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February 25, 2022

PaRx People: A Conversation with Jacqueline Scott

Jacqueline L. Scott is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, OISE, in the department of Social Justice Education, and a 2022 fellow at the Safina Center. Her research is on the perception of the wilderness in the Black imagination—in other words, how to make the outdoors a more welcoming and inviting space for Black people.

Jacqueline is a hike and bike leader with two outdoors clubs, volunteers as a land steward, and leads Black History Walks in Toronto. A highly sought-after speaker, writer and expert on the experiences of Black people in traditionally white outdoor spaces, she has written for many publications including Spacing, The Conversation, and Network in Canadian History and Environment.

PaRx Director Dr. Melissa Lem sat down with Jacqueline to learn more about her personal journey to becoming a scholar and lover of nature, the untold history of Black people outdoors in Canada, the importance of representation in ensuring equitable access to green spaces, and how health professionals and outdoor organizations can meaningfully reduce barriers to nature access.

Can you tell me about your childhood, early experiences and education, and how they led to your career choices and work today?

I was born in Jamaica, and grew up in the country there, a small village. Nature wasn't something that was out there, far away—nature surrounded you. And even though it was a coastal village, we didn't go to the sea very often. My grandma used to tell us there's no trees in the sea, because when you go to the sea, that's where people drown. But I walked by the sea on my way to school every day.

Jacqueline in her primary school uniform in Jamaica. Photo supplied.

I'm of the generation in England that’s called the Windrush generation. There was a massive post-World War II migration to Britain of people from the Caribbean who were British subjects, who went to England to rebuild the country. And typically the parents would go first, and once they got settled they would send for the children. So I was nine and a half when I ended up in England.

I was always a very bookish child—find a book and you would find me. If it wasn't in a book, it really did not have much of my interest at all. But I also grew up in rural England, and so nature was all around me. My bedroom window looked out at a farmer's field with wheat, and my little sister and I used to go up to another farm. It had a barn with a pig and sheep and ducks, and we learned that the thing with a ring through its nose was called a bull—and it’s not a very good idea to try and get close to the bull.

I have really good memories of my sister and I doing long bike rides along the rural country roads and never being concerned about safety, even though we didn't know where we were going. The plan was follow a road straight, and when you're tired, turn around and come back the same way. And our parents never had to worry, because when you are the only Black kids in the village, you tend to stand out—even when we moved to a larger town. As a teenager, before I got home, my parents would know where I went, who I spoke to, what I spent and how much change I got (laughs).

When I came to Canada in my mid-twenties I lived in the suburbs for a year, and was bored absolutely stupid. But one day I was downtown at Harbourfront—just one of my favourite places—and saw a sign for a group that was doing a canoe trip to the French River. I had no interest in nature, no interest in canoeing—again, I was the kid with the book, and the young adult with the book—but because I had nothing else to do, and I was so bored, I signed up. And once we went, something just clicked in my soul, and that was it. And then from there, virtually every weekend, I was on a canoeing or kayaking or skiing or you-name-it trip—I was on the trip.

Jacqueline enjoying one of her first hikes in Canada to Temagami, Ontario. Photo supplied.

I remember being astonished at the Canadian countryside. In England, when you hear about teddy bears, it’s teddy bears having a picnic. And in Canada, it's like, wait a minute, they’re not teddy bears, they’re real! Growing up, there were very few wild spaces in England. The countryside was manufactured, in that the hands of humans are everywhere. Even though we went to a little place called Epping Forest, by Canadian standards it's the equivalent of going through a large city park.

When you’re in Canadian wilderness it has a different beauty. And so for me the wilderness here just clicked something else. It's like, wow, this is where your imagination can run free.  It's a place where I feel at home. Like, I feel part of my best self is when I'm in the woods, because nature is calming. Wherever my head is, a walk just brings it right down.

