Words by Jeff Schmuck
“The concept of being connected to something is what fuels me to be invested in protecting it,” responds Dave Erb when asked what winter and the outdoors in general means to him. The 42-year-old ever-smiling and twinkle-eyed father of two has been the executive director of Protect Our Winters Canada (POW) since the Canadian chapter of the non-profit climate advocacy organization was founded in 2018. Originally from and still based in Waterloo, Ontario, Erb grew up in a Mennonite community, where he learned the concepts of social justice and mutual aid at an early age, which he pinpoints as an essential part of his fundamental makeup.
“Those values have really woven their way into any of my ventures, whether it be for profit or not-for-profit, or even at home with my kids,” he says, adding that he and his wife once invited a homeless man to live with them, which helped them better understand the current challenges and shortcomings of our social system. And one could consider Erb’s pathway to his current endeavour as unique as his upbringing. After being inspired by his father’s career as a funeral director, Erb attended Humber College in Toronto for funeral service, and later went on to own a funeral home for several years.
“Funeral service was great in the sense that I was able to help people through really difficult times in their lives, but it was also really intense emotionally,” he says. “And death is unpredictable, so I was on-call 24 hours, seven days a week, and my wife was a midwife with similar hours. It was fine before we had kids, but once they came on the scene we wanted to make family time a priority, which meant transitioning into new work. And we made a commitment that any new project or initiative would have a positive social and/or environmental impact.”
From there, Erb became involved in various start-ups and projects in both the business and non-profit sectors, ranging from charities that supported the most marginalized through soup kitchens, to employment services for an analytical medical laboratory and fair trade distribution company. Prior to that, due to “skiing being in [his] DNA,” Erb spent several years in the mid-’90s ski bumming in Whistler. Through watching ski and snowboard movies and subscribing to magazines, he came to discover Jeremy Jones (the founder of POW), and later the organization itself, which prompted a realization of what he wanted to do next.
“I would reach out a few times each year to check in and offer to help in Canada,” he says. “From their standpoint, the timing wasn’t right, but we stayed in contact. Then in 2017, things were changing at POW, and by 2018 they were ready to push forward in Canada thanks to a commitment from MEC to help cover start-up costs. At that time, Mike Douglas and Marie-France Roy were pulling together athletes to talk about creating POW Canada, and Greg Hill was taking a crack at the legal aspects of starting a charitable organization. The timing was really incredible and we ended up working collaboratively to get it going.”
This is when Erb’s background in both business and non-profit came in handy, and in his view, paid equally important dividends in helping to get the organization off the ground.
“The business experience helped with strategy, structure and approach, while the not-for-profit experience helped with fundraising, legalities, etc., as early on we had to do some stick handling to adjust our organizational structure to fit within Canada Revenue Agency’s guidelines for charities,” he says.
Since then, POW Canada has been “hitting way above its weight class in the climate change world,” Erb says. The non-profit currently boasts four staff members, an impressive board of directors (which includes Douglas and Roy), a long list of brand partners, 10 local chapters and 11,000 members across the country, and a broad and diverse community of snow sports and outdoor athletes and enthusiasts who have united to raise awareness about climate change in an effort to advocate for policy solutions. And while he admits that the organization was in survival mode for the first two years while looking for funding and developing its messaging and overall capacity, given the nature of the work, it’s paid off.
“This is literally my dream job,” he says. “It perfectly brings together two things that I’m deeply passionate about: skiing and climate change. Each year I reached out to POW in the U.S., I would ask myself, ‘Why in the world would they entrust some random guy from Ontario with this role?’ And my wife would say, ‘Well, why not?’ It was abig leap of faith, as I was leaving a role with great compensation to volunteer for a small start-up charity. But it was a small price to pay for the work that it has led to.”
For more information on Protect Our Winters Canada, and to sign-up for a free membership and learn how you can get involved, visit protectourwinters.ca.