This blog post was written before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when physical distancing and other COVID health and safety protocols were not in effect. The businesses and communities featured in this article may be once again welcoming visitors but please double check as some are only open with limited operations and others have not yet reopened.

In early November, I was honoured to attend the 6th annual International Aboriginal Tourism Conference — co-hosted by the Tsuut’ina Nation on their traditional land in Treaty 7 territory.

The theme of this extraordinary event, which was held at the Grey Eagle Resort & Casino in Calgary, Alberta, was “Raising Our Voices: Building Economy through Indigenous Tourism and Community Stories.”

With emcee Hal Eagletail of the Tsuut’ina Nation keeping the pace steady (and fun!), there was an air of genuine excitement throughout the two-day conference, host to a record-breaking 500 plus stakeholders — stakeholders including people from First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, as well as globally-minded Indigenous and non-Indigenous tourism organizations.

Selfie time with Keith Henry, ITAC President & CEO | Photo by Neil Zeller courtesy Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

Before a rapt audience on opening day, guest speaker Senator Murray Sinclair, former Chief Commissioner of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada, declared that when it comes to tourism, Indigenous people need to “think outside the box, but remain inside the circle.”

“As Indigenous people, we have survived a horrific period in the history of our country. It has contributed to dysfunction, damage to our cultures and to a false perception of Indigenous peoples. Our struggles are a reflection of what has been done to us, they are not who we are,” said Senator Sinclair during a touching address.

“We are a people still recovering, and trying to find our way in a world where we could have been more than we are now. We need to come to terms with our history and then move forward. We have survived, and now we will thrive.”

Even though Indigenous people in Canada come from diverse backgrounds, he continued, they are special because they were here first — “we have the earth beneath our feet and we were placed here to take care of it.”

When Canada as a nation talks about why people should visit, said Senator Sinclair, Indigenous people must be, on their own terms, part of the conversation.

He then announced with sparkles in his eyes — “After all, given the latest estimates, we’ve only been here for the past 100,000 years.”

Senator Murray Sinclair | Photo by Neil Zeller courtesy Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

Throughout the conference, it was made clear that partnerships with major stakeholders are critical to the success of Indigenous tourism in Canada.

In this case, event partners and sponsors included all the big hitters — the Tsuut’ina First Nation as co-host, along with Destination Canada, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), Parks Canada, Government of Alberta, Travel Alberta, Tourism Victoria, World Indigenous Tourism Alliance, Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC), Adventure Travel Trade Association, Tourism Calgary, Tourism Edmonton, Tourism Saskatoon and the Calgary Stampede.

Aside from the main two-day event (held Nov 7th and 8th), an Alberta-focussed pre-conference gathering boasted 200 participants who rallied for the creation of an Indigenous Tourism Association of Alberta, led by Indigenous tourism entrepreneurs (much like similar associations currently thriving in British Columbia and Quebec.)

“There’s a lot of power when we come together,” announced ITAC board director Brenda Holder of Canmore, Alberta’s Mahikan Trails. ITAC identified 86 export-ready Indigenous tourism businesses within the province and offered up three years of financial support and a framework to ensure success for the new association.

During a conversation with attendee Élisabeth Lacoursière, Director of Outreach and Marketing for Parks Canada, I learn that Parks Canada has been establishing relationships with Indigenous partners for years, and that the alliance continues to evolve.

“We already work with more than 300 Indigenous communities across the country. Traditional knowledge regularly informs research, conservation, monitoring, visitor safety, visitor experience and asset management efforts in the field,” explained Lacoursière.

“Today, we’re excited to be working with ITAC on further product development and marketing to support the growth of Indigenous tourism in Canada.”

Renie Arey, Inuvialuit Elder from Aklavik, Ivvavik National Park | Photo courtesy Parks Canada

Lacoursière noted several successful examples of Parks Canada partnerships with Indigenous communities that are up and running — including the arctic base camp in Yukon’s Ivvavik National Park developed collaboratively with the Aklavik Community Corporation, interpretive programs with British Columbia’s Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve alongside the Haida Nation, and heritage camping as part of Alberta’s Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site experience, which is run with the Métis Local 845, the Confluence Heritage Society and the Kis Sai Wah Toe Tat Towin Society.

Spotted Elk Cultural Centre (Brown Bear Woman Meeting Space) | Photo by Neil Zeller courtesy Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

Conference delegates were also invited to experience Painted Warriors Ranch, Spotted Elk Cultural Centre (Brown Bear Woman Meeting Space), Tsuut’ina Nation Culture Museum and a Talking Circle Networking Event.

And a bustling Indigenous Artisan’s Market featuring quality goods for sale had delegates happily shopping between speakers.

Among the market’s many highlights were a gorgeous arts and crafts display courtesy Vancouver Island’s I-Hos Gallery (yes, I may have purchased a silk tie with an orca design), soft beaver fur hand warmers from Northwest Territories-based Aurora Heat and flavourful, freshly roasted coffee from the friendly folks at Spirit Bear Coffee Company.

