Thirty years ago, tourists weren’t able to take a Haida-led tour through the mossy remains of an ancient island village or prepare bannock with a Mi’kmaq community on Prince Edward Island. Back then, an Indigenous tourism experience might have simply meant the appearance of for-hire drummers or dancers.
But the growing demand for authentic Indigenous-owned and -operated cultural experiences has given communities across the country economically sustainable means to not only share their languages and cultures, but to learn and practice them – for some a first opportunity to do so.
“We were not allowed to practice our culture,” says Claudette Commanda, executive director of the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres, whose mission is to promote and revitalize the languages and cultures that were denied to Indigenous communities through assimilation policies such as residential schools. Seeing younger generations find ways to build awareness of and reclaim their identities makes Commanda feel optimistic. “Our people are regaining this sense of ‘I want to learn about who I am because I never had the opportunity,’” she says.
Over the past two years, however, pandemic-induced job losses, business disruptions and permanent closures have forced tourism-based employees to leave their communities for work in other sectors. Keith Henry, president of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, fears that because of this, the pandemic is eroding opportunities for learning and sharing culture. “The less and less [culture] becomes used, the less it becomes important to survival,” Henry says. “That’s really what’s at stake for reconciliation for the future.”
Here, people at some of the Indigenous tourism destinations across the country share what it’s been like, as they work to keep their businesses alive, as well as their respective cultures.
Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, Osoyoos, B.C.
At the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre (pronounced Inkameep), visitors can wander trails through the largest remaining intact section of Canada’s antelope brush ecosystem to learn how its caretakers, the Osoyoos Indian Band, preserve the endangered habitat – its seven species of threatened rattlesnakes included. Inside the modern rammed earth interpretive centre, archival displays, films and a collection of children’s artworks tell the story of the Inkameep Day School, which operated on the reserve from 1915-1954 in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to keep children out of residential schools.
“Before I worked here, I really didn’t know that much about my culture,” says cultural co-ordinator Jenna Bower, who educates tourists (these days B.C. locals have replaced European travellers) and students from the Nation’s independent elementary school. “It’s amazing to see the children practice their culture now because that was not something that was big when I was young.”
For information on programming, visit nkmipdesert.com.
Jasper Tour Company, Jasper, Alta.
Joe Urie encourages guests on his boutique Jasper National Park wildlife tours to look beyond what he calls the “selfie moment” and instead plant their feet firmly on the Rocky Mountain landscape, using two-eyed vision – a blend of Western and Indigenous approaches – to see the rocks, the grass, the rutting bull elks and elusive grizzly bears as part of a longer timeline and larger cycle of life.
When Urie, who says it wasn’t always cool to admit he was proud of his Métis heritage, found himself wanting to share his culture with other people, he changed how he was leading his tours – no longer perpetuating the colonial narrative of the place but digging deeper into his own cultural history to tell the real story instead.
“Never mind developing economies for Indigenous peoples who otherwise didn’t have them,” says Urie who has been offering smaller, private tours during the pandemic. “It’s been a great tool for Indigenous people to learn about themselves.”
Learn about tours at jaspertourcompany.com.
L’Autochtone Taverne Americaine, Haileybury, Ont.
L’Autochtone, the French word for Indigenous, is chef Gerry Brandon’s attempt to breathe new life into a big-box drained Northern Ontario downtown near where he grew up as a child of the Sixties Scoop.
Brandon, who has taught culinary arts to kids in Indigenous communities, knows that a traditional pre-contact diet isn’t going to be palatable for most diners and focuses instead on blending the area’s three thriving (but typically unmixing) Anglophone, Francophone and Indigenous cultures. As diners at his restaurant tuck into oreilles de criss (crispy pork rinds) or wild rice risotto with three-sisters vegetables and braised rabbit, they experience Indigenous culture, not from a historic textbook or TV show stereotype, but as a living, evolving and thriving entity.
“It’s hard to come here and not at least release some of your misgivings,” says Brandon, who has reduced service to three days a week with a limited menu. “Crowds of people who are French, English and Indigenous meeting each other for the first time, talking over food and enjoying it, that’s what food and culture is all about.”
Learn more at lautochtone.com.
Elsipogtog Mi’kmaq Cultural Centre, Elsipogtog First Nation, N.B.
At the Elsipogtog First Nation (pronounced El-see-buk-tuk) visitors can learn the art of traditional Mi’kmaq basket making, browse the work of First Nations artisans or take the 2 1/2 hour Mi’kmaq heritage walk, which includes a welcome smudge, medicinal tour of the surrounding fir and spruce forest and an authentic East Coast wigwam (the smaller, more portable cousin of the Western tipi).
When the centre first opened in 2015, Anna-Marie Weir, liaison for tourism relations, imagined settlers coming to learn more about Mi’kmaq history, but when a local elder offered to use the site to teach community members how to identify and strip ash trees and make them into baskets, it was clear that it would be a venue for sharing and sustaining culture within the community as well.
“If you’ve been disconnected, how do you find your way back?” asks Weir about the local Indigenous youth and neighbouring communities who visit the centre in addition to tourists. “I don’t think we really understood how important a role we were going to play.”
Learn more at heritagepathtour.com.
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