I've had too many different careers, but nature has been a consistent part of my life, as in every weekend. For a long time, me and my kids would go camping, canoeing, kayaking, snowboarding, skiing—you name it, we just went. At this stage we have been to every Ontario Park that’s within a three- or four-hour driving distance. I also belong to a couple of outdoor clubs, and I lead hikes and bike rides for them.

My midlife crisis was to go back to school to do my PhD. In all my time doing outdoor recreation, I was usually the only Black person. And I'm used to my family saying, well you march to your own drummer anyway, but I thought, if I'm going to do a PhD, I need to find out why. It cannot be just a personal response. There has to be something else that's happening, why that occurs. And so, my PhD was a little bit of an oddball topic, and didn't quite easily fit into many academic spaces. It’s like, you're studying what, like people hiking, camping or canoeing or skiing? But what I realized is that I am using outdoor recreation to actually look at the Black relationship to nature, and also the Black relationship to Canada.

My research really took off when George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed. And when Christian Cooper, the Black expert bird watcher in Central Park, where even in nature, doing bird watching in a free space, was still under the threat that somebody could call the police—and if the police had arrived, how would it have ended?

Nature is marketed as free for everybody, and good for everybody. But if you're Black, those things don't work out necessarily in the same way at all.

Jacqueline taking a cycling break on the Bartley Smith Greenway Trail in Toronto. Photo supplied.

You’ve written about missing Black faces in advertising and historical depictions of outdoor adventurers. Could you tell us more about some of these early Black trailblazers and why it’s important for us to see more diverse representation?

A part of my thesis I was working on earlier today was looking at Black people in the winter. When you hear comments like, Oh, isn't this weather cold enough for you, these are really coded conversations around race, but without mentioning race.

But in the Arctic you have people like Matthew Henson, who in 1909 was the first Black explorer at the North Pole. People know more about Commodore Peary, the White guy leading the expedition, but Matthew Henson and 39 Inuit people actually made the exploration successful.

When we think of Harriet Tubman, we think of her as a freedom fighter, the one leading people to freedom here. But in order for her to do that she had to have incredible outdoor skills.

Runaway slaves would leave in the winter, i.e. it’s dark, so you have shorter days, but you're moving at night. Think of the incredible skills that took on her multiple journeys, on different routes, when she knows that there's a price tag on her head. But she could not have done those treks if she did not have the outdoor skills to be able to read the land and figure out where to go next. And we can claim Harriet Tubman as a Canadian hero because she lived in St. Catharine's for 20 years. And her church is one of the national historic sites of Canada.

And then you have people like John Ware in Alberta, one of the first Black cowboys in Canada. When we think of cowboys, we don't think of Black people—but this is part of the Canadian tradition of erasing Black people from history. Half of the first cowboys were Black, and part of their legacy is the Calgary Stampede. Black cowboys were the foundation of the ranching industry in Canada in the Prairies, so the skills that you see in the Calgary Stampede were the skills they would have used on the range in terms of controlling and moving the capital. They brought the beef to Canada.

When you see Black cowboys like, what's his name, Lil Nas X—I need my kids to keep me up to date—dressed as a cowboy, you shouldn’t think, oh that's just a music video. There's a long history of Black cowboys, but if you don't know the history, you don't see it.

Fifty per cent of cowboys in the US were Black, and they came up here because they were escaping a ton of racial violence in the US. And what did the Canadian Prime Minister do in 1911? He introduced a law saying no more could come in because he wasn't sure if the climate was suitable for them. We've been here since 1603, we're been right here as slaves. I think we’ve gotten used to the climate by now.

Jacqueline cycling to Barrie, Ontario to explore the history of the rural Oro Black community. Photo supplied.

These days because of the lockdowns I can’t travel the way that I would like to, and so I've discovered some brilliant day trips by GO Train and bicycle. Just put the bike on the GO Train, and go wherever it goes. I'm also driven by finding Black history, because I grew up in rural areas. For so much of my life I would hear, there is no Black history here at all. So part of what drives my day trips, my exploration, is to find the Black history in rural areas.

