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Justin Trudeau on losing his brother to an avalanche, and championing backcountry safety

Justin Trudeau knows too well that an avalanche doesn’t pause to ask a person’s last name when it barrels down a mountain.

The Liberal leadership contender lost his youngest brother, Michel, when an avalanche swept him into B.C.’s Kokanee Lake while he was backcountry skiing in 1998. He was 23.

In the wake of the tragedy, Trudeau and his family became a force in raising awareness and funds for Canada’s avalanche-safety organizations.

“We said, ‘Please don’t send flowers, send a donation to —’ and then we tried to figure out what the Canadian avalanche community was,” Trudeau said in a phone interview from Prince George. “They needed support, and I got involved.”

“We said, ‘Please don’t send flowers, send a donation to —’ and then we tried to figure out what the Canadian avalanche community was,” Trudeau said in a phone interview from Prince George. “They needed support, and I got involved.”

Trudeau worked with the Canadian Avalanche Association to secure stable funding from the B.C., Alberta and federal governments and to build the Canadian Avalanche Centre until he entered politics in 2006.

“For me it was an opportunity to get to know this amazing sport and to get to know this world so well that my brother loved so much. It got me closer to him and his memory,” he said. “There’s just an amazing group of people committed to our extraordinary wilderness and playing safe within it.”

It took the Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School accident, where seven children on an outdoor-education trip died in a slide near B.C.’s Rogers Pass, he said, to change public perception toward avalanche awareness. He credits ski patrols, scientists and the backcountry community for putting Canada at the forefront of avalanche safety in the decade since.

Now, he says, it’s important to turn toward structured avalanche education.

“We have a generation of people who are out there who are all about getting more extreme, getting more active, getting involved,” he said, adding that better equipment has made the backcountry more accessible.

“They need to be a little bit more aware so they can take smart risks.”

No stranger to the backcountry himself — he lived and taught snowboarding in Whistler in 1997 — Trudeau understands the draw and the pure feeling of “earning your turns.”

“It’s not about preventing people from going out there; it’s about giving them the tools and the knowledge to make sure they’re doing it safely.”

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