Ben Girardi

Many moons ago in what sometimes feels like another lifetime, I found myself the film director and team manager for Rome Snowboards. At that time the team was kind of blowing up; we were putting out team videos and riders were winning accolades on a yearly basis. Right in the middle of all of that was a quiet, unassuming girl from Quebec named Marie-France Roy.

When I first met Marie, we hit it off right away. She’s very easy going, always observing. She would ask a lot of questions, and although fairly quiet, she would be quick to fire back a humor that only comes from having older brothers. To say she was driven was an understatement. She was always down to film and it seemed the harder the guys rode, the more it motivated her to keep up. Marie quickly bloomed into one of Rome’s biggest stars; her skills on a snowboard and where she was pushing women’s riding was one thing, but she was also quickly a favorite of everyone, from shop kids to reps to in-house employees. Marie made everyone feel like they were a close friend.

We spent a lot of time traveling together and I got to know what made her tick. We dealt with the pressures of going from someone unknown to someone in demand, the ups and downs of injuries, and the struggles you go through trying to put out a video part year after year. She’d always be talking about the environment at that time, whether it was some obscure fact about a bug she had found behind the Rome office or something about different types of trees—but it was always a loving conversation and never a preachy talking-down from her to us, who maybe didn’t understand everything she was saying. The Quebec guys—Will Lavigne, LNP, Yan Dofin, and Max Legendre—and I would poke fun at her and call her a hippy for wanting to build a house out of reclaimed products on her newly purchased land on Vancouver Island, and I began seeing that any and every opportunity she could get to be more and more in the mountains, she would take.

As time went by, I ended up leaving Rome and so did she. We both got busy we spoke less and less. I’ve watched as she has joined the Arbor team, ridden bigger and bigger lines, spoken out louder and louder on things that she’s always been passionate about, and laughed with the familiar humor and smile that always seems to be around her. Then out of the blue, Mary Walsh from SNOWBOARD Mag asked me to catch up with her again. It seems it has been fifteen years since we filmed Any Means. I jumped at the opportunity to catch up with Marie and what follows only fittingly is a fun chat between two old friends, one sitting in a house she built herself out of reclaimed materials, including shit I may add, during the middle of a cyclone. – John Cavan

So, how’s it going?
We’re in a cyclone here right now, it’s insane.

Yeah, I heard. It’s a pretty crazy storm, coming for the whole coast, right?
Oh yeah. I’m watching the trees just go back and forth outside right now. Just like, I hope they don’t snap onto the house!

Are you still in the same spot that you’ve had for a while on Vancouver Island?
Yes, I’m in the cob house right now…

Oh, the shit house?
Yeah, the shit house, ha. The horse shit house. You still have to come visit!

I know, I know. Technically, what is the house made out of?
Well, it’s only a small percentage of horse shit. It’s mainly sand, clay, and straw mixed together with water for the walls. There’s still a standard tin roof and the upstairs is built with some wood—a lot of reclaimed and refurbished materials, and a lot of trash, too, as fillers in the walls. So, a bit of everything.

That’s awesome. And it’s all stuff that’s from the island, from right around where you built it, right?
Yes. All of the clay is literally from a meter away from the house, and the sand came from the junction, which is a kilometer away. I would just bring beer to the local quarry and say, “Hey, can you fill up my truck with sand?” They would ask, “What are you doing with all this sand?” because I had to go back all the time. “Uh…building a house.” I used a lot of scrap materials from other people building houses who would have extras, too. If you’re willing to put in the work and the time, there’s so much out there that’s available.

How long have you had that place there? It was while we were at Rome that you bought that property, right?
Yes, I’ve had it for twelve or thirteen years. I remember the first year I was in here, that was the year I broke my neck and I was still on Rome. So we probably were together at some point when I bought it. I mean, we’ve been through a lot together. You’ve seen me at my low points, ha.

Me too, ha. Can you believe that it’s been fifteen years since we shot Any Means?
Oh my gosh. Any Means! I can never say it enough, how much I owe you for that and how you opened so many doors for me, having me film for Any Means and making sure all the boys were supportive the whole way through. That changed everything for me. Thank you!

