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Can Trails Help Heal Scars of Colonialism?

In First Nations communities across British Columbia, mountain bike clubs are learning that the future of trailbuilding begins with the past

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The following story first appeared in the winter 2021 print issue of Beta. To get quarterly print magazines, sign up to be a Beta Pass or Outside+ member. Membership details HERE.

Long before surfers and tourists started coming to Vancouver Island’s west coast for its sandy beaches and rugged coast, before settlers moved in to log and fish, and before the fur traders and European and Russian explorers arrived, since time immemorial, the Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ thrived on the edge of the Pacific. They still do today. Their lives and culture are forever connected to the land and the sea here. 

Today they are a self-governing Indigenous group known as the Ucluelet First Nation and are based out of the village of hitac̓u near the town of Ucluelet. (Ucluelet is the result of settlers mispronouncing Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ, which is pronounced Yuuthlu-ilth-ath and means “the people of the safe harbor.”) The Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ remain an ocean-facing people, and the pulsing power of the Pacific still captivates just about everyone who comes to their traditional territory.

(Photo: Nicolas Teichrob)

So, I’m not surprised when the first thing we talk about before going for a ride is the swell. I’m standing at the bottom of č̓umaat̓a, or Mount Ozzard, with Jay Millar and James Walton, two citizens of the Ucluelet First Nation, and Carey Cunneyworth, the manager of culture and heritage for the nation. We’re getting ready to ride Yellow Brick Road, the trail they recently cut into the rainforest, and the first one built in a cooperative agreement between the Ucluelet First Nation and the Ucluelet Mountain Bike Association. 

With the surf talk out of the way, we start pedaling up an access road. The immediate, relentless climb allows no warm up, but Cunneyworth still manages to tell me the story of č̓umaat̓a as we puff and sweat. 

The Ucluelet trailbuilding crew recently finished Yellow Brick Road, the first trail built under a 2020 agreement between the Ucluelet First Nation and the Ucluelet Mountain Bike Association. (Photo: Nicolas Teichrob)

č̓umaat̓a means “water coming from high place,” he says. During a great flood, a chief named č̓umaat̓a loaded his family in a canoe. The waves washing over the land swept them up to the only dry spot around, the summit of the mountain rising above Ucluelet. The ancestors of those survivors are the Yuułuʔiłʔatḥs and the mountain is named after the chief. 

The flood story is common to many west coast Indigenous groups, but in the Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ’s case it has a compelling twist. When logging the slopes of č̓umaat̓a in the 1970s the workers found a dugout canoe near the summit. 

“[Citizens of the nation] remember seeing it loaded on a logging truck,” Cunneyworth says. “But no one ever saw it again.”

Clockwise from back left: Carey Cunneyworth, Tyson Touchie Jr., James Walton and Jay Millar. Photo: Nicolas Teichrob

By now we’re at the top of the climb and Cunneyworth is disappearing into the forest down a snaking line of dirt. I have no time to contemplate what the missing canoe means as I follow him into the rainforest world of a thousand shades of green, bank high on a turn and begin the roller coaster. The trail pitches down over rocks and roots into a run out. My tires hold the clay-rich soil just enough to find the line into another fall away corner and then it’s on to set up for the next one. I sit back and hold on. Again and again, down and down.

At the bottom, catching my breath and my adrenaline, Cunneyworth tells me č̓umaat̓a remains a sacred place to the Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ. Which, to me, says a lot about the cooperative agreement with the bike club. It is not a first of its kind, but the partnership does represent a growing recognition that mountain bikers and trailbuilders in B.C. need the permission of the original land stewards before getting their hands dirty. 

(Photo: Nicolas Teichrob)

Known as free, prior and informed consent, it’s an acknowledgement that Indigenous peoples have inherent rights to determine what happens in their traditional territory. And not just when it’s big projects, like connecting a pipeline, cutting down trees or exploring for minerals. It’s just as applicable to mountain biking and building trails. When projects begin with consent, they have the potential to be mutually beneficial. In this case, Ucluelet First Nation realized they have a lot to gain from building trails and fostering community with mountain biking, too.

