Learning to love winter: Wostawea teaches newcomers how to ski

(Cassidy Chisholm/AQ)

A young Egyptian girl named Susan is just getting used to Canadian winters, but she is learning to love the season with the help of the Wostawea Learn to Ski Outreach program.

Equipped with 30 sets of skis, poles and boots, the Wostawea Ski Club has been partnering with the Multicultural Association of Fredericton to teach newcomers how to cross-country ski.

“[There’s] a lot of fun things to do [in Canada] and there is snow,” Susan said. “In my country, we don’t have snow [because] it’s really hot.”

Her favourite part of learning to ski is sliding down the hills.

Susan is a young girl from Egypt and she has been in Canada for almost two years. (Caitlin Dutt/AQ)

The past four Saturdays, Wostawea president and University of New Brunswick professor John Ball has been teaching people from across the world how to ski alongside other coaches and volunteers at Killarney Lake Lodge. He believes everyone should appreciate winter, even if they’re not used to it.

“It seemed like a great fit, because as we all know, we’ve had quite an influx of refugees, especially from Syria, so it just seemed like it would be a natural fit to help people learn to love winter, rather than just putting up with winter,” he said.

Ball approached MCAF back in September with the help of Mary Luiker and Barb Ramsay, organizers of the initiative.

John Ball is the president of the Wostawea Ski Club and he has been teaching newcomers how to ski the past four Saturdays. (Caitlin Dutt/AQ)

“Wostawea is a Mi’kmaq word for ‘snowy-covered’ so we think it’s really appropriate that we reach out to other groups that might not normally embrace winter,” Ramsay said.

After hosting a display at MCAF as a part of a health and wellness event, the group had 96 interested participants which included families of five or six.

“That’s been one of the exciting things about the project because cross-country skiing is an all-ages sport,” Ball said. “It’s a sport that families can do together, which is different.”

One of the instructors, Robert Morimanno, volunteered to help teach the newcomers when the initiative first began.

People of all ages have taken advantage of the program and the children have really taken to the sport. (Caitlin Dutt/AQ)

“When Barb turned around and said, ‘O.K., we need folks to coach,’ I raised my hand [because] I’m already a certified instructor and I think it’s such a beautiful program,” he said. “It’s about one community welcoming another community.”

The majority of the people who’ve attended the training sessions have been from countries where they don’t ever see snow, like the Ivory Coast, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia.

The goal of the program is to teach people who may not be used to the winter weather, that despite the cold, the season can still be enjoyable. And trying something new never hurts.

“I’m sure for the Syrians and the other refugees, [a different kind of environment is] what attracts them. [And to] just try a different activity might help them feel more Canadian, help them feel more like they can enjoy and appreciate winter,” Ball said.

The group warmed up to music together before heading out onto the trails. (Caitlin Dutt/AQ)

The time outdoors and on the trails has been enjoyable for many of the newcomers including Marzi, a woman from Iran, who has lived in Canada for two-and-a-half years.

“This is the third [Saturday] I’ve been [to the Learn to Ski program], and I like it. I saw many good teachers here that take care of [us] and [teach us] many things about skiing,” she said.

Ramsay is encouraged by seeing the participants improve each week.

“There’s nonstop smiles, nonstop laughter. [The participants] would come the second week and say, ‘Wow, today I only fell 15 times, but last week I fell 45 times,’ and what’s really amazing is that these would be individuals who have never experienced winter before, [and they] might not be embracing it but now they’re coming here, they’re excited, they’re enthusiastic and they’re developing a love for winter.”

After a long afternoon of cross-country skiing, participants felt that they had improved over the four Saturdays. (Caitlin Dutt/AQ)

The group at the Wostawea Ski Club hopes to have a similar initiative next year, but it depends on if they get more volunteers.

“This program has been successful enough that we’d like to do it next year, and I’m pretty sure we will, it’s really a matter of having enough coaches,” Ball said. “We’re always looking for ways to increase our stable of qualified coaches. With this in mind, I think we’ll be making another effort toward that again for next season and I’d like to see us do it again.”