Updated: Oct 6
Chelsie McCutcheon is many things. She is a devoted leader, athlete, wife, mother, Wet'suwet'en, yogi, and a role model for the many people who have crossed her path. From the days of the First Nations Snowboard Team (FNST) to the Indigenous Life Sport Academy (ILSA), Chelsie has been with us right from the start. Her own love for snowboarding started back when she was a teen. Chelsie is from Witset Nation, and began snowboarding at the Hudson’s Bay Mountain. Her family saw the opportunity that sport could bring, and made sure she started at a young age.
“My family put me in skiing at age 3. So sport was really an avenue of social change for my family to overcome poverty, to get beyond the reservation in a healing way, and to become a leader in the community” Chelsie says.
A few years later, Chelsie joined the ski racing team, and her family would fundraise year round to cover the costs. Eventually she found her way to snowboarding, and decided to become an instructor.
“My parents couldn’t afford a pass, so when I was 15 I became a snowboard instructor so that I would get a free pass” she says.
Through snowboarding, Chelsie found freedom.
In 2004 Chelsie moved to Whistler. As she started making new friends, she realized that this was the first time she had ever snowboarded with other Indigenous people. One day, she opened up the local newspaper to find a story about the newly founded First Nations Snowboard Team (FNST). After reading about the team, Chelsie knew she had to get involved. She got a phone book to track down FNST founder Aaron Marchant, and began calling every person with the same surname. Several calls later she eventually ended up speaking to Aaron’s auntie. An excited Chelsie convinced her to give out Aaron’s number, but not without a warning.
“His aunty told me ‘just so you know, he’s married’” Chelsie laughs.
After speaking with Aaron, Chelsie became a snowboard instructor with the team. Over the years her dedication to the FNST would see her take on many roles, serving as a leader, mentor, program coordinator, and athlete. When Chelsie looks back at her journey, she speaks of the joy she felt watching the team grow and evolve year after year. How the core group of people continued to show up, while more and more people got involved. With a solid backing and a community of support, Chelsie and the other FNST leaders witnessed the magic that was unfolding, on and off the slopes. One moment in particular that Chelsie remembers is when she came back to Whistler after being away for four years. She had moved to Calgary in 2010 with her husband and son, and had started a new division of the FNST in her new community. When they returned four years later, Chelsie discovered that the kids she had been teaching before she left had grown into leaders themselves, and were now teaching in the same programs where they learned how to snowboard. For Chelise, it was a reminder of the impact these programs have.
“That's the legacy of the program. From day one you could see the potential. It was like ‘this is big’, you know? It’s an honour to be a part of, and to have been there since the beginning”, Chelsie says.
Today, Chelsie lives in Squamish with her husband Justin, their son Cullan and daughter Kaida. It’s been 17 years since Chelsie first joined the team. Chelsie’s legacy continues, not just as she continues to work for ILSA, but as her two kids follow in her mighty footsteps as members of our team. What continues to drive Chelsie is the positive social change she sees through the programs, and the safe space to grow new leaders. Taking up space within sport is another thing that motivates her.
“Growing up I wasn’t able to see myself in the leaders or athletes in my sports” she says.
That’s why the act of occupying is so important for Chelsie. Occupying trails, occupying sports. But it’s also an act of reclaiming and remembering. Chelsie recently learned that her family has ties to the Lil’wat Nation.
“I come from a time where the generation before us came out of residential schools. Our culture was repressed and things were not spoken about because it was a condition to not talk about culture and history” she says.
Now, as an adult, Chelsie gets to learn about her culture. She sees this as a part of the current revival that is taking place, and a testament to how things have changed.
“Indigenous Canadians do have privilege, so we have a great responsibility to lead in right relationship, leading with non-Indigenous people and how we can all walk forward together” Chelsie says.
But walking forward is not always easy, and the path to reconciliation is long and winding. The burden of being on this journey has been felt by many, especially in the last few weeks. With recent discoveries of unmarked graves on the sites of residential schools across the country, deep wounds have once again resurfaced. The legacy of this system is something Chelsie has witnessed herself through her work with Indigenous communities near and far.
“The social barriers that come from forced assimilation are a trend in all communities” Chelsie says.
She talks about how sports can help people go beyond structures like poverty and substance abuse. How it can save lives. And yet, she says, sometimes it’s not enough.
“A young person from Witset died from an overdose this weekend” Chelsie says.
His name was Blayne, and he was part of a mountain mentorship program Chelsie was leading with ILSA in March earlier this year. Chelsie is grieving with her community, but also remembers Blayne as a funny, kind and strong man. Still, Chelsie feels hopeful when she spends time with the local youth in the programs.
“There’s an essence of hope and resiliency, and there’s so much growth” she says.
Over the years Chelsie has seen families bring their kids through the programs and how they graduate into leaders, and then their nieces and nephews come in as the next generation.
“Before, these sports seemed far-fetched, but now they have become normalized for the younger generations” she says.
One message that Chelsie wants to spread is that motherhood doesn’t have to stop anyone from continuing to lead and practise their sports. Her daughter Kaida was just 2 years old when she started snowboarding, and Chelsie would bring her along when she was teaching.
“She became my sidekick. I would take her with me on her board, and when she got tired she would stand on my board between my legs, or I would just put her on my back” Chelsie says.
And this idea, that motherhood doesn’t have to be a barrier to sport, is being echoed in the ILSA Women’s climbing program. Since last year Chelsie has been leading the indoor and outdoor climbing program together with Heather Lightfoot. What started as a collaboration manifested into a group of Squamish Nation ladies that got certified in indoor and outdoor climbing.
“This gave them independence to continue with their own climbing. Again, it’s the same idea of local Indigenous people occupying the land. Traditionally this was seen as financially out of reach, which is why programs like this are so important” Chelsie says.
Many of the women on the program are mothers themselves, and seeing them learning this new skill means a lot to Chelsie.
“As a mother it’s very special witnessing other mothers trying something new. Down the line, that opens up opportunities for their families” she says.
And so, Chelsie’s LEGACY continues.