By Salima Punjani
Echos of kids screaming “encore, encore,” ring through Ignace Bourget Park in Montreal on a chilly Saturday afternoon in the middle of winter. These kids are excited to be skiing, many of them taking to the slopes for the first time in their lives. Their parents are equally as excited, helping strap on ski boots and helmets, cheering on their kids, connecting with fellow parents. Right next to the ski slope, families are seen sliding cheerfully down hills on tubes, crazy carpets, and toboggans. The park has been transformed into a winter wonderland, full of fun activities for the whole family, celebrating this remarkably abundant winter.
Access to sports is instrumental in reducing social isolation among children over the cold winter months in Canada. However, skiing and snowboarding are often only possible on ski slopes outside of Montreal and not everyone can afford the transport, time, or cost to get there. This is what inspired Estéban Dravet to create La Pente à Neige, a non-profit winter village accessible to everyone. Dravet grew up in the French Alps and skiing was something that brought him a lot of joy as a child. As a social worker, he was concerned about children in Montreal who couldn’t take advantage of social activities in the winter and were isolated at home as a result. He wanted them to love winter as much as he did as a child.
“Winter in Montreal is hard. We don’t have a chance to take advantage of winter in the city. Let’s say you are walking down the street. People are less open, their hearts are tight. People are nervous, tired, stressed. Now you have a space for leisure and things are designed to help you feel comfortable, experience joy, and overcome the negativity associated with winter,” says Dravet.
La Pente à Neige is designed in a way that makes it easy for people to connect with each other. In addition to making new friends on the ski hill, kids can participate in treasure hunts and snowman competitions. All family members can hop on tubes and get a rush of adrenaline sliding down a steep tubing hill or enjoy the free sliding slope and snow park. Parents can meet and chat over a warm cup of coffee in a heated yurt located next to the ski slopes while their kids are taking lessons. The yurt is full of books, games, and cozy furniture for people of all ages to relax or play.
“There is always contact with others,” says Maxellende Pycke, co-founder of La Pente à Neige. “From losing a glove and having someone bring it to you, to a lost child searching for their parents, there is a space of solidarity that is created between strangers doing things outside. A child that is cold will never be alone, whether it’s their mom or a stranger on the site. There are always people checking in,” she explains.
Another way participants express social solidarity is through the sliding scale payment program. Prices from neighbouring ski hills are displayed and people have the option of paying the regular price or offering a donation to support lessons for underprivileged families. This helps to keep prices accessible alongside a financial assistance program that reduces or eliminates costs for families that are unable to pay for lessons.
Many of the parents at the park today come from countries other than Canada. For instance, Xin Yan is from China and even though she has never skied before, she is convinced that winter sports are great for both the body and mind. “My kids love this place,” she says. “If we don’t skate, ski, or play hockey what would we do? It would be so boring! These activities will make them love to stay here and love winter,” she explained. Xin Yan feels La Pente à Neige creates a sense of belonging for her and her family. “At home we only play by ourselves, here, they can play with other kids,” she said.
The staff play a significant role in welcoming families and creating a fun, safe atmosphere for everyone. The team members themselves come from a variety of generations and backgrounds, ranging from students to retirees. Pycke explained how regardless of the tough conditions and long hours at times, the team enjoys the necessary togetherness that comes from working outside. “We push the spirit of checking in. We have to take care of each other because you can’t move barriers and fences by yourself. You can’t plough snow on your own. We work as a team and people appreciate that,” she said.
Clemence Chiaravalli comes from a mountainous region in France and thought it would be fun to work with kids and share her love for the outdoors. “Group and community sports are important to help kids detach from their parents and family and step away from screens. It gives them a chance to socialize and it helps in their development,” says Chiaravalli, a team member responsible for the tubing station and welcome desk. She makes sure to learn the names of the kids and their parents and greets them personally whenever they come to the park.
Michael Cyr spends his time travelling around Canada and the world working on ski hills. He enjoys seeing people from all over the world connecting over winter sports in Montreal. He feels La Pente à Neige helps people to step out of their comfort zone. “It’s nice to see people coming in and being scared of not knowing what they are coming for, but they almost always come back because their kids adore it,” he said.
Almost 10,000 people have come to Ignace Bourget Park this winter to enjoy the first edition of La Pente à Neige. Though the project was primarily designed to reduce isolation among children, Dravet and Pycke are hoping to add more activities for adults as well as special events such as DJ nights and other evening activities.
When asked about a moment that really captured the spirit of La Pente à Neige this season, Dravet said, “Whether the kids speak French or English, they share the same word, ‘encore,’ ‘again,’ and that is really magical.”