When a short, red-headed woman with a grin that covers most of her face walked into the landlocked Eskasoni First Nation reserve in rural Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, with a surfboard under one arm and a wetsuit under the other, she received some odd looks.

It was summer of 2013 and Michelle Richards had been tasked with recruiting teens into a funded surf program for First Nations youth that would be offered at a beach an hour away. In these communities, a lack of public transportation, programming and motivation often results in kids and teens leading increasingly sedentary lifestyles, glued to their TVs and phones. 

If there was ever a person for the job, Richards was that person. She picked up surfing at 25 while hitchhiking through North America with a friend. Enticed by the laid-back and healthy lifestyle of Florida’s surf scene, Richards landed a job, a board and a boyfriend who she hoped would show her the ropes. Months later, she returned to Cape Breton minus a boyfriend and a job, but with the board in tow.

“I didn’t even know if you could surf here, or if there were other surfers,” says Richards. So, she started scouting the island looking for spots, eventually meeting a few like-minded individuals. “They say ignorance is bliss. We would paddle out into some of the biggest, craziest waves we had no business paddling out in.” A year later, Richards had snagged her first national surfing title in Halifax and was running the local surf report for Cape Breton from her cellphone.

One of the counties in Cape Breton took notice and asked Richards if she’d teach a few lessons at Point Michaud, an easy-breaking beach on the southeast coast of the island. The summer surf school exploded. Then, in 2004, she put together the first Point Michaud Surf Classic, which, now in its 13th year, has become the longest-running surf competition in Canada. Over the last decade, Richards has taught most of Cape Breton’s surfers how to pop up on those nice mellow waves at Point Michaud. 

But none of those experiences would help her teach this group of students to whom surfing seemed an alien endeavour. 

 Cape Breton SurfJeannine Faye Denny

First Nation communities in Canada have historically not been drawn to, or invited into, the community of California-esque, barrel-riding, hang-ten surfers of the North. And this was an unlikely setting for a first surf lesson. Mi’kmaq youth had been invited into the Eskasoni community centre and were seated in a big circle around the redheaded newcomer, who was now demoing popups on the tile floor.

The program had officially started the week before. Krista Devoe, the municipal physical activity leader at Membertou First Nation, had organized a bus that would pick up the kids and teens and take them to Point Michaud. She remembers standing outside the bus at the Membertou reserve the first day in her bathing suit, waiting for participants to arrive. None showed up.

“It made us stop and think about things… we are the only community in Cape Breton not surrounded by water,” says Devoe. Unlike Eskasoni and most of the other reserves, which are on the large saltwater Bras d’Or Lake, Membertou is tucked behind the Sydney Harbour. “This was something so brand-new that it was very scary.” 

It was a faceoff, but it wasn’t defiance that kept the teens from showing up that first day. It was the same hesitation you might see on a kid’s face waiting at the curb to take the school bus for the first time. Nerves.

Cape Breton’s physical activity consultant Wayne MacKay came up with the breakthrough. He suggested going out into the reserves. Richards knew she had to instil in these kids a feeling surfers around the world have relished for decades—no, centuries—she needed to get them stoked

Thirteen-year-old Sarah Prosper was one of the students in Richards’ first class at the Eskasoni reserve. She says she remembers that after their meeting in the community centre, Richards took everyone down to the local beach on Bras d’Or Lake and—going a mile a minute—amped up the crowd with the excitement that more than a decade of surfing had instilled in her.

“People were excited because they had never seen anything like that before,” says Prosper, one of the students who has continued with the program for the last three years. 

Devoe says isolation is a real problem for the youth in part due to a lack of public transportation off the reserves. 

“A large portion of these communities are in poverty, so to be able to get an opportunity to get out of the community makes all the difference in the world,” says Devoe. And with an aging population in Cape Breton, youth programming often takes a backseat. That’s one more thing they want to change.

“There are so many programs that are like one-trick ponies, that come in and do their thing and leave and never come back if there isn’t interest,” she says. 

 Cape Breton SurfKatrina Pyne

Many of the youth in the Learn to Surf program can trace their heritage back generations on the island. All five First Nations in Cape Breton (Eskasoni, Membertou, Waycobah, Wagmatcook and Potlotek) have roughly remained where they are on Bras d’Or Lake since they were first settled. Those early inhabitants visited Point Michaud frequently for centuries prior to contact with European seafarers, who eventually made an outpost there for Fortress Louisburg up the coast.

Clearly no strangers to ocean swell, it is entirely possible that the first East Coast Canadian surfers were found here. In those days, “Mi’kmaq would cover remarkable distances in their ocean-going canoes,” writes A.J.B Johnston in Storied Shores. They would even cross the treacherous North Atlantic Cabot Strait from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland, battling huge waves.