IATC Marketplace | Photo by Neil Zeller courtesy Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

When asked about his reason for attending, event delegate Todd Labrador, a seventh-generation birch bark canoe builder originally from the Wildcat First Nation in Queens County, Nova Scotia, later insisted that the conference had value for him given his role as a representative of the Mi’kmaq First Nation.

“It was important to meet new people, make new contacts, listen and learn from the successes and challenges of others, and bring back this information to my communities,” said Labrador, who was just named Indigenous artist of the year by Creative Nova Scotia.

He and others were inspired by speakers such as entrepreneur Kylik Kisoun-Taylor of Tundra North Tours who captured the hearts of delegates with his enthusiastic approach to business.

“I love what I do. People say, ‘Aren’t you tired?’ I say ‘No way, man. I’m doing what I love!”

Kisoun-Taylor’s advice to other aspiring tourism entrepreneurs? “Dress nice. Stand out. If someone believes in you, invests in you, then fulfill your obligation as best as you can,” he said. “You have to have a sense of professionalism.”

Dené Sinclair, ITAC Director of Marketing, delivered helpful tips on how entrepreneurs can tee themselves up to be market and export-ready. (So ITAC can confidently market their tourism businesses at home and abroad.)

“Name your Nation in your marketing material, use quality images and put people in those images. Highlight your storytellers,” advised Sinclair, also referring her audience to ITAC’s comprehensive national guidelines.

“Decide how your community wants to be represented,” she continued. “Focus on what makes your business unique and different and keep it engaging and extraordinary.”

A hands down conference highlight was the moment Blackfoot filmmaker and guest speaker Cowboy Smithx — a fierce but hopeful intellectual with an interest in Indigenous identity and a healthy future for the planet — took the stage.

Cowboy Smithx | Photo by Neil Zeller courtesy Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

“Indigenous tourism can work if there is a consideration for all things sustainable. Then, the next big step is authenticity. When you align these intentions together, you’re setting yourself up for success,” said Smithx, the founder of REDx Talks.

“But you also have to consider the reberveration of the frequencies of the land. This has been missing from the Canadian spectrum of identity. Indigenous people have the wifi password to nature, yet Canadians rarely recognize Indigenous connections,” he continued, commenting that he grew up in Southern Alberta as a minority and a foreigner in his own land. (“A very interesting psychological experience for any child to navigate.”)

“This is the only place on the planet you’re going to find those specific connections. You can’t go to Africa to experience the Haida. Or to Europe to experience the Mohawk. And you can’t learn about the Blackfoot way of knowing in Asia. We’ve been waiting in the wings to activate our knowledge. We want to see society thrive and we want to help each other. Tourism can work as a beacon. We have a chance to build a country that is a real country, but that Canada is still to be determined.”

People, continued Smithx, should consider upcoming generations when they make decisions, and conduct themselves as responsible “ancestors of the future.”

Cultural performance at the Indigenous Tourism Awards Gala | Photo by Neil Zeller courtesy Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

The 2017 International Aboriginal Tourism Conference wrapped up with Tsuut’ina-inspired dance performances, music by Blue Moon Marquee and an Awards Gala.

I recently visited Spirit Bear Lodge which is located in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, often referred to as Canada’s Galapagos, so it was thrilling to see this exceptional community-run operation win the Indigenous Adventure Award. (Believe me, you want to visit this magical place.)

Marketing Campaign of the Year winner went to Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival 2017, Most Improved Business of the Year was awarded to Tourism Wendake and Most Inspiring Cultural Ambassador was given to Scott Hudson, Northern Lights Dog Sledding.

Here at home in Alberta, Spotted Elk Camps won Alberta Indigenous Experience Award (Indoor), Mahikan Trails & Painted Warriors tied for Alberta Indigenous Experience Award (Outdoor), Grey Eagle Resort won Alberta Indigenous Lodging Award and Moonstone Creation was the recipient of the Alberta Indigenous Artist/Event Award.

Overall, the 2017 International Aboriginal Tourism conference was nothing if not ambitious. I’m struck by this fact, especially given that I attended last year’s excellent event in Nova Scotia.

No question, the Indigenous tourism movement has gained major traction in short order and the momentum is impressive. With this observation in mind, it makes sense to give the last word to ITAC President and CEO Keith Henry.

“We need to commit to being the best we can be,” declared one of Indigenous tourism’s most impassioned leaders to the sold-out house of conference delegates.

“People want a great experience. That’s our job.”

Kim Gray

Kim Gray

Kim Gray, a Fellow at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, is the editor-in-chief of the award-winning online magazine She’s excited by the potential for Indigenous-led tourism to connect Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians in a positive, honest way. Kim lives in Calgary, Alberta on Treaty 7 territory.