Ashleigh Boers laughs and says she’s thrilled to be Ms. August.
“I gave one to my mom,” she says. “I was excited to flip through it [to see] what everyone else is doing because I’m not consciously going ‘oh we need to improve the green economy.’ I just like bikes.”
The 33-year-old Australian looks sun-kissed (even though she talks with Halifax Magazine in the home stretch of a Canadian winter) thanks to a recent trip to her homeland. Australia isn’t home anymore, however. Halifax is.
Boers has quite a few stamps in her passport but visiting the Great White North wasn’t on her radar until she met a Canadian while living in the Netherlands. “The more she talked about Canada, it was down the line of the travel list, but I thought I’d keep it in mind. But when the working holiday visa came up, I thought Canada would be great,” she said.
Boers, who has a degree in resource and environmental studies, secured a working holiday visa. She traveled west to east, volunteering at farms in exchange for food and board. “It gives you a connection to the land,” she says. “I wanted to live in the rhythms of sunrise and sunset instead of it’s 3 o’clock this should happen.”
When she reached the Maritimes in the fall of 2014 she found a place that felt like home, so she decided to stay. “Or try to stay,” Boers says.
She’s been working for a year and a half to get permanent residency status and there’s no end in sight. She doesn’t have her working visa anymore so she can’t be employed. That could mean she has to go back to Australia to work and wait for the paperwork. “I love this city and this province and I’m trying my darndest to do everything to stay here,” she said. “To me this is my home.”
Halifax felt like home for Boers from the beginning, even though it is a far smaller metropolis than what she’s used to. “Initially I thought aw, they call this a city, how quaint,” laughs Boers. “Everyone was very welcoming and everything seemed very accessible, even people, like if you want to talk to your MP you just call and make an appointment.”
She moved to Halifax and soon after got a job at I Heart Bikes because she’s a “mad keen cyclist.”
Usually making a hobby into a career doesn’t pan out, but this just fell into place, Boers says. She loved cycling for years but never truly appreciated its usefulness until a trip to Berlin years ago. Someone recommended she rent a bike for the day to really experience the city and it opened Boers’ eyes to cycle-tourism.
When she’s giving cycling tours of Halifax, many tourists raise an eyebrow at her accent and wonder how an Australian can know the city.
“But as a newcomer you have that enthusiasm and interest in different aspects of the city where people who have grown up here may have not noticed or not have an interest in it because it’s just where they live.”
She likes to mix history with modern elements: telling tourists about the Halifax Explosion and how it changed the city as well as pointing out the Seaport Farmers’ Market and the Central Library.
Everyone comes back from Boers’ tours enthusiastic about cycling and the city, says Sarah Craig, owner of I Heart Bikes. “She is a bright, cheery, very positive individual. The first day she just learned so quickly,” she explains. “She emanates a passion for Halifax, she really brings to life the stories we like to tell on our tours, and she loves biking. Her positive energy brings to life the tour for people.”
That enthusiasm is infectious. Boers says her love of cycling transfers to the clients and many are inspired to pull their bikes out of the garage when they get home and use it for transportation.
“It’s really nice to see that with people who say ‘oh I forgot about this thing as a practical way of getting around and I just always thought of it as a leisure activity,’” she says.
That’s fine for tourists but to encourage locals to get out their bikes, Boers says it’s just a matter of getting out there and being seen on a bike. She’s also involved in the Halifax Cycling Coalition and she plans to be paired with a new immigrant or refugee in the Welcoming
Wheels Buddy program this year. She’ll help her buddy, who will be riding a donated bike, learn the best bike routes around the city.
She says Halifax is getting there as a cycle-friendly city. There are more and more protected bike lanes and the Halifax Cycling Coalition is there to help push things along.
“I think the key is making cycling more of a regular activity—the more bikes there are on the roads, the more people can’t ignore them and the more it becomes a normal thing,” she says.
There should be plenty more cyclists particularly on the peninsula, Boers says, because everything is within a short bike ride. Boers says more protected bike lanes and marked bike routes would really help people who are nervous or considering cycling but worried about the traffic.
“Another one is attitudes of both drivers and cyclists,” she says. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who drive and they’re just not sure with things like who has the right of way.”
Boers recently took a driver’s test and found there was very little in the study materials concerning cyclists. Many cyclists are also unsure of traffic rules, she says.
Plus there’s something about bike riding. Boers says she feels more alive and connected with the world around her when she’s riding through the city.
Everything Boers does to promote cycling in the city is why organizers picked her to be in the Green Jobs Calendar. Naomi Hill, who coordinated the calendar project for the Ecology Action Centre, said Boers was recommended because of her face-to-face interaction with customers, enthusiasm, and passion for cycling.
“Transportation is a major contributing factor to Nova Scotia’s greenhouse gas emissions, so getting people to cycle helps,” Hill says.
“Spreading the love of cycling is important,” Hill says, “because even though there is a strong cycling community here many people are still afraid.” Hill adds, “people like Boers are helping to shift perceptions and encouraging the culture of cycling.”
“She was right away really receptive and really believed in the project,” Hill says. “She seems very fun and sociable, good at interacting with people. She manages to educate people but still keep it fun and interactive. She talks about wanting to make cycling accessible no matter the age or fitness level or if you haven’t ridden a bike ever.”
Correction: Due to a fact-checking error, the print edition of this story gave the wrong year for Boers’s move to the Maritimes. The information above is correct. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.