“It’s happening in a lot of places,” says Martin Littlejohn, executive director of the Western Canada Mountain Bike Tourism Association. “There’s a realization that we have to change the way we are doing things.”

He thinks the same shift in awareness is happening around the world. “The issues colonialism created exist everywhere,” he points out. From Africa to Australia, when settlers arrived, mostly from Europe, they used violence against the Indigenous peoples to move in and take what they wanted. Unfortunately, the legacy of settler colonialism still persists today. 

Thomas Schoen started First Journey Trails to partner with First Nations communities to build trail networks. Photo: Mason Mashon

The province of British Columbia was one of the first jurisdictions in North America to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a landmark “universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world.” The province says it’s the first step towards reconciliation, a catch-all term for the reforms in social norms, laws, and race relations required to fully support Indigenous rights and title. Yet, the province’s independent Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and the UN Committee on Racial Discrimination say the provincial government continues to violate UNDRIP by allowing construction to continue on the Coastal GasLink, a natural gas pipeline in northern B.C. opposed by the Wet’suwet’en people whose land it crosses.

Patrick Lucas (Photo: Mason Mashon)

This is the awkward truth. Most people believe in reconciliation in principle, but struggle with it when it goes against their interests. 

As a descendant of settlers to Canada, I recognize that I enjoy my privileged life because of a traumatic and complicated history. To make things right, I want to say sorry and promise a better future. I want to do something that will make me feel better. But I know that’s not the principle of reconciliation and how it works. 

Reconciliation is a journey, not a destination. It’s not about forgive and forget. It’s about acknowledging everything that’s happened and supporting and advocating for Indigenous rights. We all need to wake up everyday and try harder to see, talk and act in a way that recognizes Indigenous peoples are the first peoples and the original stewards of the land.

Skylar Eustache was one of the first kids who worked for First Journey in the Simpcw First Nation, and now builds trails all over B.C. (Photo: Mason Mashon)

That may seem like a daunting task. But in B.C., two forces are coming together to show it doesn’t have to be. Something as simple and fun as going for a ride or swinging a pulaski can play a part in reconciliation. 

Photo: Mason Mashon

The first is the history of colonialism in B.C. In the Royal Proclamation of 1763, King George III of England decreed that all lands west of the Appalachian Mountains was aboriginal land and only the Crown had authority to negotiate treaties. The ruling upset the 13 colonies, led in part to the American Revolutionary War, and did nothing to diminish colonial power in North America. The U.S. Army and government forced almost all Indigenous groups onto reserves. In Canada, the Crown and then the federal government negotiated similar treaties with the First Nations as settlers spread west and north. Until they arrived at the B.C. border. 

Besides a few tiny settlements, no B.C. Indigenous groups signed a treaty. That legacy left them with a stronger legal framework to argue for their rights and title.

The second force is B.C.’s outsized role in mountain biking’s evolution. The province is synonymous with the progression of riding and trailbuilding.

Those two forces—Indigenous rights and title and mountain biking progression—could be considered a potential conflict, but Patrick Lucas and Thomas Schoen are showing that they can also be mutually beneficial.

The trail network in the Simpcw First Nation, an hour north of Kamloops, was among the first examples of the mutual benefits of an agreement between trailbuilders and First Nations communities. (Photo: Mason Mashon)

Schoen moved to the Williams Lake area of British Columbia from Germany in the 1990s and was immediately attracted to the First Nations culture. He knew European tourists would travel to learn about Indigenous history and traditional way of life and, in turn, their dollars would support Indigenous culture and provide jobs. 

Most locals warned him against working with Indigenous people, citing a long list of old stereotypes, but Schoen brought a different perspective. 

“I didn’t have the baggage Canadians do when it comes to their relationship with First Nations,” he says.  

It wasn’t that he didn’t have any baggage. His was just lighter; he valued the First Nations’ history and right to the land more, and was open to partnering with them in a way most Canadians weren’t ready for.

Schoen respectfully approached the Xat’sull First Nation with his idea and together they built the Xatśūll Heritage Village, a tourist attraction that celebrates the Nation’s cultural and spiritual way of life. Today, Schoen is an honorary member of the nation and the experience led him to a career working with Indigenous groups on tourism development projects. 

