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.
Cultural experiences go well beyond sightseeing to promote understanding and connection.
Paddling a Voyageur canoe down the Ottawa River and hearing tales of life centuries before Canada’s Parliament Buildings dominated the view. Learning to bake bannock in the sand on the shores of the Atlantic. Listening to elders in the Yukon talk about the creator and long-reaching matrilineal clans. Visitors from all over the world are learning that Indigenous peoples and lifestyles which have thrived over millennia. People across Canada are hungry to find out about ancient history in their backyards as well as understand more recent, difficult events.
“People are looking for a change in regard to how they see First Nations,” says Patricia Dunnett, manager at Metepenagiag Heritage Park in Red Bank, New Brunswick. “Tourism is a way to make that connection. People are invited into communities, into businesses, and they take part in some kind of experience. They’re engaging with Indigenous people and learning.”
The experiences available to visitors are as vast and varied as the hundreds of Indigenous communities on the land—from coast to coast to coast. Tour 3,000-year-old Mi’kmaq archeological mounds at Metepenagiag in the Maritimes, marvel at beautiful carvings on poles at Haida Heritage Centre at Ḵay Llnagaay on Haida Gwaii off British Columbia, and wander a recreated village and make a dreamcatcher at the Traditional Huron Site near Quebec City. Research from Destination Canada shows that visitors—both foreign and domestic—are eager to engage in authentic First Nations, Inuit and Métis experiences, from signing up to see a powwow with Aboriginal Experiences in Ottawa to taking part in a smudge in Saskatchewan.
“We smudge to replenish ourselves, to cleanse ourselves,” says Ashley Rabbitskin, Visitor Services Senior Interpreter at Wanuskewin Heritage Park near Saskatoon. “When we give our talks we emphasize a lot about tobacco. We teach the importance of this plant and how we use it to give thanks to the plants, the animals and the creator.”
Some Indigenous tour operators delve into painful but important history—police seizing ceremonial masks, scores of residential schools and other devastating effects of colonization in Canada. Guides at Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre in Whitehorse, for example, talk about how to take steps toward reconciliation. At Wanuskewin, when visitors take a medicine walk or attend a tipi raising, they walk away with a sense of ancient knowledge as well as some insight into current realities. “People are trying to understand Indigenous people because of the pain that was inflicted on us by colonization. That’s the story that wasn’t acknowledged for so long,” says Rabbitskin. “Now, people have a better understanding of us and why there are so many of my people are hurting.”
Learning more about history—and Indigenous resilience—goes a long way toward furthering reconciliation, says Dunnett. “I see a younger generation exploring their surroundings and wanting to meet Indigenous people. I really feel that it’s going to make a difference. We have had a long history of struggle in Canada. The changes that are taking place now are an opportunity to put people on the right path to engaging and learning to appreciate our culture.”
That appreciation extends within First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities as well. Yet another benefit to sharing experiences across the country is that Indigenous people too are learning more about their own and other cultures. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of that traditional knowledge,” says Leah Wainwright, cultural programs coordinator at Kwanlin Dun. “I started learning more when I was in my twenties and became more involved with the community.” Inuit and First Nations guides at Kwanlin Dun receive training on many topics, from residential schools and self-governing to the significance of the Chu Nínkwän (or Yukon River). “The whole point of the cultural centre is to share knowledge about the First Nations that a lot of people don’t know,” says Wainwright. “We do that through programming, traditional workshops and elders who are keen to pass knowledge on to the next generation.”
Visitor experiences not only enrich knowledge of the deep and distinct Indigenous cultures across Canada, they also inform people about their place in the world. “We are no different than each other. We’re not separate. We complement each other,” says Rabbitskin. “We rely on the plants and animals to survive but they don’t rely on us at all. We are rebuilding relationships with creation, with plants and animals. And, once you build a connection, you will never look at them as separate. They are a part of who you are, and who we all are in the bigger picture.”
Written by Jennifer Allford