Well, thank you—you did all the hard parts. When you look back at Any Means, what has changed from then until now, both for you personally and then for snowboarding, as a whole. I know that’s kind of a loaded question.
So much has changed and it’s a good thing, right? That’s the only constant is that everything is always changing, and we need to accept that. It’s crazy looking back at the days of Rome, Any Means, and even before that in the evolution of not only my own riding, but also the industry as a whole. Coming from that era, we were the generation probably right after the golden era of snowboarding. We were so inspired buy our heroes like Barrett Christy and Tara Dakides and Janna Meyen—all these women. I was coming up after that and there were still so many opportunities. Now, I think so much of the evolution in snowboarding is really exciting, and especially in women’s snowboarding—I tend to talk specifically about that because that’s what I’m involved in and that’s what I’ve seen flourish so much. I know the industry is not what it used to be, but that’s just the world as a whole, right? Everything is a little bit more challenging in some ways, but at the same time, I think there has been so much more progress; snowboarding has kind of woken up and is now opening its doors to more diversity and less judgement. There’s still lots more to be done, but I love that snowboarding now is a place for whatever you want it to be. It can be connecting people together, connecting people to a cause, connecting people to the outdoors, finding your own community, finding belonging. Now more than ever, I think we see how these types of sports really have potential to unite people and make them feel a sense of belonging at a time when so many people are suffering from challenges in their own lives. I just said a lot of things there, ha. It’s just that snowboarding has so much potential in so many different ways, especially beyond just the tricks themselves.

It’s interesting to me, too, because everyone always brings up your part in Any Means and how great it was that there was that opportunity for you to be in that movie. I look back at that formula now, and I’m like, Why was there only one girl in the movie? Why weren’t more people getting those opportunities? It’s interesting to see how far we’ve come since then.
Yes! Totally. Back then, we somehow just accepted that there was room for only one woman in a movie or on a team, we didn’t have a choice. And even then, it felt like a huge privilege to get one of these spots in this male-driven world. That situation was tough because it always put you in a scenario where you feel like the minority, but since it seems like it’s a huge favor handed to you, you just do everything you can to make the least amount of noise as possible and not ask too much. It also put us women in an even more competitive state for that one spot instead of collaborating and supporting each other more.

It’s also hard for people to relate now to what was going on at the time, you know? It’s real easy to say, “Oh wow, you only had one girl in there.” Of course, that doesn’t make it right, but it was hard at the time just to get that to happen—it was progressive at that time, even. It’s just hard to look at things sometimes when that much time has gone by.
For sure. It seemed like back then that it was all about performance, right? Yeah, it still is about performance, but back then the validation that there were not more women on the teams was just, “Their riding just doesn’t compare to the men, so they just really need to be able to step up a little more.” And it was accepted to say that as a good response. Now, we’re starting to understand that if you want people to be welcome and elevate them to be at their best level, you need to include them, no matter what level they’re at to start with. I think once that unlocked, we’ve seen it—look at the progression of women in contests in the last few years. It’s been unbelievable. I think it definitely comes from full support, really letting women shine, giving them more equal opportunities. I’m shocked at what’s happening out there. I didn’t think it would happen this quick, you know? It’s a beautiful thing. And I think there’s a similar conversation happening now with diversity. I think we need to see more diversity, equity, and inclusion, and more opportunities for everyone, so I am loving seeing more brands embracing that and more people being willing to talk about it. The more the brands embrace it and are representing it, the more that people feel comfortable in their own skin, and it just all escalates from there. I think we live in an exciting time in that way. There’s a lot of progress being made, far beyond just performance.

Pemberton, British Columbia.

I don’t want to dwell too much in the past, but one thing I did want to ask you about: What was going on when you were first starting out snowboarding?
I grew up with my two older brothers and they taught me so much. Following them and their friends around was what shaped my early years as a snowboarder. And I mean, it wasn’t pretty, ha. I was three years younger and my dad had forced them to take me with their crew, which was super annoying for them. So I was super quiet, just tagging along and I sucked! I was just learning to snowboard and they were so much better than me. My brothers were nice to me, but their friends were sometimes really harsh and I just wouldn’t say a word. I would just try to keep up all day, every day. It’s not like I was the cool chick in the gang; I was definitely the loser in the back, ha. I always tell this story: I remember peeing my pants because I knew they wouldn’t wait for me if I had to stop—they probably would have, but I just didn’t want to take the risk. Back then, if you wanted to be in the crew—and still to this day, I remember filming with Absinthe years later—as the girl, you’ll always feel like the inferior one because you’re not as good. You always feel like you’re so lucky to have this spot, you’re so lucky to have this crew, you cannot afford to be late. It’s okay if the guys are late, but the girl to be late? That’s not okay. They’re like, “Oh god, here we go.” So that’s been an on-going theme in my life, but not just for me, for most females… But yeah, it was a man’s world for me, growing up with my dad and brothers, so I felt like I was one of the dudes but without the skills. So, just to let you know, even if you feel like you suck and you have no skills, you can still make it. Ha.

