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Why I am often the only black person hiking the trails?

Who among us wasn't moved to joy at the images of newly arrived Syrian refugee children enjoying the great Canadian winter pastime of tobogganing on snowy hills in Peterborough, Ont.? This quintessentially Canadian childhood experience is held fondly in the memories of so many of us, and it will be for these Syrian kids.

And for those families who will make Canada home, we hope they will come to know and love this vast country. But how best to learn about a new place? Building relationships with its people is vital, but so is creating a connection with the land.

Over the years, as I have cleared mud from my trail shoes at the end of a great adventure in the woods of Toronto's Rouge Valley, I have wondered why I am often the only black person out on the trails.

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I've been hiking in the Rouge for more than 15 years, and this is the sad truth: I have encountered so few black people. Something significant is lost when people pass on the opportunity to explore our natural spaces.

Being out in nature invigorates the spirit, but there is another dimension. In exploring natural spaces, one can uncover the unexpected benefit of a deeper understanding of what it can mean to live in Canada. The vast, diverse and beautiful geographic landscape of Canada is iconic, and if there is a cultural and historical mythology in Canada, it can surely be found in our home and native land.

Seeing iconic Canadian landscapes in person makes the idea of living in Canada relatable, explaining, in part, why 36 million of us accept a climate that so often feels unacceptable.

All of the natural landscapes I have seen have worked their way into my marrow. When I have been away from the trails for too long, desk-bound and working on administrative tasks, there is a buoyancy in my spirit that is missing.

But, still, it remains that I want – even need – to be in these spaces.

There are many ideas and theories as to why black folks (and other racialized people) do not participate in outdoor recreation at levels seen in white populations. Be it cultural differences, economics, lack of tradition – even just a feeling of not belonging outside, or a "we don't do that" mindset – the issue is no doubt a complex one.

A good place to start is with an invitation – moving beyond the jargon of increasing diversity, and relentlessly pursuing inclusion.

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If you hike or camp regularly, invite someone you suspect has never tried it to come along. The goal isn't to turn anyone into Bear Grylls, but simply to plant the seed of exposure.

Creating inclusion requires that we examine what it means to be in relationship to our park space. Everything from who the staff are in these parks, to what stories we tell about the land in these parks, will affect the experience of a person new to park space. The essential question is: Will they want to return?

If racialized people always feel like the outsider in our park spaces, then any relationship to that land will be conflicted and remote at best. It is essential that the experience be one that says: Yes, you belong here.

I certainly won't pretend that will be easy, or that I even have the answers as to how that can be accomplished, but it is important that we are having the right conversation. So, come on outside. The trails are waiting.

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