The Homalco (Xwémalhkwu) People are colloquially known as “the people of the fast-running waters”. This Nation’s namesake is galvanized by the coursing currents woven throughout these traditional territories, found off the west coast of (what is now known as) Canada. Since time immemorial, The Xwémalhkwu have inhabited the Bute Inlet (Northeast of Campbell River) and surrounding waters. While they were some of the earliest-known residents of Vancouver Island, they peacefully cohabited this landmass alongside Klahoose, Island Comox, Lakwiltok, and Sliammon Nations, and adopted the dialect of the Mainland Comox. Much like the waterways that are so foundational to this culture, the history of the Xwémalhkwu is undoubtedly turbulent. Even so, the members of this community remain indomitable in their reverence for three things: Their people, their water and their land.

Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours encapsulates these timeless values with their brand new tour aptly titled “The People, Water and Land Cultural Tour (PWLT)“. Having garnered widespread acclaim for their wildlife excursions, which commonly offer unparalleled viewings of grizzlies, orcas, and humpbacks, Homalco Tours’ post-COVID programming includes a more intimate immersion into the Xwémalhkwu way of life. A poignant extension to an already riveting Indigenous tourism experience, The guided answers the nationwide call for Reconciliation-focused experiences in recent years. 

A charter boat with a red-roof slowly moving over the Salish Sea next to a tree lined, rock shore

The gravitas, however, isn’t constant throughout the 5-hour itinerary. In this case, the breezy commute is as much a part of the experience as the on-site teachings. We embarked on this educational journey at the Coast Discovery Marina in Campbell River, where our local guide briefed us on the day to come. From there, a beautiful new fleet of charter boats was available to take us on an hour-long journey through the Salish Sea, docking at the departure point of the walking tour. This boat cruise is accompanied by a cultural overview and traditional storytelling, with incremental (welcomed) interruptions from playful sea lions and breaching humpback whales.

This walking tour takes place in the historic village of Aupe, which translates as Church House in colonial English. The interpretive excursion viscerally immerses the audience in the complex history of the Xwémalhkwu. As we traversed through the pacific foliage, our guide gently explained how the Oblate fathers colonized their land in the 1860’s. This time was the catalyst for the total uprooting of age-old practices, as the missionaries discarded any evidence of the Xwémalhkwu way, including regalia, masks, and carvings. Moreover, the life-long residents of this community were now forbidden to practice traditional songs, dances, and ceremonies. 

A playful sea lion breaches pacific coastal waters against a dense, coniferous tree lined shore

Perhaps the most sinister repercussion of this encroachment was the prohibition of traditional language, which was displaced by the strict enforcement of Christian values. At the onset of the 20th century, the Oblate priests relocated the Xwémalhkwu people to a site called “Muuskin” (Old Church House) on the Sonara Island. This placement was short-lived as the winter winds in that region proved insurmountable to its populace and structures. 

At this point, the Xwémalhkwu community was placed at the mouth of the Bute Inlet in the heart of the Calm Passage, commonly known as “Aupe”. This region, which is sheltered from strong winds and is rich with bountiful marine wildlife, was the scenic setting for the aforementioned “People, Water Land Tour”. In the modern day, the island is entirely uninhabited (with the exception of the odd black bear), as the residents disbanded in the early 1980s. 

An Indigenous guide walks a tour group past an old white building, covered in vines, and surrounded by over-grown grass and coastal plants

By the early 1890s, Residential Schools were strictly enforced within this community when the Federal Government implemented these oppressive systems nationwide. While we walked past the remains of the former schoolhouse, our guide solemnly lamented about the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of the Xwémalhkwu People and the intergenerational scars that remain to this day. This now deteriorated seminary hosted the loss of family units, culture, and language, and yielded trauma that will continue to haunt the Xwémalhkwu for years to come. 

As we departed from the derelict remains of this painfully historic site, our guide triumphantly reflected on the community’s resilience as we journeyed through the ramble. We eventually found ourselves at a clearing, which showcased an incomparable vantage point of the Salish Sea. Here, we split into pairs and were taught how to hand weave traditional cedar bracelets, proudly practicing Xwémalhkwu values in the exact site that hosted their century-long suppression. 

A man and woman standing among cedar trees, tying hand-woven, traditional cedar bracelets to their wrists

While brandishing northwest-coastal values on our wrists, we reflected on our day, gazing over the pacific horizon. Our guide graciously honoured the moment as she scored the gentle flow of the tide with the haunting melody of The Warrior Women Song (By Martina Pierre of the Lil’wat Nation). During this time, having gained more perspective on the tragic impacts of Residential Schools than ever before, it became abundantly clear that tourism is a viable and actionable path toward Reconciliation. 

A traditional Xwémalhkwu woman sings, and drums near the edge of a clearing over-looking the Salish Sea


Zane Buchanan

Zane Buchanan

Zane, a Métis writer, producer, and digital storyteller based in Vancouver, British Columbia, takes great pride in the diverse career path he has forged. Starting as a freelance journalist, he transitioned into travel media when he was appointed the 2019 Saskatchewanderer by Tourism Saskatchewan. This experience solidified his standing in the tourism sector and paved the way for his work with the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC). At ITAC, Zane contributes to the creative direction of The Original Original authentication program and Destination Indigenous (ITAC’s consumer-facing presence). He oversees content and brand integrity while also serving as the executive editor of Nations Magazine.Beyond ITAC, Zane regularly contributes to Canadian Geographic, focusing on ethical travel. His contributions have earned him the esteemed title of a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and he serves as a judge for the Travel Media Association of Canada Awards. His leadership includes a direct partnership with the Assembly of First Nations, with whom he attended the Historic Papal Visits in Rome in April 2022, in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action.As a sought-after speaker, Zane has presented at renowned conferences and events such as South by Southwest (SXSW), The SEE Conference, The International Indigenous Tourism Conference (IITC), and The IMPACT Conference. His influence extends to other creative mediums, including presenting the Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year Award at the Juno Awards Ceremony annually.Beyond his various roles, Zane is the founder and creative director of CIVL Creative, a digital agency designed to meet the unique needs of nonprofits and social enterprises.