When it comes to tourism, it’s time for Canada to stop try­ing to be all things to all peo­ple, and em­brace what re­ally makes us unique: our in­dige­nous his­tory

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - By Bert Archer

Even by Nu­navut’s rar­efied def­i­ni­tion of such things, Arviat is re­mote. It’s a 90- minute flight north of Churchill, Man., on a small plane flown by First Air or the al­most al­ways mis­lead­ingly named Calm Air, and about as far west as you can get in Canada’s big­gest ter­ri­tory. But then, for in­ter­na­tional tourists with a cer­tain no­tion of Canada, that is the point. This is wilder­ness. This is the Arc­tic.

With a pop­u­la­tion of about 3,000, Arviat is Nu­navut’s se­cond- big­gest town, but given its ge­o­graph­i­cal soli­tude — it’s about as far from Nu­navut’s cap­i­tal of Iqaluit as Bu­dapest is from Paris — it has de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the North’s most tra­di­tional spots. Tourists love tra­di­tional. So when some lo­cals started up Arviat Com­mu­nity Eco­tourism in 2013 the travel in­dus­try took no­tice.

ACE was of­fer­ing not so much a tourist at­trac­tion as a door into a world few know much about. Buy­ing a pack­age would get you ex­pe­ri­ences like sit­ting in a tupiq — the Inuit equiv­a­lent of a tipi — lis­ten­ing to el­ders’ sto­ries, and eat­ing mikku (dried cari­bou) and pipsi (char) be­fore be­ing taken out onto the land by hun­ters, the men who are still the an­chors in this place where few work at wage-earn­ing jobs. Vis­i­tors could even stay with an Inuit fam­ily if they wanted.

Within a year, a high- end cruise ship, part of the Ital­ian ul­tra- luxe Sil­versea, put Arviat on its itin­er­ary. The North is pop­u­lar for Euro­pean cruises and ex­pe­di­tions, but they rarely ven­ture that far east. I met the Sil­verseas CEO, the im­prob­a­bly named Man­fredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio di Bal­so­rano di Clu­nieres, just af­ter ACE won a prize from the World Travel and Tourism Coun­cil as the best com­mu­nity tourist op­er­a­tion in the world. He told me his time in Arviat was a great trip, “very spe­cial,” that his clients had loved it, and that he hoped to sail one of his ships back again soon.

But now, he may have to wait a while. Within six months of win­ning that prize, Arviat Com­mu­nity Eco­tourism qui­etly dis­ap­peared when its di­rec­tor’s con­tract wasn’t re­newed, and with it went the means for vis­i­tors to ex­pe­ri­ence this place.

The fate of ACE points to a larger prob­lem: Canada doesn’t do tourism well. On the World Travel and Tourism Coun­cil ( WTTC) global list, we rank 160th ( the world only has 194 coun­tries). Our coun­try’s in­abil­ity to sup­port the travel in­dus­try is caus­ing us to miss out on po­ten­tially bil­lions in lost rev­enue, and cost­ing this coun­try’s First Na­tions and Inuit peo­ple the op­por­tu­nity of a life­time.

There’s not a sin­gle prob­lem that has plunged us so far down that WTTC list, but there is a sim­ple fac­tor: we are not sell­ing what tourists are buy­ing. ACE of­fered the sort of tourism the world wants from Canada, but we so rarely of­fer it. Places like Arviat and the Arvi­ammiut — na­tive Cana­di­ans, First Na­tions, Métis and Inuit — are what Canada has that the rest of the world does not.

A quick look through any of­fi­cial Cana­dian tourism mar­ket­ing ma­te­rial shows you the prob­lem right away. Visit Canada! Our cities are cos­mopoli­tan! And our theatre, you re­ally should check out our theatre. And did we men­tion ski­ing? And moun­tains. And prairies. And lakes.