I wouldn’t say you suck. What are some of the things that you had to do to get to where you are now? From sleeping in your car at the US Open to working crappy jobs, I know it hasn’t always be easy?
I never thought I would ever make it as a professional snowboarder for real. When you’re a kid, it’s kind of like this dream that we all have, but I never thought it would be possible for me. I just love snowboarding. When I was starting out, I loved competing—even though I was alone, not speaking English, sleeping in my car to be at the events. When I was really young, I started working all summer to pay for my gear and trips. My first job, I was 11 years old and worked 9-to- 5 for four dollars an hour and then I washed dishes for years, was a busser, worked housekeeping. My first summer in Whistler, I lived in my old Jetta with this psycho boyfriend and had no money. It took a while to find a job because I didn’t speak English and had no address and no phone number for anyone to reach me after I’d drop resumes. I remember walking through Whistler and being so hungry, staring at all the good restaurants, ha! We went to the food bank a few times and I would hike under the chairlifts to find change people had dropped over the winter before. We did our laundry in the river or in rich people’s hot tubs sometimes. It was pretty messed up, ha! But we figured it out, got jobs, and I fell in love with the place. I loved to push myself and I loved to meet other folks who love snowboarding. And I loved the unexpected. What’s going to happen?

Before Any Means, that was the part of my life where I had nothing to lose. There were no expectations. I didn’t have many sponsors. I had no fear and I had so much energy, so much to prove, and I was just stoked. Anywhere I was at that time, I thought that was the highest I would ever make it, so in my head, I was always at the top. It was a really fun part of my life and Any Means was probably the peak of it.

That’s when the Quebec explosion happened, too. You coming up coincided with a spotlight being placed on that jib scene and what Laurent, Louif, and those guys were doing. What was it like seeing that from your angle, because you were ground zero on that.
All those guys really blowing up at the same time, that was really inspiring for me. I didn’t grow up with them, but I would see them at events sometimes. I come from the boonies and we didn’t have that scene, but seeing them succeed was really inspiring for me. Just when we thought we were just a bunch of kids from Quebec that grew up far away from big mountains and the American scene of snowboarding, we still had the chance to make it to the top. It was world-changing for us. And the fact, too, that they didn’t do it individually, they were shining together. It came from collaboration and cooperation.

So, this all leads up to when you were with these guys. To an outsider, they would have come off as complete assholes with some of the things that I would hear them say to you or to each other, you know? I always tell the story of when you did the 270 on the Burlington High School rail. I think you did it six times, and probably five out of the six would have passed in any movie. And I remember, the guys kept saying, “No, you can do it better.” You guys would watch the footage, and you were speaking French, so it was hard for me to understand everything, ha, but you’d go right back up and do it again until the one you got was perfect. And that wasn’t just something they were doing to you. They did it to themselves, too. They were so harsh on one another about making sure everything was proper.
Yeah, that was filming with those guys. They were such perfectionists, but for the love of snowboarding. They knew that this was the way and they knew that when this shot came out we would regret it because it wasn’t gonna be perfect—or actually it would be cut. So it was cool to be surrounded with those guys. They were not mean about it; they were just supportive, and you were the same. And I back it. I remember that day at the Burlington High School rail. I think we hit three different features that day.

It was pretty full-on. I remember by noon we still hadn’t had breakfast. We were just eating burgers and hot dogs. I think I was sleeping in the same bed as Will Lavigne in Runke’s house. It was just…it was awesome. It was the good ol’ days of snowboarding. Literally, any means. Ten or twelve people in one hotel room with two beds, just hilarious. It was just so fun. I’m sure there are crews out there doing the exact same thing right now and that’s freaking awesome. Whatever it takes.

