Words by Megan Honan & Alyssa Schwartz
From food to nature, travellers are hungry for authentic experiences - and when it comes to Canada, there are few better ways to connect with the essence of the country than through its growing Indigenous travel movement. From coast to coast to coast, Canada’s Indigenous peoples are translating generations of history and tradition into tourism experiences, offering context and understanding of the country’s origins.
It’s a goal that benefits all: for Canada’s Indigenous peoples, who are empowered to create jobs, grow their local economies, and – most importantly – share their stories and traditions, helping to ensure their cultural survival; and for visitors, who have the opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation of the wisdom of the elders and for everything that has been lost over centuries of systemic mistreatment and abuse. Here are five leaders helping to grow Indigenous tourism across Canada.
Kylik Kisoun Taylor
TUNDRA NORTH TOURS, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES
Every year, thousands of reindeer make their way across the barren, windswept terrain 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. For guests of Kylik Kisoun Taylor’s Tundra North Tours, it’s not only an opportunity to witness one of nature’s greatest spectacles, but also to experience the traditions of Canada’s most remote lands and people.
“Our guests get to build and sleep in an igloo, visit a traditional ice house, enjoy cultural foods, watch the Aurora (Northern Lights), and learn & take part in Indigenous games and storytelling," Taylor describes. "We head to the Inuit communities of Aklavik along the ice road and to Tuktoyaktuk along Canada’s only highway to the Arctic Ocean, as well as out on the tundra to herd the reindeer." In the summer months, guests sleep in a traditional ice house that has been built into the permafrost and get to explore the creeks and channels of the MacKenzie Delta by boat – even experiencing a traditional whaling camp on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
For Taylor, whose tourism career began serendipitously as a teenager (he was working part-time in a friend's travel agency in Inuvik and took it upon himself to help a group of Chinese tourists, whose pre-booked plane excursion had been cancelled), the growing interest in the North among Canadians is a long time coming. “There’s a lot of awareness about the Arctic. A lot of global warming stuff, the Northwest Passage,” he says.
At the same time, he notes, a lot of the tourism initiatives being pegged as ‘trends’ – from working with Indigenous guides (in Taylor’s case, Inuit or Gwich’in) who can impart upon guests a most authentic understanding of Arctic life, to building experiences with a focus on sustainability and education – are things he’s been doing since day one. “It feels like Tundra North has had a bit of a head start,” Taylor says.
But rather than worrying about the competition, Taylor, who recently won the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business’ National Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneur Award, is focused on creating new ways to connect Canadians and international visitors with the North. One example is a new cultural ecolodge he’s working to open, saying it will open the region to higher-end opportunities. And as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats – even in the Arctic.
“Tourism is such a great opportunity for Indigenous communities to reconnect with their culture and create a really sustainable, positive economic driver,” Taylor says. “You can create money doing it, you can create jobs that are culturally-based. You can do education, healing...there’s so much that can be done within tourism.”
Dion Red Gun
RIVER RANCHE TOURISM, ALBERTA
“Sometimes all you need is a little outdoors,” reads the tagline on River Ranche’s website – and with its location within Alberta’s famed Badlands, overlooking the Bow River and nestled within one of the largest intact Cottonwood riverine ecosystems in Western Canada,
it’s an apt one. While activities such as kayaking on the river or watching the sunset from a hot tub on the lodge’s back deck are indeed draws for any city-dweller, the best reason to visit might be the unique opportunity to connect with the Siksika (Blackfoot) Nation, whose traditional territory stretches from the Continental Divide to Saskatchewan’s Great Sand Hills, and from the North Saskatchewan River down to Montana.
“Tourism activities have (long) been with our family, growing up along the Bow River Valley floating through Siksika lands,” says Dion Red Gun, a member of the Siksika Reserve and River Ranche’s owner. “Little did I know that this lifestyle would become an opportunity to share with others and create job opportunities for the community.”
While the great outdoors is a powerful lure, Red Gun’s mission is to preserve and share the teachings of his ancestors. “On the day of arrival, we have a meet and greet with the guidance of the Elders and then offer a traditional feast of game meat (such as) moose or elk and venison,” he says. Next comes a visit to the 62,000-square-foot Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Museum, an eco-friendly building designed to resemble teepees
and traditional Siksika headdress. Inside, a series of interactive exhibits teach visitors about Blackfoot history, legends, language, food and other cultural practices.
Next, Red Gun brings that history to life. “We travel to lands significant to Siksika and view the spectacular Prairie Badlands, where trails from ancient people are (still) visible and where buffalo roamed in thousands,” he describes. From sleeping in a teepee to an optional sweat lodge, it’s an opportunity for immersion – and it’s one that gives Red Gun tremendous pleasure to provide. “We have been blessed and privileged to have this opportunity to share our spiritual and unique culture and the lands significant to our ways of life,” he says.
