Riding with a cause

Queen’s grad Curtis Carmichael spent his summer biking across Canada with a strong message 

Carmichael with teammates in Africville near the end of expedition.
Carmichael with teammates in Africville near the end of expedition.
Credit: 
Photo supplied by Curtis Carmichael

Standing on the podium at the Hilton hotel in Quebec City in November of 2015, Curtis Carmichael seemed to have a pretty keen sense of where his future was headed. 

About to graduate from Queen’s with a degree in Physical and Health Education and a place on the school’s honour roll, the wide receiver had just been awarded the Russ Jackson award. Annually, the award is given to a Canadian university football player who exceeds all expectations in their athletic, academic and community efforts

In that moment, football was on Carmichael’s mind. But what came flooding in during the weeks and months after were images of his journey to this point. Raised in Toronto Community Housing, Carmichael faced racial discrimination on a daily basis. After years of spending time with other marginalized people, he wanted to do something to help.

So just two years after leaving football behind, Carmichael set out on a 3,379-kilometre cycling trip across Canada this summer with a strong message of racial justice.

Making a name for himself

Arriving on campus in 2012 as a wide-receiver for the Gaels, Carmichael had his hands full when he moved to Kingston. Even though he was already trying to balance life as a student and an athlete, he knew he wanted more. 

In his first year, Carmichael started making an impact in the Kingston community. At first, Carmichael spent a lot of time at Nightlight, a centre for marginalized adults who deal with problems such as homelessness, addiction and mental illness.

“They call us volunteers but I’m not really a volunteer. It’s kind of a peer mentoring vibe…we’d just become friends,” Carmichael said.

Alongside Nightlight, Carmichael helped out with local middle school gym classes and visited orphanages in Romania. By his fourth year, Carmichael had a stellar reputation as a football player, student and community member.

Even though he had his sights set on the CFL upon graduation, Carmicheal had passions outside of football as well. Wanting to give youth a chance to grow up in a discrimination-free environment had long driven him to help in the Kingston community. 

Putting this passion into action took some time for Carmichael, though.

In March of 2016, Carmichael went to the CFL Combine. Two months later, despite going undrafted at the league’s draft, he pursued a practice squad spot. Just weeks later, Carmichael informed his agent that he would be stepping away from football to pursue a life of social activism — something he felt would be far more fulfilling.

“[Stepping away from football] was tough, but it was easier for me because it was for a bigger purpose,” Carmichael said. “It was something greater than just playing football.”

The pivot

By September of 2016, Carmichael had already begun teacher’s college at the University of Ontario Institute for Technology. There, he became an activist for  both racial discrimination and poverty, and moreover a mentor to underprivileged youth. 

The tandem of these two pursuits has made him a vocal educator on the topic of discrimination within Canada.

Carmichael’s motivation for tackling issues towards race discrimination and poverty comes from a very personal place. Growing up in Toronto Community Housing, Carmichael was raised in an environment where his efforts to succeed in his academics would often feel useless. 

With this being just one of a larger handful of struggles derived from living in government housing, Carmichael spent much of his time as a youngster wondering why he felt he was being held back.

“The system itself was something I grew up in and I faced a lot of discrimination from the police, from teachers,” Carmichael said. “I always thought it was an individual thing, but I realized that a lot of our thinking sometimes comes from things outside of us.”

Ride For Promise from UrbanPromise Toronto on Vimeo.

Upon this realization, Carmichael felt the need to stand up for people who are in the position he was in a short while ago.

The ride

With a clear idea of what he wanted to represent, Carmichael had a crazy idea in August of last year. What if he biked across Canada and used it as a platform to educate people about racial justice?

Well, it happened. By September, under the mentorship of a friend’s father, cycling had taken over Carmichael’s life. Often logging over 150 kilometres on the bike a week — sometimes nearing 300 — Carmichael knew he had to be more than ready to go when the ride came around.

“I’ve had no life for the past year,” Carmichael said.

Riding alongside a van with a trailer and three supporters keeping him in check, Carmichael set out on a 30-leg journey on July 10 across the Great White North. Beginning his journey in Vancouver, Carmichael had no idea what to expect. All he knew was that it wasn’t going to be easy.

“It was pretty crazy…I won’t do it again,” Carmichael said.

Dubbed the Ride for Promise, Carmichael’s charity of choice was Urban Promise — a shelter for underprivileged youth. The company supports kids who, without the shelter, would be exposed to harmful substances and activities. It’s an environment he knew all too well growing up, and is something he wants to do everything in his power to help change.

Over his 30 stops across the country, Carmichael sometimes spoke to groups of over 50 people. Other times it meant having a conversation with a family over dinner. And while the cycling alone took its toll on him, what he didn’t expect was how much the weight of these interactions would affect him.

“Physically, it was a lot easier than the mental. The mental component is hard because you’re always by yourself. Because of the depth and the heaviness of the topic, it causes you to think a lot about it, and I think that was the hardest part was juggling my mental wellness,” Carmichael said.

While the trip was largely meant to spread a message of racial justice around Canada, the ride taught Carmichael just as much as he taught others.

“Things start coming together where it just made sense. I could put words to every experience, I could explain where people’s mindsets come from, because I don’t just accept that that’s just the way they are. Everything comes from something so I think for me, that’s the biggest thing I learned from myself is that I can put words to things in ways that I can now educate others,” Carmichael said.

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