For example, if you're on the Bruce Trail near Hamilton, there's Griffin House right there in the Dundas Valley. It’s the original log house that was owned by a mixed-race family. He was Black, and escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad. He married a white woman, and they lived in the Dundas Valley in Hamilton as farmers. Now it’s a national historic site of Canada. I've been through the Dundas Valley hundreds of times, but it was by accident that I found out about the Black history that's there.

In conventional thinking Black people live in the cities, and rural areas in some ways are seen as the last bastion of the Real Canada. But Black history is there in places that you're not expecting. And unfortunately, so often, I discover it by accident, or because I like to read—I read history books the way people read novels sometimes—it's like, oh you mean that's there.

When I go to parks, I read every single historical plaque that I see. And I'm looking for whose stories are being told, and whose story is ignored. And it's the usual. Where's the Indigenous history? Usually not there. Where's the Black history? Non-existent.

I had a look at a recent Parks Canada guide to the National Parks of Canada, and could not find a single Black person in the 400 photographs. One of the guides is to the national historic sites of Canada, and there's not a single Black history site listed at all. And it continues that tradition of erasing Black history as foundational to Canada as a country.

People of colour are the majority, we are 55 per cent of the population. But when you look at the outdoor recreation sector, or the environmental sector, you do not see that reflected. When I think of one of the climate strike protests that I went on, it looked like the typical Toronto subway crowd, i.e. everybody with all the different accents, all the different skin tones, and it's like, oh, right, I'm in Toronto. But yet still when you look at the leadership of the climate crisis or environmentalism in general, it's that sea of white faces—that wall of whiteness.

Why did Christian Cooper have to be threatened, for it to spark a conversation about race outdoors? On social media you are seeing a lot more diversity. But part of what I'm interested in is not just a representation in terms of social media. When I show up in the parks, where are the staff that look like me? Where are the staff that reflect the diversity of Toronto? In the parks within a four-hour drive, it is people from Toronto who are the majority of visitors to those places. It's nice to have the pictures on Instagram and Twitter. But when you show up, who are you meeting on the ground?

Jacqueline leading a nature and Black history hike for Let’s Hike TO. Photo supplied.

You’re currently a PhD candidate at OISE at the University of Toronto, with interests in race and space, the Caribbean diaspora and Black Canadian feminism. Can you tell me about the focus of your dissertation, and any early interesting findings in your research?

My dissertation is called “The perception of the wilderness in the Black imagination.” And what I'm looking at is how you make outdoor recreation more welcoming for Black people. I'm going to be looking at skiing, hiking snowshoeing and camping, and the Black experience in those areas. I haven't collected my data yet because of COVID, so I'm actually hoping that this spring I'll get the go-ahead to do that.

The framework I'm looking at is in terms of the barriers to nature access that Black people face. The typical ones are the lack of representation, the lack of staffing in those spaces. And it's also about the cultural expectation that nature is a white space.

So when Black people show up it's like, oh, surprise, what are you doing here? And when we're seen as a surprise, it erases the hundreds of years of Black history in Canada—it sets up the idea that Black people are recent immigrants.

The history of slavery in Canada lasted 200 years, and all of that gets erased, so therefore Black history is then only seen in the context of the Underground Railroad. And when you only mention the trek to freedom, then you don't have to deal with slavery, and how its afterlife in Canada continues to shape Black life today.

How is access to nature a social justice issue? What additional barriers do people of colour face to getting outside?

One of my big bug bears right now is that so many citizen science projects are based on access to a backyard, whether it's the bug hunt, the butterfly count, bird watching or whatever—it's like, go into your backyard and look. But most people live in apartments, especially people of color. Where are they supposed to go?

And so it's a failure of citizen science to think through alternatives for people who live in apartments. How do we outreach to them and say, okay, go in your local park, schoolyard or wherever, find a tree and see what's there? So to me that’s a really good example of the inbuilt racial bias in the environmental field.