Pemberton, British Columbia. p: Ben Girardi

There was a point after that where it seemed like you made a switch and you gravitated more toward the mountains. Now, it seems crazy to think of you not out there, but can you talk about your evolution into more of a big mountain rider?
For sure. I think to be fair, during that time, every rider was doing it all. We were still filming rails and then I remember right after that trip in Vermont, I was going to X Games or something like that to hit that slopestyle course and I hadn’t been in the park in a month. That’s what it was. That’s when I started really falling in love with filming, because I would show up at these contests and I think I would do okay considering the lack of practice, but I never had the consistency that a true, great contest rider has. So for me, the contests were becoming more and more frustrating and filming was my escape. It was where I truly felt I could push myself and I did not just have two runs to show what snowboarding is about for me. It seemed like a natural evolution. Of course, I love powder, and of course, I had moved to Whistler, so the backcountry was right there and it was this really inviting place. I just had no experience.

Oli Gagnon took me in the backcountry on a snowmobile for the first time. I remember being so scared. I was like, What am I doing? I wasn’t scared of the mountains, it was like, I don’t know what to do. These guys know exactly what to do. I don’t want to get in their way. What do I even hit? I remember Etienne Gilbert came to me and showed me a couple pillow lines to hit and how to hike up there. He and Oli were so nice and those were my first powder photos to get published, I think. But I eventually got more opportunities to go out and it really became what I wanted to do. The quietness of the backcountry, the creativity that goes on, and working with your crew all winter and developing that trust and knowledge of the mountains—that was something super new but so exciting for me. But it was also hard. I remember you were part of me learning in the backcountry when we went to Revy.

And that was the first year I had my own snowmobile. I had an inner struggle that year—for a few years, really. I had come off Any Means and I felt lots of success from that but also a lot of expectations and I felt pulled in every direction. I felt overwhelmed and burnt out. It was crazy that I could go from wanting it so badly and having so much energy—I never thought I could get over snowboarding to a point where I was in tears and just needed a break. It was at the same time I was learning in the backcountry. But yeah, it was new for me, this amount of pressure and success. Before, I didn’t expect so much success and I had no expectations. All of a sudden everybody was saying, “Hey, we’ll give you this and that,” and I almost felt guilty to not be able to give back what was given to me.

Pemberton, British Columbia.

Totally. I remember you went from a place where you could kind of do whatever you wanted and you didn’t have a lot people pulling at you, and all of sudden the following year, you were expected to be everywhere and at the same time, expected to put out another part.
Yes. I mean, learning the backcountry, it’s all so new. It’s hard, so you don’t feel that reward right away. Ask anyone who’s learning, you just feel like you suck, ha. And with the contests, too…I don’t know, most people would have been totally fine, but for me for some reason, it took me a few years to adapt. I eventually filmed with Absinthe, but then it caught up to me and that’s when I broke my neck. I think that was the destiny in the sky. It forced me to take the break.

The other thing that you kind of learned, and it’s a tough lesson for people to learn, is at the end of the year, you have to start all over again. You work so hard for one thing and then it’s like, okay, start over. That cycle of video parts is really tough for a lot of people to go through.
Yeah, I see people still doing so much, traveling and making full movies and competing, and I’m just like, wow. I don’t know if I ever had that. I have just come to the realization that’s okay. Also, I think that the main thing about it that was bugging me and that I didn’t know back then—I realized it when I broke my neck— is that it felt too self-centered for me. That’s weird to say, but it’s really what it was. I felt so privileged to be able to achieve my own goals—even though I worked hard for them—but then it came to a point where that it was not enough for me. We live in a world that is going through so much and I wanted to be able to give back. I want to be able to bring more to the world than just my snowboarding, and at one point…I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy, but I was so lucky and there needed to be more in it than just my own goals and performance, or else I was out.

I think that comes from my childhood and my connection to nature. I studied ecology in college, so snowboarding was not my path; it was not what I had planned as a career. I had planned to work in the field I studied and be an active player in fighting this global environmental crisis. That was my passion as a child. Snowboarding was really exciting, this extra bonus gift, but then after a while it was like Okay, now what am I doing? It felt selfish to do just be snowboarding for myself and it totally took away my stoke. And I didn’t think you could both. I didn’t think that I would be able to be active in something that I believe in that’s not about snowboarding, while still snowboarding.

