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The Importance of Decolonizing Trails

It all comes down to one central question: On whose land do we ride? 

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Decolonizing Trails. What does that even mean?

You hear a lot of people talking about decolonization these days. It has become a popular slogan, a tag line added on to nearly every social campaign from anti-racism to climate change. Understanding the interconnection of broad-ranging issues can be a powerful means of tackling complicated problems, but it can also lead to confusion and erode the meaning of important concepts. It is important to return to the heart of the issue and reconnect with its original intent and meaning. 

Recently, the Trails Society of British Columbia hosted an at-capacity webinar (embedded above) called: The Importance of Decolonizing Trails with Tom Eustache of the Simpcw First Nation and myself, on behalf of the Indigenous Youth Mountain Bike Program. We engaged in a discussion exploring the meaning of decolonization in the hopes of providing some clarity as to what it can mean for the world of trails and mountain biking. The webinar was part of Trail BC’s Greenways for All, an initiative focused on building partnerships with First Nations, rural communities and governments to ensure everyone has the opportunity to incorporate active outdoor recreation in their lives.

Tom Eustache. Photo: Paul Masukowitz

It all comes down to one central question: On whose land do we ride? 

People often talk about getting out on the land, going for a ride, “We’re just riding bikes? What possible harm could come from that?” But every time we step out on the land we are engaging in an explicit political act that is based upon hundreds of years of history. 

The history of mountain biking mirrors the history of settler colonialism in North America. In B.C., it was started by a small group of mostly men who, inspired by the stories of people riding converted road bikes down decommissioned forestry roads in Marin County, California, started dragging their bikes up the North Shore Mountains above Vancouver and in the interior of the province, and threw themselves down everything they could find. The exploits of those pioneers played a key role in the growing freeride movement that captured the imagination of an entire generation and launched mountain biking into a global phenomenon. 

Just like the early settlers, those riders quickly learned the forests and lands they were discovering were not empty. Confronted by the reality of land owners, parks managers, other user groups and First Nations who were not happy about the incursion of riders shredding their trails, mountain bikers responded by getting organized, forming clubs and building a community. They developed new techniques or building and maintaining sustainable trails and showed they could be responsible and respectful to the land. 

For hundreds of years, Indigenous Peoples throughout North America have been asserting their historical land claims and their rights and title to their ancestral territories. In B.C., the government has settled numerous claims, treaties and land transfer agreements that include highly popular riding areas. Once again, the riding community has had to face difficult truths and find ways to build relationships. This has meant confronting our history and understanding how we can build and maintain trails that respect Indigenous title, laws and protocols. 

Decolonizing trails is not a tag line, it is not a metaphor, but the very foundation the future of our sport and our community will be built upon. Through the webinar, Tom and I discuss these issues and provide examples and stories for how clubs are finding ways to move forward. 

Patrick Lucas is an award-winning registered community planner with more than 15 years of experience. His current projects focus on rural community development, Indigenous community building & reconciliation; trails, recreation & tourism planning. He founded the Indigenous Youth Mountain Bike Program and is respected for his commitment to reconciliation and ability to foster relationships between First Nations and non-Indigenous communities that are based on mutual trust and respect.