On Canada’s West Coast, warmer water and moderate winters promoted even more down time—and surfing may have a First Nations tradition there, too.

“It’s because there was so much food available and when there’s so much food—it’s like for the Hawaiians—you open up recreation time,” says Tyson Touchie, owner of Canada’s only Aboriginal-owned surf shop, based in Ucluelet, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Touchie, of the Ucluelet First Nation, says that although the contemporary form of surfing really only made it to Canadian coasts in the ‘60s, First Nations on the West Coast have been surfing on ocean swells in dugout canoes for generations, part of an oral history that has been passed on over time. 

“Our ancestors were intimate with the ocean,” he says. “They would know what the ocean was doing before it happened—the tides, the currents, the waves.”

These days, when he teaches Ucluelet kids to surf, he sees it more as a rediscovery of something that was in their blood all along. 

On the East Coast, Richards would love to see Mi’kmaq youth reclaiming watersports in much the same way. 

Cape Breton SurfJeannine Faye Denny

On a cold and misty afternoon in summer 2015, the waves all along the four sandy kilometres of Point Michaud beach were working for the final day of the Learn to Surf program. Richards joined the other group leaders on the boardwalk, looking over the 60-or-so students. Members of all five First Nations joined each other in the surf lineup. For many of the students, it’s one of the few special occasions where they get to meet teens from around the island. 

“Last year I was very ‘to myself,’” says Shane Boyce, 14. Boyce is from Chapel Island, one of the most isolated communities. He says he heard a rumour as a kid that teens from other reserves were dangerous. He never spent enough time with kids from other parts of the island to feel differently. 

“Here, we’re in the water with people from all over and you’re just having a friendly conversation,” he says. “You can trust people.”

On the beach, Membertou boys are chatting up Eskasoni girls, “just teens being teens,” as Devoe recalls. They look out for incoming waves, relishing each set.

The program has picked up momentum each year thanks to the cumulative efforts of the Surfing Association of Nova Scotia, the provincial Department of Health and Wellness, the local recreation department in Richmond County and group leaders within each First Nation. The surf school even inspired an independently run winter snowboarding program that has had two successful seasons involving all five Mi’kmaq communities in Cape Breton.

MacKay, the island’s activity consultant for the province, says he frequently gets calls from reserves that don’t already have public transportation to-and-from the surf school wondering when they’ll have access. Last summer, the program expanded to include the Paqtnkek First Nation and off-reserve youth in Cape Breton.

But summer 2016 would bring even more change. For the first time, Richards stepped back from the surf school, as she no longer lives in Cape Breton. With the help of a new head instructor, Richards’s former students—some of whom have been with the surf school since the first year—will now be instructing the program. So, last spring, on an unseasonably sunny and warm day, she returned to Point Michaud for one last lesson and to hand over the reins.

 Cape Breton SurfJeannine Faye Denny

Cars filled with eager instructors pull up and the new instructors shake out their legs. Some have driven for more than an hour from their reserve to be a part of the program and pass on their knowledge to newcomers. Richards is running a few minutes late, so they relish the time to hug and catch-up on the events of the past winter. 

Finally, an overladen silver truck with at least a half-dozen surfboards and stand-up paddleboards comes speeding around a bend and into view. The truck dwarfs Michelle as she hops out, but her larger-than-life presence brings everything back into perspective. From a distance, she’s the same redheaded grinning surf-guru she was when she picked up her first board in Florida so many years ago. Her energy is contagious and a few hours on her schedule would wear out most of us. She never slows down. Ten minutes in a car with Richards and she’ll be planning your next surf trip or organizing a ladies’ surf retreat. But she’s 40 now. Her energy hides her age better than any regimen, but she is starting to feel the effects of spreading herself thin for so many years.

Today, there isn’t a single wave in sight. Although judging by the smiles and laughs, that’s the least important part of surfing for this crowd. By the afternoon, as the heat of the day sets in, they suit up and make for the ocean. It’s time for another lesson in popups. Some students propel others forward on their boards, simulating that big push that comes as a wave picks you up. 

Richards has always made sure that Point Michaud never turned away a curious surfer. And her only hope in leaving the school behind now is that it will remain a welcoming place, free of localism and discontent. That’s the legacy she wants to leave there. 

Finally out on the water, a student spots an actual wave looming towards the group. It’s small, but it has enough thrust that it might just bring the first ride of the season. Those near boards hop on and hurriedly point them towards the beach.

“Paddle, paddle, paddle!” yells Richards, as four new instructors join in the chorus. 

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