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Tourism on 'the rez'

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.canada.com/montrealgazette/news/travel/story.html?id=e05e8c9a-f2 4f-4e97-9b4c-8ccf518db4d4 Spirit of enterprise Tourism on the rez is helping
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 6, 2007

      Spirit of enterprise
      Tourism on 'the rez' is helping native bands wean themselves from welfare
      and preserve their culture

      Karen Mazurkewich
      Financial Post

      Saturday, July 07, 2007

      Anti-logging protests were a normal part of life for Gisele Martin. As a
      kid growing up in Clayoquot Sound, she watched her father, a leader from
      the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations tribe, participate in blockades with his
      handmade cedar dugout canoe.

      Predictably, the protests attracted journalists from far and wide. But
      unexpectedly, all that media coverage attracted tourists, too.

      "After the 1993 blockades, people started coming and asking to see the big
      trees," says Ms. Martin. Her father, who skippered a whale-watching boat,
      recruited his young daughter as an interpretive guide. Now 29, Ms. Martin
      has taken that experience and turned it into an eco-tourism operation of
      her own, using her father's handmade dugout boats for excursions to
      old-growth forests. "I don't want to sell my culture, but I want to share
      it," she says.

      Having helped save the land, the Martin family is now making a living off
      it. Ms. Martin is one of the new breed of aboriginal business leaders who
      view tourism as both a viable enterprise and a way of preserving a unique
      lifestyle. According to the National Study on Aboriginal Tourism released
      in 2003, there are more than 1,500 First Nation businesses catering to

      Traditionally relying on government subsidies and casino revenues, there is
      "enough expertise and business entities to take it to the next level," says
      Daniel-Paul Bork, CEO, Aboriginal Tourism Canada, the organization that
      commissioned the 2003 study. As more aboriginal students graduate
      university with degrees in commerce and marketing, "more First Nations
      communities are stepping up to the plate," he says. "They realize that they
      no longer need to lease out their resources -- they can run the operations

      While tourism will not solve all the social and political problems facing
      aboriginal bands across Canada -- as highlighted in the wave of First
      Nations protests Canada Day long weekend -- it has become a successful
      strategy for some leaders across the country.

      Chief Sophie Pierre of the Ktunaxa Kinbasket Tribal Council in B.C.'s
      Kootenay region is a trailblazer. Chief Pierre had the moxie to turn a
      hated symbol, a residential school -- the St. Eugene Mission School --and
      its accompanying buildings into a golf course, resort, casino and
      conference centre. The mission school sat empty --like a scab -- for 20
      years. Some argued for its conversion to a health or social welfare centre,
      but that meant turning to the federal government for money, says Chief

      "I wanted something revenue-generating," she says. A playground for
      Calgary's weekend warriors since its launch in 2003, the residential
      school-turned-resort brings in an estimated $13.6-million in annual revenue
      for the Ktunaxa Kinbasket band. The tribe is still in treaty negotiations
      with the government, but tourism has helped the band move forward, away
      from its cycle of government dependency. "Everyone's realized we need
      interim solutions," she says.

      Self-reliance is a theme that permeates many of these First Nations
      start-ups. Chief Clarence Louie, leader of Osoyoos band in the Okanagan, is
      weaning his formerly bankrupt band off welfare subsidies with various
      tourism-related projects that bring in an estimated $13-million annually. A
      maverick leader in the First Nations community, Chief Louie weathered
      opposition on "the rez," and turned the band's wilting vineyard operation
      into the award-winning Nk'Mip winery through a partnership with Vincor
      International. The band also built the Nk'Mip Desert and First Nations
      Heritage Centre, and has just completed the Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort
      and Spa, a four-star property on reserve territory, with Calgary-based
      partner Bellstar Hotels & Resorts.

      The 47-year-old chief has no time for talk about broken treaty promises --
      "I don't have any faith in the Queen" -- and dismisses concerns that a
      winery might encourage drinking. For Chief Louie the winery is simply good
      business and good business practices alleviate poverty, the root of social
      problems like alcoholism. He's a pragmatic man: "We are in a wine-growing
      region. Your region dictates to a large extent what you do economically --
      whether you are white or native."

      While Chief Louie says his band embarked in the tourism sector for the same
      reasons white people do -- to create jobs and make money -- he says the
      band's business model is not only about the bottom line.

