Judith Kasiama has always loved nature and spending time in the outdoors.
As a child in the Democratic Republic of Congo, known as Zaire at that time, she could walk through the lush rainforest, swim in the river or watch the tropical storms.
Her family fled the country in 1997 when it became unstable after the Rwandan genocide.
“I know what war is like. I know what it’s like to go several days without food or water, because there were bombs being blown outside,” she told a forum on diversity in the outdoors at the Banff Mountain Film Festival this fall.
Kasiama’s family made its way to South Africa, then Australia, California, Connecticut, New York and Boston before receiving refugee status in Canada and settling in Hamilton, Ont. She now lives in Vancouver, where she can again hike, swim and watch storms.
Last March, the 29-year old — who runs a group called Black People Hike: Vancouver — called out several retailers on social media for their lack of diversity in advertising campaigns.
It led to an open letter from the CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op, titled: Do White People Dominate the Outdoors?
“If you consider every advertisement you’ve ever seen for skiing, hiking, climbing and camping, you might think that’s the case,” David Labistour wrote in October. “It isn’t true at all, and it’s part of a bigger problem.”
Labistour said his letter received more response than a controversy over the retailer selling outdoor equipment brands linked to a U.S. gunmaker after a mass shooting in Florida.
He admitted that the retailer hasn’t represented the diversity of Canadians and is working to include people of colour in its ads.
“Sometimes we don’t recognize the inherent racism in the country,” said Amil Reddy, co-ordinator of MEC’s Outdoor Nation campaign to get more young Canadians outdoors. “More often than not, it’s not the folks we were hoping to represent.”
As a queer person of colour, Reddy said there’s enough outdoors to go around for everyone.
“Some groups need a little more support,” said Reddy, who noted that MEC brought Kasiama on as an ambassador as part of its diversity campaign.
Other retailers are also responding to the campaign, but it’s an issue that isn’t unique to businesses.
In Banff National Park, where 36 per cent of visitors are from somewhere other than Canada or the United States, there’s a concerted effort to address diversity among tourists but also Canadians.
“There’s a lot of people who are from Canada who may have trouble understanding English or French as well,” said Greg Danchuk, a Parks Canada visitor experience manager in Banff.
“We don’t just think of overseas or international. We think of people who may not be able to communicate in English or French as a first language.”
Danchuk said Parks Canada offers a free pass to new Canadians for a year and there are learn-to-camp programs, which provide gear and tips. The national parks also have started to use symbols rather than words to help visitors learn about safety and wildlife.
“You have to put some words up there,” Danchuk said. “Some of it needs explanation but, for the most part, to keep people safe and keep wildlife safe at the same time, we can use symbols, point out what they can and can’t do.”
Officials send information in other languages to any tour groups ahead of time, he added.
Kasiama, who’s planning to do a master’s degree on diversity in the outdoors, said she’d like to see more outdoor education taught in schools. She said it also would go a long way for new Canadians.
“You’re not just educating children, but you are also educating the families through the children. It’s a win-win situation.”
Kasiama said her childhood, which included eating food from the land, fostered her love of the outdoors.
Nature has helped her heal from her experiences as a refugee and can help other immigrants who have faced the same things, she suggested.
“You never get over the trauma that you see as a child, in terms of war,” she said. “For me, just being in the outdoors and being in nature was the cheapest form of therapy.”