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New Canadians have magical day at Pass Powderkeg

Thursday, 10 January 2019. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

New Canadians have magical day at Pass Powderkeg
“I’ve been absolutely amazed every minute this program has happened,” says Katherine Seleski, Pass Powderkeg operations manager and co-organizer of a Dec. 8 ski day for new Canadians. “Once they’re able to get that first turn and realize they’re OK and they’re in this beautiful place, that smile is so good.”   Photos by Sally Ann Taylor

New Canadians have magical day at Pass Powderkeg

By Jess Harrington

Moving to a new country is an experience fraught with challenge. Every day, immigrants must navigate languages, customs and even climates that may be entirely new to them — and possibly scary. Winter in Canada, for example, can be intimidating if you’ve never even seen snow before.

But with the help of a new program at Pass Powderkeg Ski Area, a group of new southern Albertans are not only getting used to their northern home, but are learning to love and feel a part of it.

In December, Pass Powderkeg, in partnership with Lethbridge Family Services’ immigrant services department, brought recent immigrant families to the hill for free ski lessons.

Drawing inspiration from WinSport’s large newcomer ski program at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, early last year the Powderkeg board, largely at the urging of Marty Neumeier, who chairs the group, decided to seek funding for its own program for immigrants.

Knowing they needed to partner with an organization that could help draw participants in, the board reached out to LFS. Together, the two groups applied for a grant through Makadiff Sports, an Alberta charity that works to encourage the development of amateur sports in the province by removing barriers to access.

In the spring of 2018, the partnership secured their grant, and Powderkeg and LFS teams got to work, developing the program through the summer and fall.

Finally, on Dec. 8, the first day of lessons arrived. It was a big, exciting affair.

“That first day we brought out approximately 75 [people],” says Katherine Seleski, Pass Powderkeg operations manager. “We had kids as young as three on snow, up to people in their 70s, and families from all over — Europe, Syria, Nigeria. There were so many smiles and so many people. There was so much energy.”

“The enthusiasm of the guests was unbelievable,” agrees ski instructor Michael Duarte-Pedrosa. “Watching them get it and respond to that accomplishment was amazing. The happy factor that day — it was very magical.”

“It was just one of those happy, happy moments — a dream event,”  adds Najib Mangal, manager of LFS’ Community Connections volunteer program, which works to provide newcomers with opportunities to attend community events.

The day’s joy was made even richer by the tremendous support the program has received from the southwest community — without which, it could not succeed.

At regular capacity, Pass Powderkeg does not have enough instructors or equipment available to teach that many new skiers at one time. But, Alpenland and other businesses in Lethbridge and throughout southern Alberta donated dozens of goggles, helmets, toques, mitts, jackets and pants to outfit the crews at the start of the season.

Pass Powderkeg has also been able to draw on a large pool of volunteer and junior instructors to help teach, which means participants receive more comfortable and intimate small-group instruction.

“We’ve had just a great outpouring of support from our community,” says Katherine gratefully. “And I have to thank my incredible staff for the work they put into this, too. It’s a big endeavour.”

Najib says programs like these are not only fun for immigrant families, but also important to their integration process.

“To settle into a community, it’s not just about learning the language and the bus routes,” he explains. “You need to learn social and cultural norms, and being part of holidays and celebrations helps you grow in that community.”

“To produce new Canadians they have to do Canadian things,” he says, adding it’s especially important for immigrants to be active in winter. “For some cultures coming from the Middle East and Africa, snow is very new, and snow means hibernation.”

Hibernation can lead to feelings of isolation, which may raise the chance of the immigration not sticking.

Najib says events that connect immigrants with their communities help the other members of that community too.

Programs like this “are not just about newcomers learning from Canadians, but it’s Canadians learning what these people bring with them.”

Katherine confirms the program has made an impact on her and her instructors, especially the young ones. Among the many volunteers, a contingent of teenage apprentices from the Livingstone School Ski Academy helped instruct on Dec. 8.

“I think it did for a lot of them because when you’re 15, well, you’re 15,” she says with a laugh. “This gave them that realization that there’s more to the world than where they are, and more to experience.”

While organizers were motivated by a desire to help others above all else, Katherine does hope this program will help raise the profile of Pass Powderkeg, which is in the process of rebranding and revitalizing after falling into a period of underuse in the early 2000s, and working to recoup a significant deficit.

“For us, it’s about that feeling of teaching someone something you love,” she says. “But it does help showcase that we are here as a community piece.”

Pass Powderkeg’s mandate, she says, “is to provide affordable recreation for families in southern Alberta, and our focus right now is how many beginners we can bring in, and then retention.”

“Ski industry-wide, only 18.3 per cent of people who take a beginner lesson come back,” she adds. “But people start identifying themselves as skiers about their fourth time. So [our goal is] to get them to that fourth time as fast as possible and keep it affordable.”

To this end, Pass Powerkeg offers a couple of new beginner programs, including Learn to Turn, which provides exactly four beginner lessons for a discounted price. You can learn more at www.passpowderkeg.com.

In addition to the first big lesson on Dec. 8, about 50 new Canadians returned a week later for a second set of lessons, and organizers hope to get the group out another couple of times before the season ends. Then, it will be time to share their results.

If organizers can prove their program was worthwhile, Makadiff Sports will pledge more money next year — something everyone is eager to see happen.

“The hope is to continue this on, because you can see the value in it,” says Katherine. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you’re new we want to make sure you’re welcome and brought into Canadian society, and skiing is such a big part of that.”

“The amount of thanks I’ve received from [the participants] is enormous,” adds Najib.

“We actually have more people come to us asking, ‘Are you going to have another ski trip like that?’ I hope we do this again and again.”


New Crowsnest Pass resident Bahzad Abdo practises his “pizza” stop while instructor Kat Williams looks on.


Youth instructor Regan Kuzyk is ready to catch Seli Masini, who happily hurtles down the hill.