From City Streets to Forest Floors
Fabrice Vil reflects on the right to access nature, the multitude of barriers that exist for many people of colour, and on what we gain in the contemplation of a sparkling lake.
Text — Fabrice Vil
This is part of the Dossier Black Lives, Green Spaces.
Many of us long to build a stronger connection with nature. To have calm moments far from technology and the concrete of the city for our physical and mental health. To breathe in the scent of fresh earth, to listen to the sound of the trees, and to gaze at the light of the stars.
But nature and digital detoxing aren’t often a part of the wellness regimes of people confined to urban spaces. Many don’t have the luxury of harvesting fruit for little to no pay, or escaping for a lakefront vacation.
The reality is that significant barriers block access to Québec’s green spaces along lines drawn by socio-economic inequalities, histories of immigration, and the racially homogeneous cultural representations of outdoor recreation. Members of Black communities, like myself, are among those most commonly excluded.
This contrasts sharply with the close relationships that people of African descent have traditionally had with nature. My own family’s history is a clear example.
My uncle Francklin Armand, the founding brother of the congregation Les Petits Frères de l’Incarnation in Haiti, spent his life among farmers. He helped construct dozens of hill lakes across the country. These lakes are used for fish farming and irrigation of waterfront agricultural lands — a way of feeding local communities and contributing to their economic vitality.
My father grew up on a farm in Ganthier in Haiti, and my mother has often told me of her adventures at Bassin Zim when she was young: its magnificent waterfalls characteristic of the beautiful landscapes of the Pearl of the Antilles.
My parents arrived in Québec before I was born and never developed the habit of taking family trips off the Island of Montréal. It wasn’t poverty that stopped them, but because their financial resources were mainly invested in their children’s education, there wasn’t much to spare for extras.
Throughout my childhood, my friends told me about their cottages and the trips they took. Such things were unnecessary in my parents’ opinion: the essentials came down to a roof overhead, food to eat, and education (and sports, too, as long as we kept up our good grades).
The richness of nature is well-known in Haiti, but this legacy didn’t extend to my family’s life in Québec. As immigrants, the preoccupation with survival took precedence.
Let’s not forget, either, the reality that the ski hill is just not an important place for a Haitian immigrant. The inaccessibility of outdoor activities is also related to the fact that they are often completely foreign. To my parents, who loved the heat, the garden, the park or beach, the idea of putting on skis and hurtling down a mountain in the bitter cold belonged to the realm of science fiction.
Exclusion derives in large part from the limits imposed by the collective imagination, by the representation of what is possible for each person. Of course people of colour are involved in outdoor activities, but this basic truth is obscured in the images that tend to be presented in the media, entertainment, and advertising. The appearance of absence limits inclusion.
In 2018 David Labistour, then the chief executive officer at Mountain Equipment Co-op, wrote: “Do white people dominate the outdoors? […] If you think about all the ads for skiing, hiking, climbing, and camping, you will likely believe this is the case. And yet — it’s completely false, and the question is part of a much greater problem. White athletes still have the leading roles in ads; the actual and growing diversity of people involved in outdoor activities is not reflected in the images we produce and broadcast.”
I’ve known about the existence of the Lac Simon summer camp since I was 11. The camp was founded by Jesuits from my school and was offered free of charge to boys who live in Pointe-Saint-Charles — a work of extraordinary charity in the service of children’s healthy development. I knew the camp directors well and had the opportunity to work there myself from the time I was 16, but I resisted because I had an aversion to mosquitoes. I thought I wouldn’t be able to tough it out for two weeks.
In 2004, when I was 21, a friend convinced me to give the camp a try, suspecting that I would take to it. He was right: the connection with the kids delighted me, of course, but mostly I fell in love with the simplicity of my tent, the fresh air after a storm, the crackle of a fire, the sparkle of sun on the lake. On my last night as a camp counsellor, in 2006, I wept because this incredible adventure was coming to an end. Nature had gained a fan for life; I recognized it as a space of healing and emancipation.
When I’m hiking, or on the ski hill, or beside a lake, my Black body feels isolated at times. My eyes actively, subtly seek out others whose skin has a higher level of melanin. And when our gazes happen to meet, we nod simultaneously, imperceptibly. As though to say, “I see you.”
Photo: Alain Wong
These random encounters need to be anchored in something lasting. The presence of Black or other marginalized communities in outdoor spaces should be systematically supported through actions, programs, and public policy. With this firm belief, I founded the organization Pour 3 Points, which offers training for sports coaches geared toward supporting the development of young people’s potential, particularly in underprivileged areas. The coaches and the youth helped by our work are nearly all from immigrant and racialized communities.
Since 2015 we’ve been kicking off each training cohort with a retreat in nature, knowing that this context allows for a greater connection to self, to others, and to the environment.
I believe that when we have some distance from the artifice of the city, human beings get closer to our fundamental needs and have easier access to an awareness that’s essential to life.
The place we chose for our first nature immersion was none other than the site of the Lac Simon summer camp — the same place where, nearly 20 years ago, I was scared of mosquito bites. It didn’t disappoint: the retreat turned out to be rich in discoveries for all the coaches and members of our team, discoveries that an urban environment couldn’t possibly have offered. Our games of Mafia around the fire were worth far more than all the wifi we were deprived of there.
The experience was initiatory for several of the coaches who, like me, hadn’t had regular access to nature in their childhood. It’s a winning formula every time: the distance from the city offers new lessons to the initiates and allows them to grasp a little more deeply the possibilities offered up throughout Québec (and beyond).
Each coach who dips a toe in a Québec lake enriches their own experience: they become more likely to widen their outlook and to explore how the young people they work with might have access to similar opportunities. A multiplier effect with a great deal of potential.
This year our coaches’ retreat will take place at the Quatre-Saisons camp. Vincent Normandeau, the director general of the organization, has shared his desire to make the camp more accessible to a greater number of youth of colour.
We all have a role to play in building this accessibility. A relaxing weekend — banal for some of us — can become absolutely fundamental in the development of a young person in search of identity and freedom. By lowering the barriers to nature for everyone, we come nearer, together, to the emancipation it offers.
Fabrice Vil is a certified integral wellness coach, a lawyer, and a former basketball trainer. In 2011 he founded Pour 3 Points, an organization that trains sports coaches to play the role of life coach for youth in underprivileged areas. Equal opportunities is a matter Vil is passionate about, and he regularly speaks out about this issue, notably as a columnist, lecturer, and facilitator of company workshops. His hope is that people become curious about the invisible violence they participate in, and that they respond with kindness toward themselves and others.