For Lucas, the epiphany of the importance of relationships with First Nations came at a 2013 mountain bike symposium in Sooke, a community near Victoria, B.C.’s capital. Right before it started, the T’Sou-ke First Nation threatened to close access to the local trail network at Broom Hill. 

(Photo: Mason Mashon)

Chief Gordon Planes explained why at the conference. “We will regain our culture, our language, when we return to the mountain, to the land,” Lucas remembers Planes saying. “That mountain is our church, where we have gathered to pray since time immemorial. We call it Sacred Mountain. Imagine how you might feel if strangers came and built trails and rode their bikes through your church?”

The room went quiet, says Lucas, an urban planner by trade. After Plane’s words had sunken in, the owner of the local bike shop asked for permission to ride on Sacred Mountain. Plane gave his consent, but Lucas saw a greater message. 

“That was the first time I thought, ‘Holy shit, this is going to happen all over the province,’” says Lucas.

The process of reconciliation could mean losing some mountain bike trails. But rather than seeing it as a loss or a threat, Lucas saw opportunity. Mountain biking and trailbuilding based on consent would honor and support Indigenous self-determination. 

Individuals and clubs were showing it was possible. One of the oldest occurred on Montana Mountain in southwestern Yukon, where a program called Single Track to Success recruited a trail crew from the Carcross/Tagish First Nation to turn old mining trails and roads into an internationally recognized mountain biking destination. In Penticton, in the southern part of the B.C., the mountain bike club brought elders from the Penticton Indian Band out to their trail zone to find out where it was OK and not OK to build. 

But no one has been doing it longer than Mark Savard, the owner of Red Shreds Bike and Board Shed in Williams Lake. Since the 1990s he’s been taking his shop out to First Nation communities near and far, fixing up their bikes, running skills clinics, and supporting the growth of a mountain bike community. 

Lucas and Schoen used all those examples for inspiration to start First Journey Trails, a company that works with First Nations to build trail networks. One of their early partnerships was with the Simpcw First Nation, a community an hour north of Kamloops. The duo helped the nation access grants to train and employ kids to build 10 miles of trail. For many it was their first job. The community valued their efforts. 

(Photo: Mason Mashon)

“It just snowballed,” says Tom Eustache, the Simpcw’s maintenance manager, a role that now includes trails. “One person went for a hike on the trails and they told someone how great it was and then they went and told someone else.” 

A running group formed and then an exercise group. Some people lost 50 pounds or more. “I never saw that coming,” Eustache says. He started a youth mountain bike program and bought a fleet of bikes. The nation’s health department started funding trail maintenance. The trails seemed to renew and strengthen the community’s connection to their territory. 

“People in the band always talked about getting back on the land,” says Eustache. “Traditionally that was hunting, but we’re adaptable people. Our kids are riding bikes anyway. They might as well get to know their land while they do it.”

The experience at Simpcw opened Lucas’ eyes.

Eustache travels the province, living out of his van so he can build trails throughout the summer. Photo: Mason Mashon

“We’re building trails, but that’s not what we’re really doing,” he says. “We’re building relationships. Between myself and First Nations people, between First Nations and non-Indigenous communities, between youth and their territory, and with everyone’s relationship with the land. It took a lot of digging in the dirt for me to learn that.” 

Lucas and Schoen have since worked with dozens of Indigenous groups across the province. Their focus has steadily shifted from building mountain biking trails to creating accessible infrastructure. Easy, short, multi-use paths close to town have more impact and visibility for the whole community and are a better foundation to build to something bigger and burlier, says Schoen.

“If we build for the community now, it’s more likely to lead to a sweet black diamond singletrack down the road,“ he says.

It was one of these humble, community-oriented, path projects that kicked off the Ucluelet agreement. 

Local riders built the first mountain bike trails on Mount Ozzard, or č̓umaat̓a, in the early 2000s. Steep, gnarly and downhill-oriented, they were not inclusive to all levels of riders. When a few key riders moved away, the ferns and salal reclaimed the trails. 