Desti­na­tion Canada, the newly re­branded govern­ment-funded agency re- spon­si­ble for mar­ket­ing us to the world, for tak­ing our bite out of the $7-tril­lion global travel and tourism pie, con­tin­ues to make sim­i­lar mis­takes as coun­tries like Mace­do­nia and Slove­nia make. We are try­ing to be all things to all peo­ple, be­cause we don’t have enough con­fi­dence to put our money be­hind any one or two ma­jor things, like France does with its food and wine, or Italy with its his­tory and art.

That’s how tourism works. It’s only the big stuff, the defin­ing, char­ac­ter­is­tic, of­ten stereo­typ­i­cal things that have suf­fi­cient mag­netism to draw masses of peo­ple across oceans and con­ti­nents. And the far­ther away you are from your po­ten­tial mar­ket, and the more sparsely pop­u­lated or de­vel­oped, the clearer your mes­sage has to be. New Zealand’s lovely, but if you’re from North Amer­ica or Europe, so are lots of much closer places. It takes more to get us onto those long-haul flights.

Talk to po­ten­tial tourists in Europe or Asia, and you’ll see we al­ready own wilder­ness. Peo­ple love our big open spa­ces and the an­i­mals that roam, scut­tle and flut­ter through them. But drop by one of the three an­nual Karl May fes­ti­vals across Ger­many, at­tract­ing tens of thou­sands to the 19th- and 20th- cen­tury nov­el­ist’s take on cow­boys and In­di­ans and you’ ll no­tice some­thing else. May has sold 100 mil­lion copies of his books in Ger­many, and an­other 100 mil­lion in the rest of

We didn’t re­place racist de­pic­tions with any­thing. We just erased in­di­gene­ity from the land­scape.

Europe. And un­like the pop­u­lar U. S. take on the same sub­ject, May’s he­roes are al­ways the In­di­ans. They’re ro­man­ti­cized be­yond all rea­son, and not even a lit­tle au­then­tic. But that’s not so much a prob­lem as an op­por­tu­nity for in­dige­nous Cana­dian en­trepreneurs. Fol­low the sale paths of Inuit sculp­ture — to Ger­many, Italy, France, Switzer­land, Aus­tralia — and you’ll no­tice the same thing. You’ll also see it cy­cling as I did re­cently through small towns in Switzer­land and Aus­tria, where back­yard tipis are more pop­u­lar than tents and cas­tles for kids to play in. There’s a deep, broad and abid­ing fas­ci­na­tion with a fun­da­men­tal as­pect of Canada. And we’re all but ig­nor­ing in­dige­nous Cana­di­ans and the tourist busi­nesses they could and in many in­stances al­ready do have.

Keith Henry, head of the Abo­rig­i­nal Tourism As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada (ATAC), tells the same story.

“We were just in China a few weeks ago,” he says, talk­ing about the lat­est in a string of in­ter­na­tional travel and tourism trade shows he at­tends on be­half of his mem­bers. “I find they re­ally want to know the his­tory and cul­ture of Canada, more than peo­ple re­al­ize.” And for them, his­tory and cul­ture is abo­rig­i­nal his­tory and cul­ture. If they want whiteguy Euro­cen­tric stuff, they go to Europe. “What’s the ac­tual his­tory of this land?” he says he’s asked. “It can’t just be since 1867.”

Henry’s as­so­ci­a­tion has 1,527 mem­bers. Ho­tels and lodges, mu­se­ums and gal­leries, work­shops and restau­rants, camps and boat­ing com­pa­nies, op­er­a­tions owned and run by in­dige­nous busi­ness peo­ple and fo­cused on the mul­ti­plic­ity of ex­tra­or­di­nary — and to much of the world exquisitely ex­otic — cul­tures and his­to­ries within our bor­ders. Fo­cus­ing on them, let­ting the world know about them and invit­ing it in, could go a long way to­ward not only fish­ing us out of our na­tional pit of touris­tic de­spond, but also to in­cor­po­rat­ing Na­tive peo­ple into our sense of our­selves as a na­tion, and in­ci­den­tally cre­at­ing thou­sands of jobs and en­tre­pre­neur­ial op­por­tu­ni­ties in the process.