And that is around the time you made The Little Things?
Yeah, when I broke my neck, and then started building the cob house, it gave me a lot of time alone and I was able to reflect about it all. I really wanted to combine the environmental conversation with snowboarding, but I thought it wouldn’t be well received. But it was too important to me to remain silent. That’s when I was like, I’ll just try and if not, it’s fine if I lose all my sponsors. I decided to follow my heart and that’s when we made The Little Things Movie, a film that featured snowboarders who have inspiring lifestyles and have adopted environmental initiatives. It was also an Olympic year. It was the first time that slopestyle was in the Olympics. I remember being asked to go on the national team and everybody was like, “You’d be stupid not to go, are you kidding?” And I said, “That’s not where I’m at. I haven’t competed in four or five years, I’m filming this film about a subject that I really care about that is way more important to me than the Olympics, and I love the backcountry. For me to go to the Olympics right now would be going backwards.”

So I followed my heart and intuition and focused on the movie. I really thought I would lose all my sponsors, but instead, it was very well received. It was a small crew and tiny budget, but Darcy Turenne, my friend and director won many awards, and I ended up winning the TWS Rider of the Year award—the last time I had won it was eight years prior. Still to this day, it is one of my favorite parts, tied with Any Means. It opened up new doors and showed me that, yeah, snowboarding is a great way to bring up anything that you care about and bring people together for a cause. So in retrospect, breaking my neck was the best thing that could have happened to me.

It’s cool to see how you’ve really aligned yourself with sponsors that seem to be on the same page as you. Would that be a fair statement?
Yes, for sure. That’s a huge one. I’m so grateful that I am working with companies that totally have aligned values. And I’m not saying that I’m not grateful for the sponsors that I had before. I had incredible relationships. It’s a beautiful world and if you really follow your heart, doors will open in that direction. That’s why it’s so important to do things that you believe in, because if you’re just doing something to please someone else, it will open doors in a direction that you actually don’t want. After The Little Things came out, I joined Arbor and Patagonia, which coincided with me moving more into the backcountry, splitboarding, and environmental activism. I am so stoked to see more and more companies that are adopting business models that have sustainability in mind. From reducing manufacturing footprints to giving back to restoration efforts, like Arbor and their Returning Roots program, that leadership is essential in the business world in order to reduce the impacts of climate change and the environmental issues we are facing. Of course, it is far from perfect, but at least they are actively trying to improve the ways we operate and giving back instead of just profiting. That collaboration inspires me to be a better person, a better advocate, a better snowboarder, and provides me with so many tools to share those important messages we care about.

Your love for the environment and the activism that you’re doing now is nothing new. As long as I’ve known you, you have always been really passionate about the environment.
Yes. With snowboarding, for a long time I had to hide it away almost. It definitely wasn’t something that made you cool in snowboarding, especially back then. I knew the hypocrisy thing was real—it still is brought up a lot, but I feel like people are seeing the big picture a lot better now. Back then they were like, “You have a snowmobile, how can you say you even care about the environment?” You will always find a way to make yourself look like a hypocrite. It’s endless. You’ll never be perfect. So, I was like, Well fuck, I have to quit snowboarding in order to address this. That’s what I thought.

Marie-France Roy.

That’s a tough thing for a lot of people, because you’re right, the hypocritical thing does come up a lot. But at the same time, it takes someone like yourself that has the voice and the platform to be able to talk about these things.
It’s funny, because if you are fighting for the environment, there’s this expectation that you need to be a hippy, living in the woods with nothing in order to say a word about it.

And that is the biggest guarantee that we will not fix this, because then nobody is willing to speak up and we’re guaranteed to fail. So I thought, Screw it, it needs to be addressed and we can all be a part of the solutions because we are all part of the problem. As people who benefit so much from the outdoors, from the places that we not only play in, but that we work in and we benefit from with our well-being and mental and physical health, it’s our responsibility to give back and help protect. It only makes sense. Now, I think the world is waking up. I mean, we’re in a climate crisis. We’re in an emergency state and I think more people are realizing that nobody’s going to be perfect. We all need to come together asap to do the best we can and find solutions as we go, no matter how much our footprint is. It’s all hands on deck now. There isn’t enough time to keep pointing the finger at each other to blame who’s worse, that’s only slowing us down.

