Ku’laang Jaad—Precious Leader Woman
La Niña year has been good to Indigenous snowboarder and two-time Olympian Spencer O’Brien. Over the phone from her Whistler residence, the Alert Bay, British Columbia-born athlete ever so casually unlocks the gate to her white castle:Vancouver Island’s Mount Cain.
“Every time I go home, I try to get back up to Cain and spend some time there. It’s one of my favourite places in the world. It’s so great,” O’Brien says about the hill where she carved her first lines.
“It’s a little bit south of a small town called Woss. It’s like 16 kilometres up on this logging road and there is no cellphone reception. No wi-fi. Everything is off the grid.You literally feel like you step back in time,”she reveals, adding that it’s about four hours from the BC Ferries terminal at Nanaimo-Departure Bay.
O’Brien is of Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation and Haida First Nation decent.The territory of the Kwakwaka’wakw people stretches from northern Vancouver Island, to the adjacent mainland and the islands between. Her band is the We Wai Kai Nation, or Cape Mudge, on Quadra Island.
“My grandmother was born there. She moved to Alert Bay and met my grandfather and that’s where my mom and my two sisters were born. My grandmother is a big part of my life. She came to Korea with me for the Olympics, which was pretty cool. She had her 80th birthday in Korea,”says O’Brien.
Her dad is a commercial fisherman and immigrated from Dublin, Ireland, when he was six. “I feel like both parts of Canada in a way. The immigrant side and also the Native side.”
In 2018, O’Brien went to Haida Gwaii for the first time with her family. It was on this special trip that she received her Haida name “Precious Leader Woman” or Ku’laang Jaad in Haida language.
“The matriarchs of your clan give you your name. Lots of times there are multiple people in your family who will have the same name. My aunt and my sister Avis have the same name, my sister Meghann and my niece have the same name, my grandmother and my mom have the same name and because our family tree is kind of spotty there wasn’t any more names, so our matriarch actually created that name for me. If I ever have children then one of our children will get that name.”
She describes Haida Gwaii as one of the most spectacular places in the world. “It’s so stunning and so raw. I feel like there are not many places in the world that are still like Haida Gwaii. It’s such a beautiful powerful place. I can’t wait to get back up there once the pandemic is over.”
The Precious Leader Woman is helping the next generation of Indigenous snowboarders take flight. Every season, she donates gear to the Indigenous Life Sports Academy (formerly known as the First Nations Snowboard Team), whose mandate is to provide free access to unstructured sports like snowboarding, skateboarding, biking and indoor rock-climbing.
“I try to donate all my extra gear because one of the biggest things for them is just having the gear so the kids can go ride. I know Whistler Blackcomb is a big supporter of them and a lot of local resorts help with lift tickets, but gear can be a huge barrier,”says the KORUA Shapes team rider.
She’s grateful she had dedicated parents to get her and her sisters to contests and up the hill every weekend.
“We definitely weren’t a rich family by any means. I basically didn’t have new gear until I was sponsored. I always got my sisters’ hand-me-downs and everything was beat up and way too big. It really made me appreciate the novelty of having new gear.”
Chris Witwicki/Canada Snowboard
There is pining in her voice when she talks about returning to competition. The first big air snowboarding world cup took place in Austria at the beginning of January, and O’Brien stayed back to nurse her knee from a second ACL surgery.
“It’s been a long journey back. I’m just so stoked to be back on snow and that the mountains are still open.”
There is a silver lining to being “stuck” in Canada for a season—instead of chasing points, O’Brien is exploring backcountry riding for a TELUS Originals documen-tary by director Cassie De Colling.
Titled Precious Leader Woman, the film is set in the heart of the Coast Mountains and showcases O’Brien’s rise against a crushing rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis and her journey to reconnect with her Indigenous culture.
“I’m just kinda throwing myself into it. I bought a snowmobile. We’re hoping our big trip for the film will be to Bella Coola to ride lines up there.”