In November 2018, Canadian outdoor recreation giant Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) sent ripples through the community of “outdoorsy” folks in Canada with a statement framed around the following provocative question: “Do White People Dominate the Outdoors?” The statement was a response to an Instagram callout from Judith Kasiama (see Figure 1), in which Kasiama pointed out “a narrative that [Black and Indigenous peoples and people of colour] don’t enjoy the outdoor[s] compare[d] to their white friends.” In its statement, MEC took responsibility for its role “in underrepresenting people of colour in the outdoors,” and promised “that moving forward, [MEC] will make sure [they’re] inspiring and representing the diverse community that already exists in the outdoors” (see Figures 2 & 3 below).
In this analysis, we draw on the work of Sara Ahmed to analyze MEC’s announcement, and gesture toward the broader constellation of diversity practices evident in (social) media produced by MEC. Specifically, we take up Ahmed’s ideas about how “diversity work” works. Ahmed suggests that in doing diversity work such as forming equity committees or issuing diversity statements, organizations often reproduce dominant forms of power. She highlights, for example, that diversity statements by organizations are often seen as a “diversity success,” and further work to actually address racism or sexism, for example, does not get done. It is with this in mind that we analyze the kind of work MEC undertakes, and how it serves to erase a key issue in outdoor recreation: settler colonialism.
Settler colonialism is the term used to describe the process by which Europeans colonized the lands now claimed by Canada, despite the presence of hundreds of nations of Indigenous peoples with millennia-long histories and sophisticated systems of government, education, trade, and more. Through a variety of means, European (and later Canadian) authorities claimed these lands as their own and asserted authority over them. Making (and breaking) treaties, state-sanctioned processes confining Indigenous peoples to small parcels of land, and policies and practices aimed at severing Indigenous peoples’ connections to their land are all part of the story of how Canada came to be as a nation, and a key part of the story of how the “great Canadian outdoors” came to be understood.
MEC should be considered in light of this history. Founded as a cooperative by a group of climbers and mountaineers in 1971, MEC aimed to address a gap in the outdoor retail market in Canada, providing gear for outdoor adventure activities. Over almost half a century, MEC has grown exponentially, now boasting almost 5 million Canadian members (in a country of approximately 31 million people aged 15 years and over), 13 million products sold, and $462 million in sales. Named one of Canada’s most trusted brands, MEC is clearly a goliath in the Canadian retail environment.
In their statement, MEC claims that white dominance of the outdoors “isn’t true at all, and [is] part of a bigger problem” (see Figure 2). Further, they note: “We can’t move forward until we acknowledge our past” (see Figure 3). In these statements, MEC acknowledges a past (the company’s past going back to 1971), to name the past that needs acknowledging, to move past acknowledging other (for example, settler colonial) pasts. MEC names the “bigger problem,” and what it means to move forward: better representing the “diversity that exists and continues to grow in outdoor spaces.” In so doing, MEC positions its response as the solution to the problem – it lets itself off the hook as the problem. Further, MEC’s apology is one that homogenizes. In their particular invocation of “everyone,” MEC not only erases Indigenous peoples, communities, and histories, but constructs “everyone” as having the same access to land. To “outside.”
In drawing attention to the “bigger problem” of representation, MEC sidesteps bigger, more enduring problems—problems with longer pasts that MEC seeks to move past. For our purposes here, the most important past (and present!) that is erased in this apology is that of settler colonialism. European settlers came to these lands – lands already occupied by hundreds of nations with sophisticated systems of government, worldviews, kinship, education, and more – and treated the lands as empty, as wild, as available for claiming. The nation now known as Canada, in other words, arose out of concerted efforts to dispossess those already here of their land base. The nation now known as Canada claimed these lands as its own. The nation now known as Canada continues to assume and assert authority over Indigenous peoples in numerous ways, including treaties that have repeatedly been violated; policies and practices (such as the pass system of the late 1800s and early 1900s) aimed at restricting the movements of Indigenous peoples; genocidal government policy (e.g., residential schools and refusal to support clean water infrastructure); and “consultation” processes that have routinely neglected free, prior, and informed consent (for which the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Peoples calls).
MEC’s letter locates wrongdoing neatly in the past. But the colonial settler past that MEC fails to acknowledge is one that haunts the present, that continues to be (re)written in government policy, in disagreements over land claims and resource development projects, and more. MEC’s apology sidesteps the questions of land dispossession and settler colonial violence altogether; this particular silence speaks volumes…in saying nothing, it says a great deal. It erases both a past and a present, both of which would call for something much more than simply better representing the “diversity that exists and continues to grow in outdoor spaces”. As such, MEC’s statement takes as its unquestioned starting point that “the outdoors” is and should be a playground available to all “Canadians.”
Finally, MEC’s letter frames the “problem” as simply one of representation – the disjuncture between the “reality” of diverse bodies in the backcountry and the white bodies that have historically peopled their catalogue and website. What MEC invokes is the idea from which the Canadian nation state gets so much mileage – that “we” are a hardy, outdoorsy people, that experiences with “wild places” are the very foundation of our so-called nation. That it is what unites us. But our histories – and our present – shatter the rosy idea that on these lands, “outside is for everyone.”
In a country in which we often celebrate outdoor spaces and our relationship to them, MEC is central to how many of us think of ourselves as Canadians. As important as their statement is, it is important that we think critically about it – and outdoor recreation more broadly – and ask ourselves which histories and ideas are being brought to light, and which are being left in the shadows. This is particularly important at a moment when “truth” and “reconciliation” are, in principle at least, on the centre stage.
Tiffany Higham is a queer, white, non-binary scholar and settler on Blackfoot land. They are an undergraduate student of Kinesiology and Sociology at the University of Lethbridge.
Jason Laurendeau is a white, cis, settler scholar in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge, in Lethbridge, AB, located on lands of the Siksikaitsitapii people, who are part of the Blackfoot Confederacy. His research interests lie at the intersections of sport and physical culture, gender, settler colonialism, and childhood. Find him on Twitter: @JasonLaurendeau.
Danielle Peers is a white, queer, non-binary, crip scholar. They are a treaty six settler and Tier II Canada Research Chair in Disability and Movement Cultures as the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, University of Alberta.