It also shows up in the distribution of trees in the city, that the tree distribution maps onto racial inequality. And again, trees are lovely; they clean the air and they're really nice to hang out under. But if you look at the Black, Brown and Indigenous areas in Toronto, they're the ones with fewer trees.

A park near downtown Toronto. Photo by Arpan Parikh on Pexels.

I live in Regent Park, and when I go up to Cabbagetown or Rosedale, the further north I go, the more trees and species of birds. And the more species of birds I see—I’m into bird watching—the more access I have to water, and the beautiful common benefits of nature. Whereas in Regent Park what I have access to is concrete, concrete and more concrete.

My research is on outdoor recreation, but as part of a bigger project it's about nearby nature, i.e. the nature that's within walking distance to you. And again, it's about the racial inequality there. For many Black people, nearby nature is the only nature you have access to. And all the research shows that if an area is bad for birds, and it doesn't have a lot of biological diversity, then it's also bad for humans as well. And so that's how access to nature becomes a social justice issue.

In the ravines in Toronto, prior to COVID, you saw very few Black people there. But because of COVID, now you're seeing huge numbers of Black people there, of South Asians, of Muslim families, of Iranians, Iraqis, Filipinos—you’re seeing a whole ton of us in there.

We have rediscovered how much we need nature, and how much we are part of it, and that is not going to go away anytime soon. And in the environmental sector, you have to think about how you embrace that and build on it.

My colleague and I did a report for Nature Canada, called Race and Nature in the City. And we interviewed a whole ton of youth from different racialized groups and asked them about their experiences in nature. And one of the things they said was that they want to go into the ravines, but when they go they don't go as individuals. They go as a huge family group of 20, 30, 40 people who actually want to have a picnic. And so you want picnic tables that you can move together, or areas clearly set up for that. For people who want to barbecue it's about having the barbecue pits there. You want washrooms. It's about changing some of the infrastructure to make those groups feel welcome.

There are many different ways of using the ravines depending on culture, but the current setup is pretty much a pass-through area for white people to run through, walk through, cycle through. And many racialized groups don't know they exist because many of the ravines do not have maps. The trails aren't marked, so basically you only know they're there if you know they're there.

A fort on a Toronto ravine trail. Photo by Jacqueline Scott.

I know the ravines because I belong to outdoor clubs, and I’ve spent so much time in them. If you had proper signage, if you had maps, if the trails were marked, all of those things are indicators that this is a safe place, and I'm actually meant to be here. But in Toronto right now, it's one of those hidden gems. And if it's a hidden gem, then it's the people in those neighbourhoods who are more likely to use it, and since so many ravines run through the white neighbourhoods—again, it’s that white access to nature.

How can healthcare professionals and nature-based organizations help reduce barriers for racialized people to access nature?

When I think of park prescriptions, it's like, okay, who is likely to use those? It's going to be white people. Because for Black people to use them, number one, you have to feel safe going to the park. You need to know that when you show up at a park, there's going to be people who look like you, or reflect diversity, that you’re not going to be the only Black one.

And those things are not in place. When many of the park organizations think of building alliances, it's with other nature-based organizations, i.e. other white organizations. But it should be about building alliances with social justice organizations to encourage people of colour to say, yeah, you're welcome here and you're okay here.

It could be something as simple as how many community health centers do mood walks. Buddy up with them on their mood walks, and while they’re doing them, you could say, oh by the way, did you see that bird over there? You're meeting people where they're at—you're creating a bridge between nature and social justice. So many organizations fail because they don't want to create a bridge, because it's work. But you have to build partnerships, you have to build relationships, you have to be comfortable talking about racism. But we're Canadians, and we’re the nice guys, and we don't like to talk about race at all.

From the research we have done, we need a community-based approach—when you have community people feel safe. If I'm in the woods and I'm not sure where I'm going, if I've got my community behind me, my posse, I'm okay.

If I'm going camping and I haven’t a clue how to put up a tent and I see people of colour on staff, I can go ask them without that feeling of, oh you really should know better. If I show up on a trip and I don't have all the right gear, or have just bought it but I really don't know how to use it, it makes a huge psychological difference, rather than thinking, oh, maybe I don't belong here.