In 2011, the Ucluelet First Nation signed a treaty with the provincial and federal governments, granting them uncontested ownership over a big chunk of the area around Ucluelet, including the flanks of č̓umaat̓a. Then, in 2016, Louis Maddiford opened Ukee Bikes in downtown Ucluelet. It revived the local mountain biking scene, the Ucluelet Mountain Bike Association formed and a small crew started started uncovering the trails on č̓umaat̓a.

The Ucluelet trail crew in the rainforest, starting between two western red ciders, a tree crucial to Indigenous culture on the B.C. coast. (Photo: Mason Mashon)

The club should have asked for “free, prior and informed consent” before they started building. They didn’t, but as the small crew grew in size and ambition, they realized their misstep.

“It was pretty obvious, if we wanted to continue to expand the trail system it should be done with permission of the [nation],” says Markus Rannala, the executive director of the UMBA. 

But he wasn’t sure how to start the conversation. Coincidentally, Lucas was working on a community trail on the outskirts of hitac̓u, the Ucluelet First Nation community across the inlet from Ucluelet. 

“Patrick was not only encouraging and very helpful, he offered really sound advice about what works and what doesn’t,” says Rannala. 

Along with input from IMBA Canada and other bike clubs, Rannala approached the Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ government with the idea of building new trails in their territory and employing their youth to do some of the work. With Lucas’ collaborative trail project showing what’s possible and the band’s history with tourism, they were immediately interested. 

“We’re building trails, but that’s not what we’re really doing,” he says. “We’re building relationships. Between myself and First Nations people, between First Nations and non-Indigenous communities, between youth and their territory, and with everyone’s relationship with the land. It took a lot of digging in the dirt for me to learn that.”

The club and nation signed a land use agreement in fall of 2020, and with a grant from Tourism Vancouver Island, the trail crew started building what would become Yellow Brick Road, now the signature descent on Mount Ozzard, handbuilt with berms, bridges, jumps and drops. 

For Rannala it’s a tangible effort to begin a new relationship between First Nations and the rest of the community.

“There’s been a lot of hollow gestures made in the past,” he says. “This is a real, solid, practical step toward working together on something positive and building a relationship with mutual trust.”

Gordon Taylor Jr., a Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ citizen and owner of T̓iick̓in EBike, a rental business, imagines greater possibilities. 

“I see the trails as an opportunity to lift up First Nations people,” Taylor says. “It’s job creation, economic diversification, a way for our people to get into the woods, and an environmentally friendly use of the land.” 

(Photo: Nicolas Teichrob)

He’d like the network extended around the mountain and beyond to other nearby First Nation communities. In the future, trail stewardship and maintenance could offer year-round employment for Indigenous peoples. Other Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ citizens see mountain biking as a positive alternative to the negative vices kids tend to gravitate toward.

They are all nice goals, but they’re a ways off. In an hour of riding, Cunneyworth and I have covered two-thirds of the singletrack on č̓umaat̓a. Rough, rooty and rugged, it’s adrenaline-pumping riding, but, combined with the hard climb, the blue trails feel like a shade off black. Everyone recognizes that and the next phase of development will focus on easier terrain. 

There’s still more work to be done to incorporate the nation’s citizens in every step of the process. The club posted the trail network on TrailForks, before the nation held an important, official opening ceremony, says Cunneyworth.

And there’s the trail names. Cunneyworth is working to translate all the trails into Nuu-chah-nulth, the Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ language. It’s a struggle: Yellow Brick Road may be catchy on Mount Oz, but has no Nuu-chah-nulth equivalent. 

“Names are important to First Nations people,” he says. “They hold a lot of meaning.” 

The club’s all for the name change, says Rannala. There will be missteps, but he knows the learning and relationships built along the way are worth figuring out, because a partnership between the club and nation, grounded in consent and reciprocity, can be the first stroke in a long pedal toward reconciliation. 

“Reconciliation is the most complicated question of our generation,” he says. “I don’t pretend to have the answer. But a trail is not such a bad place to start.” 

This feature was edited by Renee Hutchens, a Diné (Navajo) writer and storyteller who works to amplify Indigenous narratives