Biking for change

International biking tour draws Winnipeggers, but never makes it to town

Otesha Project bike tours cross Canada and spread a message of sustainability.

University of Winnipeg urban and inner city studies student Andrea Derbecker spent last fall biking along Canada’s east coast, trying to teach the residents of small, backwater towns about fair trade coffee and water conservation.

“We focused on the things they already had and did in these communities,” she said. “We were in rural Newfoundland, there’s not a lot of [sustainability activism] there.”

For two months Derbecker, 21, lived in a collective community, where all decisions were made by consensus based on a strong ethical message.

“We once spent half-an-hour arguing on whether to buy molasses because it wasn’t fair trade,” she recalls.

This wasn’t just some nutcase experiment in collective living. Derbecker was a part of the Otesha Project – an international bike tour that has youth cycling across various regions of Canada, teaching others how to live a sustainable lifestyle.

Between September and October 2008, Derbecker biked with Otesha from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to St. John’s, Newfoundland.

“It just put life into perspective in a really great way,” she said. “I was really able to de-clutter my mind and just bike for the day.”

Derbecker participated in Otesha’s fourth run. The Project began in 2003, after sustainable development students Jocelyn Land-Murphy and Jessica Lax returned from Kenya.

Overwhelmed by the Canadian life of excess, the two decided to bring some simplicity back home – and formed the country’s first sustainable theatre troupe on bicycles.

“It was this idea they could be empowered agents of positive change in the world,” said Kelly Bowden, Otesha’s current program co-ordinator.

She cites Otesha’s slogan, “Be the change you wish to see.”

Otesha is now an annual bike tour and travelling sustainability show. It goes through up to six different routes across the country, with tours lasting between one and two months.

I was really able to de-clutter my mind and just bike for the day.

Andrea Derbecker, student

The destinations change every year, in attempt to expose as many people as possible to Otesha’s message of sustainability.

But Manitoba hasn’t been on Otesha’s tour list in three years. Winnipeggers like Derbecker have joined tours in other areas.

Bowden cites organizational reasons, saying it was impossible to squeeze Manitoba into the Prairies tour, going from Alberta to Saskatchewan over the span of two months.

This is a problem for local cycling organizations, who insist Winnipeg’s vibrant cycling scene is often overlooked.

“I feel there would be a vast array of people and resources in the city they (Otesha) could interact with here,” said Geoff Heath, volunteer co-ordinator for the Bike Dump, a bicycle collective and do-it-yourself repair shop in Winnipeg.

“It would really make sense if the Otesha project came through [Winnipeg] and through the Bike Dump, get a tune up and even learn some skills,” he said.

According to Bowden, Otesha needs local organizational support to go through an area.

But Heath said Otesha never approached the Bike Dump for potential collaboration.

“Maybe they think Winnipeg has enough info on these themes,” Heath said, referring to Otesha’s sustainability message.

Otesha’s message is slowly making its way into Winnipeg. Derbecker took lessons from Otesha back to her community economic development studies and her work with inner city youth at the Turtle Island Neighbourhood Centre.

“I was really inspired to build that sense of community I felt in the program in my own home.”

Published in Volume 63, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 26, 2009)

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