Jacqueline skiing in Val-David-Val-Morin Regional Park in Quebec. Photo supplied.

Too many environmental organizations want a quick photo-op that looks really good on Instagram or Twitter. And so either you bring them in for a one-day, one-off event, or Black History Month or Asian Heritage Month or Indigenous History Month, and you take your photograph, and the rest of the time it's like, oh please disappear.

Whereas real change actually requires understanding the organization, building the partnerships, transferring resources to those organizations, hiring people on staff who look like the demographics of the country so that real changes are made. It's about putting the money into the hands of the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour organizations, not going through the white intermediaries, because it means that the funds are still controlled through white hands. And it's not true capacity building.

Can you recommend some Black, Indigenous and People of Colour nature-based organizations for people who want to learn more, and build these connections?

I run a blog that is building partnerships with grassroots organizations like Colour the Trails with Judith Kasiama out in BC, with Demiesha Dennis of Brown Girl Outdoor World in Toronto. There’s Black Canadian Hikers, there’s Diverse Hikers. It's doing the work to say these organizations are there. You have Flock Together that was started because of the racism in birding, and also to honour Christian Cooper.

You have all of these grassroots organization in the nature sector who are doing their own thing because they're tired of hitting the white wall, and they're no longer willing to wait. But because they're grassroots they don't have a lot of funding, so they're very precarious. So it's about the environmental sector saying, okay, let's transfer some of the wealth towards you guys, let's hire you guys. The report we did on Race and Nature in the city showed me that so many of the racialized youth had a really sophisticated understanding of the environment and the climate crisis. But they were still not interested in pursuing environmental careers because they said, well that's a white thing, we never see people like us talking about this.

And it's just a massive waste of talent, because they had real experience and insights, but they just felt the white wall was so hard that there was no way they were going to be able to get around it.

What are some of your favourite activities to do outdoors? I’ve read that you enjoy bird watching.

I love bird watching because it slows you down when you are hiking or cycling. You actually have to not just enjoy the activity, but pay attention to the environment. But do not do bird watching while you're cycling (laughs). You will crash. I have had to remind myself of that too many painful times.

Because there's so many bird species you never know what you're going to see, and they change depending on the time of the year. And when I see birds fly they make me feel free—because if the birds can fly then I can fly too.

I'm still learning birding, and one of the things that astonishes me is how many of the birds from the Caribbean are also Canadian birds, in the spring or fall migration. And so for me the bigger picture is that conserving birds only in Canada is only half the story. It's about conserving birds in the poorer countries as well, because it's the same bird.

A Red-tailed hawk in Ontario. Photo by Dev Leigh on Unsplash.

One of the birds I see in the city is the Red-tailed Hawk, and also the Cooper’s Hawk a lot. But I never thought I would see a pair of Red-tailed Hawks doing their courtship flight right in Regent Park. I've seen Peregrine falcons near City Hall, and again, it's like, wow I didn't expect to see them there.

Among other things, you’re also a writer. What motivates you to write, and how do you use the written word to inspire people to deepen their connection to nature?

What motivates me to write is two things. Well, three things. One, I like writing because if I want to figure out what I think about something, the easiest way for me to do it is to write it down.

Two, for me, when I write, I like when you’re able to combine that sense of adventure, nature and Black history. That makes me buzz as a writer, because it's a way of bringing up information that's hidden.

I was on a bike ride out in St. Jacobs, near a beautiful farmers’ market. And again, by accident, I found out that there's a historic Black graveyard not too far from there. St. Jacobs was the site of a massive Black settlement in the 1800s. But there's nothing that says, okay, if you want to do a day trip to St. Jacobs, go to the farmers market. And if you're interested in Black history, here are the Black history sites that are nearby. So again, it's the erasure of Black history from Canada.

