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Program bringing Indigenous youth together for land and community connection comes to Fernie

The program seeks to promote self-expression and play for mental and physical well-being

There’s a new program in Fernie that brings Indigenous youth together for unstructured sports to connect them to land and community.

The program is part of the Indigenous Life Sport Academy (ILSA), a 19-year-old non-profit that, until a 2020 re-branding, was the First Nations Snowboard Team.

Founder and executive director, Court Blackbird Larabee, said the program is the same sort they used to run as the snowboard team.

“We offered them a seasons pass, coaching, free equipment, and mentorship, and then free training to become a guide or instructor within the sport. As long as they did well in school, didn’t drink or do drugs, and they remained in good community standing throughout the process of the team,” Larabee said.

The program has bloomed over the years, and they have started teams as far as Nova Scotia and the Yukon, hitting almost every province, Larabee said. But they wanted to do more, and expanded into what they call ‘unstructured sports’, where “you can literally just pick up your gear and go.”

ILSA is not about competition, and seeks to give Indigenous youth opportunities for self-expression and play to improve mental and physical well-being through various sports and activities, according to the academy’s website.

Larabee has been working in Whistler for 18 years, and has been the Indigenous Relations Specialist for Whistler Blackcomb for three years. ILSA’s program there included 130 youth this year, Larabee said.

In February, they did a ‘Kootenay expansion’, bringing pilot programs to Fernie, Nelson, and Kimberley (though they couldn’t ski in Kimberley due to a fire that destroyed a lift control building in December). They also plan to expand to Kicking Horse.

ILSA’s pilot program in Fernie ran from Feb. 18 to 26. Through it, 14 youth, two adults and four coordinators from local First Nations were introduced to the mountain. They were provided with seasons passes, six days of coaching, and free equipment from head to toe. The youth who partook were part of the Ktunaxa Kinbasket Child and Family Services Society, and came from the Fernie, Elkford and Cranbrook areas.

Larabee said the trip was incredible and meaningful, and that he’s never met youth who were so thankful for the program.

He said that they are working with Resorts of the Canadian Rockies on a three-year strategic plan “to not only keep these youth riding, but to grow the program over the next three years.”

They plan to expand the Fernie program beyond snowboarding, and seek a similar program for skateboarding. Mountain biking and golfing are also on their radar.

As for Larabee himself, he plans to make Fernie his new home base.

“I not only fell in love with the opportunity in Fernie, I also fell in love with the area itself.”

“I’m ready to move, and to help another community bond with their local First Nations, and it’s really what I specialize in. And I’m bringing my skill-sets and my passion to your beautiful town this June.”

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