HÉBERGEMENT AUX CINQ SENS, QUEBEC
“When I was in university, I went for leisure studies because I always wanted
to bring people outside – outside of the house, outside of their own lives, and just be part of nature,” says Paule Rochette. A member of the Huron-Wendat Nation, Rochette made good on that goal, opening a yurt camp on the edges of Lac Megantic in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where she uses Indigenous traditions of connecting with the surrounding nature and forest to deepen visitors’ understanding of their own relationships – with themselves, each other and the land.
A visit to her property, Hébergement Aux Cinq Sens, starts with something as simple as a forest walk. “People don’t know what it will leave inside of them,” she says, describing the experience – which is included with all stays at Cinq Sens and concludes with a wind flute performance.
And whether it’s watching the night sky – Cinq Sens is located within the world’s first International Dark Sky Reserve – participating in a sweat lodge ceremony, burning sage or using massage oils placed in the yurts, Rochette has created an experience designed to help guests use all their senses – hence the name – to fully experience their surroundings, just as Rochette’s ancestors did.
“There’s no electricity and running water,” she says of the yurts, “but I try
to make it comfortable. It’s the sharing moments that are really important for me."
“For us, it’s like welcoming people in our house.”
Sarain Fox is paving the way for a representative voice for future generations of Indigenous Canadians. And while she’s aware of what a bold statement that is, she doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon. The Anishinaabe woman from Batchewana First Nation is a prominent Canadian activist and artist, but really at the heart of it all, she’s a storyteller.
Some may recognize her from VICELAND’s multi-award-winning documentary series RISE, while others may spot her familiar face from Future History, a TV show currently airing on the Aboriginal People’s Television Network. But Fox didn’t just fall into the world of television; she built a platform from the ground up that made space for the often-neglected Indigenous voice.
“When I looked at the media, I rarely saw positive representations of who I was. I couldn’t find myself in magazines or TV shows. I didn’t feel part of the ‘Canadian narrative’,” Fox says. “As a result, I have always been inspired to raise up the voices of my people in order to change the collective narrative.”
Fox has always set out to do one thing in her career: build relationships and forge strong connections between diverse communities. Which is exactly how she found herself partnering with the TreadRight Foundation, an organization committed to making travel matter. For years, both Fox and TreadRight have supported the Manitobah Mukluks Storyboot School at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.
She recently travelled to Australia to spearhead a sister program in Sydney, where travellers are encouraged to interact with local Indigenous artisans and cultural practitioners. Fox’s ultimate goal with the program is to create reconciliation and understanding of the Aboriginal culture in Australia and locally.
“You can play a role in ‘reconciliACTION’ by simply honouring and acknowledging our truth,” Fox says. “The best way to travel is with humility. You aren’t the expert on someone else’s homeland. If you approach each travel experience with a sense of respect, wonder and curiosity, you’ll receive so much.”
INDIGENOUS WALKS, OTTAWA
When travellers think of Ottawa, many think of the landscape, architecture, art and monuments, but few think of the Indigenous culture. Thanks to Jaime Morse, that narrative is changing.
Morse is a Métis from northern Alberta, but she’s called Ottawa home since 2000. While working at the National Gallery of Canada creating tour plans for Indigenous people, Morse fell in love with the work she was doing. Henceforth, in 2013 Indigenous Walks was born – a walk and talk through downtown Ottawa exploring the local landmarks through an Indigenous perspective. “I really liked how I could educate through the arts. I could tell history...all sorts of local and cultural issues,” she says.
Indigenous Walks currently offers five unique tours, with the main one introducing people to the Indigenous basics. “We talk about language around terminology. Oftentimes [what terminology to use] is the biggest barrier to learning about Indigenous issues,” Morse explains. “Terminology is one of those things where people are too afraid to ask questions because it can be confusing. We get [participants] to mouth the words or practice saying it so they realize how easy it is to choose the proper term.”
Morse also strives to break down barriers in the world of Indigenous tourism. As a mother of four, she knows how difficult the family versus entrepreneur balance can be, but she encourages more Indigenous youth to consider tourism as a career – they are the educators of the world, after all.
“I’ve always been happy to be in the position of educating. Well, not always – as an Aboriginal student I was educating my professor, fellow students and other Indigenous people about who Métis are... and then I just decided that this is something I saw real value in doing,” Morse says. “That’s why I’m doing [Indigenous Walks]. That’s why I decided to be an educator."
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