      "We have our social and environmental responsibilities, cultural
      responsibilities and we put a lot of our profits back into the community,"
      he says. He's confident the sector has future potential because the
      Aboriginal brand is unique in Canada: "If you want to learn about Scottish
      culture you go to Scotland. If you want to learn about French culture you
      go to France. But if you want to learn about Mohawk culture, you have to go
      to Mohawk territory."

      Chief Louie's tourism model, while criticized by some native leaders who
      consider it a sell-out, has become the template for many bands across the
      country. At least four new interpretive centres will open in 2007-2008,
      including Metepenagiag Heritage Park in New Brunswick, the Blackfoot
      Crossing Historical Park in Alberta, the Haida Heritage Centre at
      Qay'llnagaay in Haida Gwaii along the coast of British Columbia and the
      Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, B.C. Other new ventures
      include the Wei Wai Kum Cruise Ship terminal, which was officially opened
      in June by the Campbell River Indian band in B. C., and the new Wendake
      museum and hotel complex on the Hurons-Wedat reserve along the Okiawenrakh
      River to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Quebec City.

      These are adding to established tourist-related native businesses, such as
      First Air, the airline that was purchased by Makivik Corp. of Kuujjuaq. The
      corporation was created on behalf of the Inuit of northern Quebec.

      While many of the new ventures are developed by band councils, an
      increasing number of aboriginal entrepreneurs have struck out on their own,
      bypassing band politics. Doug Green runs Cariboo Chitcotin Jetboat
      Adventures near William's Lake in the Interior of B.C. The only
      aboriginal-run jet boat tour company in the province, and operating in a
      remote part of the province, he promises such idyllic experiences as
      watching the salmon spawn and grizzlies feast. Mr. Green didn't grow up on
      a reservation, but he received valuable life lessons from his father, who
      once made him crawl into a den to touch a sleeping bear.

      Mr. Green, who is of Tsilhqot'in and Cree heritage, chose not to go to his
      band for financial support. Instead, the former tree feller relied on his
      own credit rating, plus blood, sweat and tears to launch his operation. He
      travelled to see how other aboriginal groups marketed tourism, and checked
      out his competition in the province. Bookings are growing but, "it's a
      struggle," he admits. Despite the financial uncertainty, he's convinced
      tourism will be "front and centre" of the B.C. economy as the forestry
      industry declines. "The province should be promoting aboriginal people, not
      non-native companies hiring token Indians as guides," he says. Tourists, he
      says, want an authentic experience.

      One of the biggest challenges for small operators like Mr. Green, is
      tapping into the network of international tour groups. The greatest
      interest in aboriginal cultural packages is from outside Canada,
      particularly Europe, according to Audry Lochrie who runs Talking Totem
      Tours, a company that organizes native cultural and eco-tourism packages
      throughout British Columbia. She knits together tours by entrepreneurs like
      Willie Charlie, who created Sasquatch Tours three years ago. As a former
      cultural worker hired by the Chehalis First Nations band, Mr. Charlie found
      himself frequently "wining and dining" visitors interested in learning more
      about native people. "There was so much interest, I thought this could be a
      living," he says. Leveraging talent as storytellers, drummers and bark
      weavers, his family opened its longhouse to visitors and began running boat
      trips along the Harrison River and Harrison Lake in the southern mountain
      region of B.C., to view ancient pictographs painted on the rocks. Mr.
      Charlie has a story at every bend in the river. He believes that he and
      others like him are helping fuel a revival of traditional ways.

      It wasn't long ago when the government banned potlatches, says Mr. Charlie.
      "So our elders stayed quiet about our songs and dances and then didn't
      teach their children because they were afraid that they'd be punished," he
      says. "Now the elders say it's OK to pass it on now -- it's time to share
      these stories again." Better still, it's providing employment for the

      Tourism has kept Mr. Charlie's sons -- in their 20s -- on the land, for
      now. It also afforded Ms. Martin the opportunity to quit her dead-end
      waitress job and reconnect with her native roots. Tourists are always
      throwing Ms. Martin curveballs, asking her such tough questions as: What is
      the traditional use of jellyfish? "It makes me think about my culture every
      single day," she says.

      © National Post 2007
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