But Henry’s got a prob­lem: of those 1,527 mem­bers, only a few hun­dred are what he would call mar­ket-ready, able to take book­ings on­line, for in­stance, or ne­go­ti­ate with tour com­pa­nies for their web of dis­counts and com­mis­sions. ATAC started of­fer­ing its first mar­ket- readi­ness work­shops at the end of Oc­to­ber, and he says the up­take is strong. But if he’s go­ing to build and ex­pand those busi­nesses, he’s go­ing to need help.

Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture used to be a part of Canada’s tourism pitch. Take a look at pen­nants — those retro felt sou­venirs for cities from Ni­a­gara Falls to Vic­to­ria, Revel­stoke to Thorn­bury — fes­tooned with men in feather headdresses. We knew peo­ple liked this stuff, and we gave it to them.

Of course, all of this was a one- di­men­sional, some­times racist de­pic­tion of Canada’s in­dige­nous life — so in time, we duly stepped back from it. The prob­lem

‘What’s the ac­tual his­tory of this land?’ he says he’s asked. ‘It can’t

just be since 1867.’

New Zealand’s Maori-based tourism is worth $5 bil­lion

a year.

is we didn’t re­place that with any­thing. We just erased in­di­gene­ity from the Cana­dian land­scape. Harper even got rid of Haida artist Bill Reid’s Jade Ca­noe from the $20 bill in 2012, re­plac­ing it with the Vimy mon­u­ment.

But it’s a new day, as high­lighted so hope­fully on Nov. 4 when ev­ery point of the prime min­is­te­rial and cab­i­net swear­ing-in cer­e­mony was punc­tu­ated by abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture, from the ac­knowl­edg­ment of the tra­di­tion­ally Al­go­nquin land Rideau Hall sits on, right through to the over­flow­ingly joy­ful throat singing from two 11-year-old Inuit girls. And we can do more to sup­port na­tive cul­ture, partly by sim­ply get­ting out of the way to let them rep­re­sent them­selves, but also by of­fer­ing abo­rig­i­nal tourist busi­nesses the same level of sup­port we give our vine­yards and ski re­sorts.

Desti­na­tion Canada has a pro­gram it calls Sig­na­ture Ex­pe­ri­ences, for in­stance, a list of at­trac­tions it calls spe­cial at­ten­tion to and of­fers ex­tra pro­mo­tional as­sis­tance. There are 183 of them; seven are iden­ti­fi­ably Na­tive.

The Skwachays Lodge on Van­cou­ver’s east side is not on that list. I’ve writ­ten in th­ese pages be­fore that I think it’s the best ho­tel in the coun­try, owned by the Van­cou­ver Na­tive Hous­ing So­ci­ety. Each room is de­signed by a dif­fer­ent in­dige­nous artist and the food is from Ojibwa Theresa Con­tois’ Cedar Feast House Cater­ing.

The Bill Reid Gallery’s not on that list ei­ther. Tucked away be­side Christ Church Cathe­dral, it’s the thun­deregg from which Bri­tish Columbia’s Haidain­flu­enced graphic iden­tity was born. You can’t go very far in any di­rec­tion in the prov­ince with­out en­coun­ter­ing one of those bold, parti-coloured killer whales, salmon or masks.

B.C. is ac­tu­ally the one part of Canada that gets it. In 2005- 06, the pro­vin­cial govern­ment de­cided to in­vest $10 mil­lion over five years to de­velop, sup­port and pro­mote in­dige­nous tourism ini­tia­tives. Not a big com­mit­ment, but it worked. In 2006, abo­rig­i­nal tourism in B.C. was worth $20 mil­lion; in 2014, it was $60 mil­lion.

