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Boating reflects a larger change that’s sweeping our country.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a six-volume report on how to move forward from the devastating legacy of residential schools in Canada.

Among the 94 calls to action were five on sports and how to bridge the gap when culture, income, and geography can limit participation. Since then, some Atlantic Canadian groups have tried to make their sport more open to Indigenous people and others who have previously been excluded from boating, a traditional but often inaccessible East Coast recreation.

The Lunenburg-based Nova Scotia Sea School focuses on teaching sailing and leadership skills to young people. Its leaders have taken the truth and reconciliation call to action to heart, currently weaving those tenets into a four-year strategic plan.

“We really want to work on more diversity in our staff, in our participants and training around anti-racism and inclusivity,” says program director Aine MacLellan. “Marginalized people aren’t as represented in the sailing community. It’s traditionally been a white-dominated sport and we’re excited to see some changes.”

Crane Stookey founded the school in 1994, offering programs for teenagers, including five- to eight-day adventure trips on a 10-metre wooden sailboats. Experienced youth sailors lead novices through everything from knot tying to navigation to cooking for the crew.

Dawn Morin, head of recruitment for the school, says gender parity and including people who don’t fit the sailor stereotype are priorities. “We try to build our rosters with that intention in mind,” she says.

The sailing and winter hiking programs have also been popular with several new Canadians. MacLellan says they hope some of them will become leaders with the school.

The Armdale Yacht Club in Halifax has also been working to include those who don’t fit the stereotype of a sailor through its Broader Reach program.

In 2019, club training officer Anthony Rosborough started Broader Reach, giving sailing lessens to new Canadians and people from Indigenous communities or economically challenged homes. “We started with just an idea and goodwill,” he says. “Our goal is to represent the under-served (in the boating community).”

In 2022, 35 people took part in the program. Organizers hope to have 50 participants this year. Rosborough says volunteers from the club have enthusiastically helped new adult or youth sailors maneuver the small Soling keelboats used in the program.

He adds they’ve partnered with the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, the YMCA’s Centre for Immigrant Programs, and the Spryfield Boys and Girls Club to find participants.

While they aim to introduce people to a new sport, it’s not about competition. “So much of sailing is focused on performance,” Rosborough says. “We’re focused on recreation and inclusion.”

The canoeing and kayaking community is also building relationships with Indigenous groups, a natural fit given the sport’s origins in First Nations culture. For a few years now, the Atlantic division of Canoe Kayak Canada has taken what executive director Robin Thomson calls their “travelling roadshow” to Indigenous communities.

“We started working within Nova Scotia with what we call our outreach program since 2019,” she says. “The history of the canoe is why we exist, and was one of the main reasons we started to build a relationship with Indigenous communities.”

Thomson says they often hold the sessions in Cape Breton at Eskanoni First Nation, due to its size and reach. They’ve also gone to other Indigenous communities throughout the province and in New Brunswick. “We show up and get the kids in canoes and kayaks and on stand-up paddleboards,” Thomson explains. “We do three-hour sessions where we teach them the sport. And if anyone is interested, we try to stay connected with them.” About 200 kids per summer take part in the program.

At Eskasoni, kayakers are introduced to their vessels by a team from Canoe Kayak Canada’s Atlantic division.

Thomson says her organization can thank George (Tex) Marshall, president of North American Indigenous Games (NAIG), coming to Halifax July 15 to 23, for inspiring the program when discussing ways to involve Indigenous youth in canoeing and kayaking.

“He said, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’” she recalls.

Levis Denny, who is from Eskasoni, said the canoeing program has been a hit.

“Our kids were naturals at it. They watched it for a bit, then jumped in the canoes and took to it really easily,” said Denny, who is chef de mission for Team Mi’kmaq NS competing at the NAIG this summer, including some from his community in canoeing. “One thing we were looking to provide was an opportunity and we provided it and they took off running with it.”

The popularity of canoeing doesn’t surprise Denny.

“Water sports have had such a prevalent spot in our Mi’kmaw history,” he says. “Our U’nama’kik communities, every one of our Cape Breton communities, are situated near water.”

Thomson says they hope to establish a canoeing club in Eskasoni, where the band has designated land for a clubhouse. “We don’t have a timeline, but that’s the end goal,” she says.

Sharon Mills, executive director of Sail New Brunswick, admits her province has some catching up to do. She’s unaware of any sailing program intended to include new Canadians or those marginalized due to income. “I wish we did (have those programs),” she says, adding that such initiatives would help dispel the misconception that sailing is an elitist sport. Finances and logistics are among the obstacles she cites.

The AbleSail Network, around since the late 1980s thanks to Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion world tour to raise awareness and funding for programs for people with disabilities, is a national organization teaching folks with disabilities throughout Canada to sail, including in Shediac, NB, and through the Royal Yacht Squadron in Halifax.

Graham Mann, who launched the Nova Scotia-based sailing program Sail All in 2013 (currently on hiatus due to COVID), believes it’s important to open up the world of sailing to as many people as possible for all the benefits it brings to peoples’ lives.

“It’s a sport that can only be enjoyed in specific parts of the world, and we’re lucky enough to live in one of those spots,” Mann says. “Much of Nova Scotia’s history is tied to the ocean, and it’s special when current Nova Scotians can share in that history. It’s been a source of pride for many years, from the Bluenose to recent Olympians, and the more people that can enjoy it, the better.”

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