Get your oars wet

The out­door in­dus­try is pri­mar­ily white. Alexi Ro­driguez wants to change that.

The Coast - - DO - BY VIC­TO­RIA WAL­TON

Dif­fer­ent Strokes Pad­dle Pro­gram launched in HRM in late June with the goal of get­ting more di­verse peo­ple into kayaks and out en­joy­ing na­ture. Founder Alexi Ro­driguez is of­fer­ing free one-hour lessons to BIPOC folks who are in­ter­ested in learn­ing how to kayak or im­prov­ing the skills they al­ready have.

When Ro­driguez took the Out­door Ad­ven­ture pro­gram at Al­go­nquin Col­lege, he was one of few peo­ple of colour in the class.

“Once I got into that space I re­al­ized it was a very white space, just like most other places. But there’s no rea­son why it should be when it’s some­thing that’s sup­posed to be ac­ces­si­ble for ev­ery­body,” he tells The Coast.

Since start­ing Dif­fer­ent Strokes last month, Ro­driguez has al­ready done al­most a dozen lessons at pop­u­lar lakes like Long Lake, Kear­ney Lake and Lake Banook.

“As soon as I re­al­ized how help­ful out­door ad­ven­ture is in my life, and how many skills I’ve ac­quired that help me, right away I con­nected that to want­ing to help other peo­ple,” he says. “It’s such a beau­ti­ful way to spend time and get out frus­tra­tions and stress.”

Ro­driguez started a GoFundMe in June to raise money for new kayaks for the pro­gram, and has al­ready raised over $7,500. Lessons are for all lev­els, whether you have never kayaked be­fore or al­ready know your way around the wa­ter. Fol­low up lessons (and lessons for non-POC) are $40 an hour.

“If peo­ple al­ready have ex­pe­ri­ence then we can skip over some of the ba­sics, just en­joy some time pad­dling and work on some kind of finer skills,” Ro­driguez says.

The kayak in­struc­tor says he wants to change the idea that kayak­ing isn’t for peo­ple of colour. “I think a big part of it is per­cep­tion. Our so­ci­ety kind of frames things so that recreation, recre­ational ac­tiv­ity is seen as like a priv­i­leged, white ac­tiv­ity,” he says. “If you can’t see some­body that looks like you do­ing some­thing, it’s kind of hard to re­late. And that’s kind of what I’m try­ing to tackle.”

Grow­ing up, there weren’t many peo­ple of colour to look up to in the out­door in­dus­try. “I never saw any­body like me do­ing stuff that I’m into now, whether it’s white wa­ter kayak­ing or snow­board­ing or moun­tain bik­ing, any time I watch those videos, nine times out of 10 it’s a white per­son do­ing it,” he says.

The racism that per­me­ates out­door ac­tiv­i­ties like surf­ing, hik­ing, or even golf isn't al­ways overt. The kayak in­struc­tor says the rea­sons they are so over­whelm­ingly white are sub­tle.

“It’s not like these com­pa­nies, the kayak com­pany or bike com­pany or what­ever, is putting out com­mer­cials say­ing 'this is for white peo­ple, you need to come',” he says. “But it’s mostly white peo­ple in ad­ver­tis­ing, it’s mostly white peo­ple who buy the prod­ucts, it’s usu­ally ex­pen­sive prod­ucts so fi­nances do be­come a bar­rier.”

On top of op­er­at­ing Dif­fer­ent Strokes, Ro­driguez also runs a sea kayak­ing busi­ness out of Inverness, MacKin­non Kayak Tours. He’s look­ing for more in­struc­tors for Dif­fer­ent Strokes so he can keep it run­ning while he’s split be­tween two jobs.

“The point is to pro­vide eq­uity to peo­ple of colour so that they have new job skills as well as an em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­nity through the pro­gram,” says Ro­driguez. “But also so that if I’m in Cape Bre­ton or I’m trav­el­ling or what­ever, the pro­gram’s able to keep run­ning whether I’m here or not.”

As the pro­gram ex­pands, Ro­driguez wants to in­clude other wa­ter sports like pad­dle board­ing and ca­noe­ing. “In the fu­ture, I re­ally hope that I’m help­ing peo­ple of colour and even­tu­ally all kinds of dif­fer­ent marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties get out­side, start­ing off with wa­ter sports, ’cause those are the tools and the ex­per­tise I have at my dis­posal,” he says.

But he also wants to en­sure peo­ple of colour can dis­cover var­i­ous op­por­tu­ni­ties in all ar­eas of the out­door recreation in­dus­try. “Even­tu­ally I’d like to open it up to hik­ing, camp­ing, ski, snow­board­ing, moun­tain bik­ing, all that stuff,” he says.

Alexi Ro­driguez emerges from the wa­ter after a pad­dle ses­sion. HEATHER STILLWELL

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