A week after competing in his first Olympic games in Beijing, halfpipe snowboarder Liam Gill found himself in spectacularly different terrain: teaching kids to shred in the bush in the Northwest Territories.
The 20-year-old from Calgary had been planning the trip to Fort Simpson, N.W.T., for a few years, ever since his grandmother who lived there told him a small youth snowboarding community had formed in the village of 1,200.
Fresh from his 2022 Olympic appearance, Gill—the only Indigenous male athlete to represent Canada in Beijing—flew to Yellowknife for a three-stop tour, including a visit to his band in Fort Simpson, the Łíídlıı Kųę First Nation, which he had not visited since he was a child.
“I got to share my Olympic experience with the kids… then ride with them and just have fun,” Gill says. “That was even more special.”
The conditions were a far cry from the halfpipe he had ridden the week previous at Genting Resort Secret Garden in Hebei province, China. With the sport just gaining traction in Fort Simpson, facilities and infrastructure are non-existent; there are no chairlifts, no T-bars and no washrooms.
“They snowboard in the bush,” Gill says. “The whole time we were running up and down the hill.”
He recognizes he was lucky to have grown up a 15 minutes’ drive from WinSport (Canada Olympic Park) in Calgary. His parents put him on skis before his third birthday; by four, he was on a snowboard like his dad. Living so close to the facility, he boarded before and after school, honing his skills at one of the best high-performance training facilities in the nation, a legacy of the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
Seeing the joy of the Fort Simpson youth on their boards, Gill wanted them to experience the sport they loved on a grand scale—in the Rocky Mountains.
Hopefully, what I do inspires others to be good people.
“Snowboarding is special in the way it spoke to me,” he says. “I wanted these kids to experience it, with no financial strings attached.”
The Gill family began to plan how they could bring youth from Fort Simpson to Calgary.
The idea took shape when Banff Sunshine Village offered to assist; then, Olympics Canada awarded Gill a legacy grant in support of the project’s mission to empower youth through positive, healthy activity.
With additional funding from the Northwest Territories government and a group of Gill’s fellow snowboarders enthusiastically agreeing to volunteer their time, Liam and Friends was born.
The inaugural event took place in May 2023. Fort Simpson counsellors and teachers from the local high school selected six youths to attend the all-expenses-paid trip. They were flown to Calgary and given room and board, lift passes and snowboard instruction. Liam and Friends provided goggles and gloves as a welcome gift, and each youth was gifted a brand-new snowboard.
For one glorious week, it was all snowboarding, all day long.
The group was at home in the mountains, despite never having experienced anything of that scale, Gill remembers. Fearless, the youth explored Sunshine’s 120 runs in the heart of the Canadian Rockies.
“I couldn’t keep up with these kids,” Gill laughs. “They were just so non-stop.”
Coincidentally, a snowboard club Gill had visited in Fort Smith, N.W.T., was in Alberta on a tour at the same time. The group of 18 young snowboarders joined Liam and Friends for two days.
Throughout the event, Indigenous identity was celebrated; the group made bannock and had a tobacco ceremony. The youth showed pride in who they are.
Gill had many mentors growing up on the mountain, but no Indigenous snowboarders to look up to. It’s an honour to “be a role model for [the youth]. Hopefully, what I do inspires others to be good people,” he says.
Gill’s professional goals are very specific: he wants to reach the top 10 in the world, and he wants to attend the 2026 Turin Olympics and improve his 23rd-place finish in halfpipe.
On the other hand, his hopes for Liam and Friends are limitless.
“Liam and Friends is just as important as my snowboarding career,” he says, noting planning is underway for the 2024 event. “This idea is working. We’re going to keep on going, for years and years, with different kids. We’ll try and expand it every year.”
He remembers one snowboarder who, on the last day of the event, did everything she could to extend the experience.
It was snowing hard, he recalls, but she wouldn’t come off the mountain. On what should have been her final run, she purposely ended at the wrong lift, meaning she’d have to go up one last time.
Gill smiles as he recounts the story. “It reminded me of myself when I was a kid. Anything to just get one more run.”
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