Right. When you post about this or when you go and do something, it seems very genuine and I never feel like you’re preaching.
I feel preachy at times, for sure, and I struggle to balance it, but it’s hard because we really are in a climate and environmental emergency. You have to be able to bring up these matters, although they’re pretty depressing. But that’s why I love snowboarding, because it is the source of joy that recharges me and it’s the place that we can connect with each other and talk about these things in a way that’s not depressing. Also, people will only fight to protect something they love, so snowboarding can bring many people to fall in love with the outdoors and therefore, trigger a will and responsibility to protect it. Snowboarding brings us outside and bring us together and that shared experience allows for ways to connect with our community and find solutions, even if it’s on a small scale. So yeah, I’m very, very thankful that I never quit snowboarding because it’s my savior and connector, really.

To that point, what does snowboarding look like to you now? What have you been up to the last few years?
It’s been really, really fun the last couple of years. The main project I was working on was FABRIC, Robin Van Gyn’s project. She did an incredible job of including so many different people in our communities that are active beyond just their sport—female and queer skateboarders, surfers, and snowboarders, artists, and activists. It’s refreshing to see more and more snowboard projects that are bringing up bigger messages, to me at least. I will always love a good ol’ snowboard movie packed with just action, but it’s nice to have some more substance in more projects nowadays. I think projects like these have the potential to create so much change, give a sense of belonging to so many people, and welcome more people into snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing—or art or whatever makes them happy—and empowering young females and minorities, especially. On the other hand, I did some really interesting trips. Last winter during COVID, up in BC it was all time, so I filmed a lot in the backcountry, mainly with Robin, Leanne Pelosi, and that crew. I also had this pretty funny Patagonia project with a really good friend of mine, Leah Evans. She’s a skier from Revelstoke. For a few years she’s had this dream to do this big traverse called the Bugaboos to Rogers Pass, which we did finally. It took us a few years to line it up properly and it was an 8-10 day traverse. Patagonia made a film about it and it’s coming out this fall.

Oh awesome.
It was a sufferfest. I was the only snowboarder in the crew and definitely the weakest link. Ha! I mean, we were just traversing the whole way. It was hilarious. I was just trying to keep up the whole time, in survival mode. I was like, Why did I bring a snowboard? This is not the tool for the job. Ha.

So, you pretty much made a movie about the worst part of snowboarding, traversing.
Yes! A friend of mine said, “Heel edge the whole way?” And I was like, “Yeah, you nailed it.” But it was an incredible experience and we were with absolute machines in the mountains. I’ve never done anything that physical. I’m definitely not an alpinist, ha, but it’s cool. Definitely stoked on all the different places and different adventures snowboarding has taken me lately. I’m really stoked for this winter too. I’m going to be based in Pemby and there’s so much to explore still at home. That’s the thing I realized last year because we were locked in more than usual. We used to be in the Whistler backcountry, fighting with other crews to go to the jump spots and now it’s totally changed. There are a lot fewer crews, but the crews there are all fighting for these lines spots. It’s really cool, the resurgence of freeriding. You go to the same spots you’ve been going to for a long time but you look at the mountain in a totally different way. And it’s endless. There’s still so much room to explore around Whistler. I’m excited to travel again, but I feel really lucky to have this backyard because it’s some of the best in the world and I just can never get enough of it.

What keeps you inspired and motivated now? What’s feeding that drive?
The main thing is exploration: going to new terrain, new faces, new lines, or even returning to a line so you can flow it properly. That’s what I’m really stoked about. I really like splitboarding because you can go to a zone you’ve been to a million times on a snowmobile, and with another hour of splitboarding, you can ride something that’s never-been-ridden. I’m really not about the never been done peaks, like I don’t even know what has been done, it’s more of a personal search of finding new terrain and new lines. I really love how splitboarding keeps you fit and healthy, and you’re seeing places where there’s no one out there. I love also learning more about the mountains themselves and the avalanche safety. There’s so much to know.

That’s awesome. Well, I think we kind of covered everything. How do you feel about that?
I feel great.

I still have to get out there and check out the shit house, though.
Come to the shit house! It’d be fun. It’d be fun to work together again on a project, to be in the mountains together again, just for the sake of it.