Paula Amos is the mar­ket­ing man­ager of Abo­rig­i­nal Tourism B.C., the or­ga­ni­za­tion founded in 2007 to iden­tify, de­velop and mar­ket abo­rig­i­nal tourist sites across the prov­ince. Speak­ing with me over sup­per at Salmon n’ Ban­nock, Nux­alk Na­tion mem­ber Inez Cook’s cozy, pop­u­lar First Na­tions restau­rant on West Broad­way, Amos — of Hesquiaht and Squamish de­scent — tells me abo­rig­i­nal tourism could be reach­ing a wa­ter­shed in B.C.

“We’re see­ing now that First Na­tions are re­ally look­ing at tourism as an eco­nomic driver in the com­mu­ni­ties, where even two or three years ago they didn’t,” she says over a sub­tly sweet and just as sub­tly sour soap­ber­ry­based dish the menu de­scribes as In­dian ice cream. “Now they’re look­ing at oil and gas in our front yard, say­ing, ‘ Well, we re­ally don’t want that,’ and look­ing for al­ter­na­tives.”

A Gulf-state friend of mine — a guy from a re­gion with loads of dis­pos­able in­come and no real tourism pres­ence in Canada — was with me on that trip. We ate at a lot of lovely places, but Salmon n’ Ban­nock is the one he re­mem­bers and talked about for months af­ter­wards. He’d never ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing like it.

Ac­cord­ing to Keith Henry, him­self a Saskatchewan Métis who was head of the B.C. abo­rig­i­nal tourism as­so­ci­a­tion be­fore he moved to ATAC, one in four tourists re­port want­ing some sort of abo­rig­i­nal ex­pe­ri­ence while vis­it­ing B.C. “I think the rest of the coun­try needs to pay strong at­ten­tion to what’s hap­pened in B.C.,” he says. “We need to cre­ate that same en­vi­ron­ment in ev­ery prov­ince and ter­ri­tory, and within Desti­na­tion Canada’s brand.”

Nu­navut and Win­nipeg would be great places to start.

Al­most the en­tirety of Nu­navut’s pop­u­la­tion of 30,000 is Inuit, mak­ing al­most any­thing you do up there an Inuit ex­pe­ri­ence. And though many ships from the seven com­pa­nies that ply its wa­ters con­cen­trate on things like ice­bergs and po­lar bears, Ad­ven­ture Canada is an ex­am­ple of a Cana­dian com­pany that un­der­stands that peo­ple are the more pro­found and last­ing tourism draw. Though owned by a Mis­sis­sauga fam­ily of Euro­pean de­scent, Ad­ven­ture Canada puts a strong em­pha­sis on the Inuit them­selves, with lo­cals hired to give talks, teach Inuk­ti­tut, lead tours and gen­er­ally min­gle with tourists who have spent as much as $ 15,000 each for the priv­i­lege. I’ve seen Aaju Peter, an Or­der of Canada-hon­oured pro-seal hunt ac­tivist with an im­pres­sively force­ful per­son­al­ity, change a ship­ful of minds on the sub­ject.

Ad­ven­ture Canada, a favourite of Mar­garet At­wood and Ken McGoogan, sails to Cape Dorset, birth­place of mod­ern Inuit carv­ing, and Pang­nir­tung, where two Inuit tour com­pa­nies have been op­er­at­ing for more than two decades, and down to Kan­gir­su­juac in Nu­navik (Inuit Que­bec), where the son of the late Mi­tiar­juk Nap­paaluk, the first Inuk to have writ­ten a novel ( it’s called Sanaaq, and it’s good), will sign a copy of it for you, and sell you some nice seal­skins if you like, too.

Win­nipeg is per­haps a less ob­vi­ous abo­rig­i­nal tourist draw, but it has great po­ten­tial. As of the last census, the city reg­is­tered as home to more First Na­tions and Inuit peo­ple than any­where else in the coun­try.

