Marie-France Gravel

Marie-France was an Indigenous skateboarder who took up skateboarding in her early thirties as a single mom in Montréal and was part of the original Skirtboarders crew. She had begun skateboarding in 1994 but had to put her life on hold to care for her daughter Arielle, who was born paralyzed and wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy.

Marie-France Gravel, 2nd to left

In her teens and twenties Marie-France lived a hard life and spoke to Erika Dubé about her experience in issue #2 of Armpit ‘zine (2002).

“When I was living on the street, I was panhandling a lot. Sometimes I would make really good money, like $100 an hour because I was funny and entertaining… Unfortunately drugs and booze pushed me away from my goals and I became too busy feeding my addiction to work on what I liked. I quit drugs when I was 20 years old and had Arielle at 21. The fact that my daughter was born severely handicapped changed my life around. For years, I was spending all my time running around to hospitals and specialists to give my daughter the best opportunities to get better.”

Marie-France was a force of life and when her daughter turned three, “I started to juggle, unicycle and skateboard. These were things I always wanted to do, but for various reasons never did.”

Marie-France had a passion for circus performance and kept Arielle entertained with her clowning and skateboarding. She was determined to give her daughter an exciting life, and they travelled to Costa Rica and Ecuador, and in Montréal Marie-France was a strong advocate for better wheelchair access for those in need.

Once her daughter had a support network and school to attend, Marie-France began to return to her favourite activities with more attention. As a beginner skateboarder, “I started out by myself in front on my street, smashing myself all over the place to figure out how this thing was working! And it was pretty pathetic. I was bruised.”

Even with the frustrations of learning to skateboard again, Marie-France had a great attitude. “My goal in skateboarding is simple: to keep improving and keep having fun. I also want to keep travelling to explore new places to skate… and keep skating until I am at least 85 years old!”

In my thesis interviews, when I asked Marie-France, as an older skateboarder how she compared herself to women her age who do not skateboard, she told me that, “Sometimes it makes me feel weird because when I meet women of my age it’s like there’s such a difference… I think skateboarding really keeps you young somehow and keeps you with an open mind… When people see me on my street with my board, you know, I can see it in their eyes that they don’t really understand how I can still do that.”

Another time, she was cruising down Ste. Catharine Street, a busy Montréal street downtown, when suddenly her wheels got stuck in fresh tar. “I was covered head to toe in tar! And I had all those little rocks on me and especially on my knee, too! And it became so big. I had that for months… It was so funny because I arrive at Peace Park and I was just covered in tar—I was just pissing my pants, it was so funny.”

Peace Park was a skateboarder’s destination, a great place to meet friends, and a lot of fun, until it wasn’t. Marie-France was arrested at Peace Park for skateboarding, surrounded by four police cruisers, and one aggressively kicked her board, demanded to see her identification, and then gave her a ticket for $142 for making noise. She felt afraid and sensed that they wanted to beat her up, so she held her protest until she was in front of a court audience. “I went up to the judge and said how this guy treated me, he treated me like a criminal… The judge was actually really nice. He [reduced] my ticket to $100, and it was hilarious!”

At the time, we summed up Marie-France’s experience as a universal skateboarder’s experience since Police were regularly patrolling Peace Park, but I wonder how racism played into the way she was treated. Marie-France was a positive person except when she spoke of her home life on Reserve, and the devastating abuse her and her sister experienced. While we didn’t have the term then, the father of her child was part of the Sixties Scoop, adopted into a Montréal family.

Marie-France learned multiple languages so she could communicate with all her neighbours, and did end up producing a solo clowning act, juggling on her unicycle to entertain children and be part of the Circus spectacle. Her struggles in life were real and unimaginable, but she radiated joy and I always thought, of all the Skirtboarders, she was the most hardcore.


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