. Aaron wanted to bring hope to the community, so he managed to secure funds as part of the Olympic Legacy Fund. Five members of the Lil’wat Nation, and five members of the Squamish Nation, made up the original team in 2004. When Aaron looks back at their journey, he describes it as a life altering story. He got to meet Olympians, Royals, and professional athletes. Aaron was also one of 32 torch bearers from local First Nations who got to participate in the torch relay as part of the opening ceremony for the Olympics. “I loved that. Knowing how much work we had put into the FNST, and then finally getting to hold that torch… From the outside, no one knew the amount of effort it took for us to be there. So it meant a lot to me to carry that torch. That was a highlight for sure”.
Yet, despite the many successes of the team, there were plenty of tough moments as well. It left Aaron feeling heartbroken and crushed many times. After a while, all that focus on trying to help Indigenous youth get to a competitive level just wasn’t fun anymore. “Competing is so expensive and so deflating. You have to tell some kid that they can’t compete because we can’t afford plane tickets to New Zealand. It’s heartbreaking” Aaron says. What’s more, racism still exists in competitive sports. From having their team members ignored by organizers at competitions, to feeling unwelcome in many places because of race, it was all getting too much. “Eventually, I just said ‘why are we doing this?’” Aaron explains. The competitive aspect didn’t seem worth it, and the team knew they had reached a point where they needed to do something different.
In 2020, FNST Vice President Court Larabee founded ILSA. The new organization is made up of many of its former leaders and members, including Aaron who now serves on the board. The focus has shifted away from being a competitive team. Instead, physical and mental well-being, as well as community building, are the central components of ILSA. In addition to snowboarding, ILSA also offers unstructured sports like skateboarding, biking, climbing and hiking. This means that for the first time, the organization can provide its members with free year-round programming. For Aaron, making these sports accessible and helping the kids grow while having fun is what it’s all about. “With snowboarding, once you’re on the hill it’s all about your ability and not where you’re from. You can forget about all the other stuff. Eliminating those obstacles and breaking down barriers is what ILSA has evolved into” Aaron says.
Another new focus for ILSA that Aaron feels passionate about is extending its programs for in-care youth. “The foster care system is the new residential school. It disconnects kids from their culture. Of course there are foster parents doing an amazing job, but this is a problem all over Canada” Aaron says. Getting more youth involved in the programs also helps build a sense of belonging. “You see the long term bonds created from these programs. We have kids learning new sports, and then they hang out and do their sports weekly outside of the program. It really is about providing them with a life sport”.
The life changing transformation that a person can find through sport is something that Aaron has witnessed in the kids attending the FNST and ILSA programs, as well as in himself and his own son. Aaron says that the sports have given his son new life skills and friends that he still stays active with. That’s why Aaron hopes we will continue to have Indigenous youth who want to lead and spread this model to other communities. It’s hard work, but it’s all worth it considering the ripple effects he has seen in his own community. “It’s created a different generation for sure” he says.
Photo Below: The FNST was inducted into BC Sports Hall of Fame in 2018