Long time west coast climber Michelle LeBlanc has been busy organising the first Project Pride event which will take place this weekend. The event is open to 2SLGBTQ+ Community and Allies. There will be bouldering and injury prevention clinics, a bouldering comp, dinner and an after party. The first-of-its-kind experience aims to bring a community of climbers together to celebrate the sport, inclusion and diversity. We touched base with LeBlanc at the beginning of summer. More information here.
What is Project Pride? Project Pride is a day-long outdoor bouldering event that will take place at the beautiful boulders in Squamish, BC. It’s an opportunity for 2SLGBTQ+ individuals to connect, build community, crush boulders, and pick up some new skills with workshops happening both in the morning and afternoon. Registration ($80CAD) to the event includes food and snacks throughout the day (breakfast, lunch, dinner), workshops, swag bag, prizes, mini ‘scramble’ comp, more prizes, and an after-party.
What motivated you to start Project Pride? When I first started getting into climbing, I slowly began noticing that I was usually the only queer person around. For the most part, I didn’t mind. Eventually, when I met other boulderers or climbers that were also queer, it made me feel a lot less alone because we could relate to our experiences in a super meaningful way. These people added something different but comfortable to my already awesome climbing social network. The idea for Project Pride was in my head for Summer 2021 but there were still so many COVID restrictions that I put the idea on the back burner until travel was a bit more feasible. My friend Kyle Horvath, who is the current President of Pride Squamish, and many other friends had really encouraged me/forced me to just make it happen, and now it’s turned into a positive thing already.
How important are events like Project Pride in the climbing community? Primarily, I think that it’s a really important step to create a sense of community and to maybe help some people feel less isolated. Overall, I think that climbers are mostly welcoming humans; at least I’m lucky that that’s been my experience. When you think about representation and visibility though, there is a significant lack of open and ‘out’ 2SLGBTQ+ professional climbers or outdoor mountain athletes in general. We have some American climbers that have stepped up to share their experiences in very recent years. Visibility within a sport like climbing is super important to any minority group because it helps give a deeper sense of belonging. From my own experience, it really sucks to have to hide or be discreet about aspects of your life that you think might make people feel uncomfortable or worst, if you KNOW it will make people feel uncomfortable. For example, I never really know if telling someone that I date women will make them feel uncomfortable around me. At this point, I don’t really care, but it’s always in the back of my mind, especially since I live in a rural town, not a big urban centre.
What are some positive changes that you’ve seen in climbing over the past few years? I’ve seen a good range of initiatives to help women, BIPOC and local Indigenous communities feel more included in the climbing world. These initiatives range from: festivals like Flash Foxy in the US; crag days with Belay All; Indigenous climbing sessions in Calgary that are led by my friend Krissy Blakney; BIPOC guided climbing days with Colour the Trails; and adaptive climbing opportunities. These are just a few examples from the past few years that I’ve seen, and I think it’s been an organic progression since climbing has become quite popular around the world, especially after the 2021 Summer Olympic Games. I’ve also seen more people talk openly about their experiences as minorities – both negative and positive ones. That’s why continued visibility and encouraging initiatives like events, festivals, and opportunities to create community are important.
What are some negative experiences that you’d like to share or that you’ve heard of in the west coast community? A couple of years ago, there was so much drama circulating social networks around offensive route names in popular climbing areas. For the most part, I would say that I was a bit discouraged reading through some of the comments. I did not feel comfortable chiming into the discussion on social media. As far as living in a town like Squamish, I don’t have a huge queer safety net, although it’s become better in the last couple of years. Since I work in long-term care, I have been a bit more careful to hide my identity since some of my co-workers and residents have said homophobic things around me. So even though it’s 2022, I am not fully open or out at work. Honestly, it gets a bit tricky when some residents continuously ask me if I want to meet their grandsons or when they ask why I don’t have a husband.
What can the climbing community do to continue to be more inclusive and accessible? I think that many climbing companies are making a conscious effort to promote inclusivity with their advertisement and social media content. It’s a step in the right direction, and for the 2SLGBTQ+ community, I would hope that support continues beyond Pride month. For the Indigenous community, I would hope that support goes well beyond National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. And the same goes for the BIPOC and persons with disabilities. Representation matters and will continue to matter. Sharing personal stories and elevating athletes to do so on a variety of platforms can be great ways to support inclusivity and accessibility. At a climber level: I hope that people continue being open-minded and truly listen to each others’ stories and experiences. There is so much you can learn about someone when you take the time to really listen to what they’re saying.
What can climbers expect from Project Pride? Project Pride will be a super fun day. So far, we have had amazing support from local businesses and the climbing community in Squamish about this event. My hope is that people will get a chance to connect with other 2SLGBTQ+ climbers, learn some new bouldering skills from the workshops, and have an enjoyable day.
When and where will Project Pride take place? We will be hosting Project Pride on Sept. 17 or 18, 2022 at the Stawamus Chief boulders. The date is somewhat weather-dependent since it is an outdoor bouldering event, but the finalized date will be promoted on our social media below.
Will this become an annual event? That’s a tough question to answer. I think that will depend on the feedback from those who attend Project Pride. I’d like to see it evolve to other various places in Canada as well. For example, I still have strong roots in the East Coast Halifax-area, and the bouldering there is world class.
Is there anything else that you’d like climbers to know about Project Pride? First, I just want to thank all the support from Squamish businesses and beyond that have been so receptive to this idea. Specifically: Ground Up Climbing Centre, Climb On (the best climbing store in Canada), Counterpart Coffee, Flashed Climbing, Arc’teryx, the Squamish Access Society and Capra Trail Running. On a personal level, my close friends have all been extremely supportive of this idea and gave me the confidence to try to make it happen, so I owe them a huge thanks.