Writing is also a way of taking the knowledge outside of the Academy, outside of the ivory towers, and making it accessible. It's trying to say these things matter. We need to be at the table. Black people—whether in the global south or here—we and Indigenous peoples are the ones who are most affected by the climate crisis, by environmental racism. But yet still, we're the ones who are not given the space to talk about our limitations dealing with those issues. So when I write, it’s bringing the spotlight onto those issues.

Black lives matter. Black voices matter in the environmental debate, in the climate crisis debate, in the conservation movement, in the outdoor recreation movement—they matter. And we're insisting: listen. Listen to us. We have things to say that are of value, we have experiences that are of value, and we're here. We need to be heard.

But bottom line, I like writing, I like reading, and I spend way too much time doing both.

What makes you such an effective advocate for the importance of including the Black voice in so many different environmental spaces?

To be honest, I don't know! (laughs) The first time I was invited to a conference by a conservation group, I was so surprised. I wrote them back and said, “I don't think you have the right person.” Because when I started my research, my focus was on outdoor recreation and the joys of hiking, and yeah, it was doing it while Black, but I didn't fully understand the impact of what I was trying to do. But now the work has been taken up in the environmental and conservation sectors.

Jacqueline tossing snow in Toronto. Photo supplied.

Listening to the CBC every day, that's my background music, or background noise. I have learned that to communicate effectively you have to tell stories in small batches, and you have to use language that's accessible. When you have some people go on and on and on, it’s like, no no no, you’ve lost your listener. But that's a skill I've had to learn, because it's not necessarily my natural style. Pretend you're on the radio. What's the story, what’s the point you’re trying to make?

And because the topic can be a heavy topic, it’s also about having a little bit of the joy. Because the Black joy—there is joy in spite of all the crap and the racism and everything else. There is a joy in showing up and saying, yeah, I'm here, I’m standing here, and yes I'm watching birds. And I have every right to be, and no, I'm not apologetic about it. And yes I'm taking up space and guess what, if I was six feet taller, I would take up even more space (laughs).

Finally, where are your favourite spots to spend time in nature?

There are a few highlights. When I went on safari in Tanzania it was absolutely amazing, because seeing the animals reminded me of the TV shows. It took a while for it to click. It’s like, these are wild animals—you do not attempt to go pet them. Just seeing the wildebeests, and the lions and elephants and giraffes, it's like, this is real, this is not a TV. So that was one enormous highlight.

Another one, for me, is the woodlot just down the road from where I live, where I volunteer as a land steward. I was reluctant to do it because it's only white people yet again. But anyway, I went—and there's something absolutely marvellous about caring for the land. We do a lot of weeding, a lot of replanting. And it's gone from this place that I go to, to being my woodlot. There's something really special about restoring nature when you can say, okay, I helped to plant some of these trees.

And when you see the wetland coming back, and you see more birds, it’s like, hey wait a minute, the one day a week that I volunteer here, it's making a huge difference. It gives me enormous joy. I’m there at least two or three times a week just to see how the woodlot is doing.

Route to the urban woodlot where Jacqueline volunteers as a land steward. Photo by Jacqueline Scott.

The third one is that I'm planning a hike in England, back in the Lake District, following in Wordsworth the poet's footsteps. But I'm going because of the Black history there. When we think of rural England, that there’s no Black history there, I'm saying no, all those beautiful country houses were built on slavery.

In those beautiful country houses I love, if you look at the mahogany furniture, the mahogany comes from the Caribbean, and it was worked by slaves. If you look at the beautiful tortoise-shell combs and jewellery, it's made from the green turtle that came from the Caribbean. If you look at some of the costumes with the hummingbird feathers, those hummingbirds came from the Caribbean. They have a direct connection to my history.

It takes me back to my girlhood in rural England as well—it’s coming full circle. As a child growing up, I was always being told, you don't belong, you have no history. But this time, as an adult, I’m going back to say not only do I belong, but I can now tell you about the Black history that's in this countryside. And if I'm lucky I'll get a book out of it.

Read more about Jacqueline’s life and work in her blog, Black Outdoors.

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