Updated: Oct 7
Aaron Marchant was snowboarding at Cypress Mountain when he noticed a group of Indigenous kids throwing down some tricks.
“They were doing jumps, rails, tail grabs,” recalls Aaron, “I saw their potential and imagined what they could achieve with the right resources.”
Drawing on his experience as a youth worker and a passion for snowboarding, Aaron founded the First Nations Snowboard Team (FNST) in 2003, an organization that helped Indigenous youth connect with and excel in the mountains.
FNST competed in national competitions and provincial series where riders consistently grabbed podium spots.
“At the time, there was no Indigenous representation on the mountains,” says Aaron, adding that it was not uncommon for people to approach FNST riders and share their amazement at seeing so many Indigenous people on the hill.
In addition to supporting athletic talent, FNST’s mission was to reconnect youth to their land and provide a healthy outlet to bolster their mental health.
“The inspiration was hope,” says Aaron. “For some kids, activities were the only hope they had.”
In 2020, FNST rebranded as the Indigenous Life Sport Academy (ILSA) and moved away from a competitive model to include more unstructured sports like skateboarding, rock climbing, and mountain biking.
Court Larabee, who volunteered with FSNT as a snowboard instructor since 2007 and is now ILSA’s executive director, has seen “the growth from a small group of riders into a strong group of leaders.”
What started as a team of 10 in its inaugural year rapidly tripled the following year and has grown exponentially ever since. In 2022, ILSA supported 430 youth from 29 Nations across 22 resorts. That support includes breaking down the financial barriers such as passes, gear, and transportation, and well as providing education and mentorship opportunities.
“The people leading our programs now were either riders or volunteers with ILSA,” says Court. ILSA helps kids become better athletes and community members, and also provides training to create lifelong skills.
“We have an opportunity to create more social change in communities by expanding our programs into other activities that youth can pursue for life, and develop skills and pursue opportunities for employment,” says Court.
In its 20th year of operation, ILSA is focused on celebrating milestones and growing sustainably.
Thanks to leaders like Michael Barton, Sandy Ward, and Chelsea McCutcheon, ILSA has seen a successful expansion of the snowboard, skateboard, and mountain bike programs, and launched its first cross-country ski program in Fernie in partnership with a local public school.
Echoing Aaron’s inspiration of hope, Court acknowledges the importance of these programs in addressing mental health.
“Suicide deaths in Indigenous communities are very high,” says Court. “We provide a holistic approach that exercises spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental aspects and creates a safe space for expression and an opportunity to address generational trauma.”
The longterm vision for ILSA remains focused on empowering Indigenous youth and helping create opportunities at leadership levels so they can continue to support the next generation of athletes. There is also a goal of regional growth and working with a proven, existing model across the country.
Some challenges that currently exist are funding ILSA’s operational costs including wage support for grant writers and team members. And despite most towns embracing ILSA programming, there have been ongoing issues of racism in some areas of operation.
While ILSA leaders remain optimistic about the future of the non-profit, there is a necessary call-to-action for financial support and allyship to keep these programs running and enrich the lives of Indigenous youth.
When asked to reflect on the past 2 decades with ILSA, Aaron says, “I’m really proud that we’re still going! It’s been 20 years and we’re still snowboarding.”
If you are interested in learning about sponsorship or partnership opportunities with ILSA, please contact email@example.com.
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