Lower Fort Garry is nearby, where the first treaty be­tween the First Na­tions and the new na­tion of Canada was signed, an event cel­e­brated by a huge pow wow ev­ery Au­gust (I caught the end of it last year; it’s a blast).

It’s where Riel House is, as well as the St. Boni­face Mu­seum, with the big­gest col­lec­tion of Riel ar­ti­facts any­where, in­clud­ing a piece of the rope that hanged this man who, were we bet­ter at telling sto­ries about our­selves than we are, would be our Robe­spierre, our Nathan Hale, our Che Gue­vara ( T-shirt screen­ers, take note).

The Win­nipeg Art Gallery also has the world’s big­gest col­lec­tion of Inuit sculp­ture. I haven’t al­ways been a fan of the stuff my­self. Un­til this past sum­mer, I had writ­ten it off as be­ing of more an­thro­po­log­i­cal than artis­tic in­ter­est. Then I went to the WAG, where Grand­mother’s String Game by Joseph Aglukkaq per­fectly cap­tures the men­ace and hi­lar­ity of old peo­ple as seen through the eyes of a child, and Lukie Airut’s The Story of Muskox and Drum, a tragi­comic em­bod­i­ment of the per­ils of the hunt, changed my mind in an af­ter­noon.

There’s a knock-on ef­fect at the gallery, too. Each sculp­ture’s cu­ra­to­rial tag men­tions the place the artist is from. You see enough Cape Dorsets and Arvi­ats and Pang­nir­tungs be­side the pieces you re­ally like, and you’re go­ing to want to see what kind of com­mu­nity can pro­duce so many artists, and maybe get a piece for your­self.

“I think we need to cre­ate a mar­ket­ing pro­gram specif­i­cally for abo­rig­i­nal tourism,” Henry says. “We have to re­ally mar­ket abo­rig­i­nal tourism in a way that doesn’t get lost in the clut­ter of all the other stuff that’s there. There’s such a lack of education and aware­ness in so many mar­kets that abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple are still alive, that they still have their cul­ture, that they still speak their lan­guage.”

Fund­ing would cer­tainly help. ATAC, a na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion, has an an­nual bud­get of $250,000. A great many of us have mort­gages big­ger than that. Nu­navut Tourism has $3.2 mil­lion an­nu­ally, but ac­cord­ing to CEO Kevin Kelly, pre­cisely noth­ing to spend on in­ter­na­tional pro­mo­tion or mar­ket­ing.

But the money would have to go to the right peo­ple. “The abo­rig­i­nal tourism that we’re promis­ing is owned and op­er­ated by abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties and en­tre­pre­neur,” says Henry. “Most of what I see else­where is owned by govern­ment and other non-abo­rig­i­nal part­ners. We have a mar­ket­ing ad­van­tage. When we de­fine au­then­tic­ity, we say we own and op­er­ate. That’s big dif­fer­ence that we haven’t re­al­ized.”

One coun­try Henry sees as an ex­am­ple is New Zealand. The Maori, New Zealand’s non-Euro­pean set­tlers, are in­te­gral to the na­tion’s in­ter­na­tional iden­tity. Air New Zealand has a styl­ized Maori fern sym­bol as its cor­po­rate logo, and ev­ery pas­sen­ger is wel­comed on board each flight with “Kiora,” Maori for hello.

This is in no small part be­cause of govern­ment sup­port. New Zealand’s pri­or­i­tizes vis­i­tor en­gage­ment with lo­cal cul­ture, and funds its Maori tourism agency with $ 1.5 mil­lion a year. That’s six times Henry’s bud­get, and it comes from an econ­omy one tenth the size of Canada’s.

The pay­off is huge: New Zealand’s Maori- based tourism is worth $ 5 bil­lion a year. And it is per­haps not en­tirely co­in­ci­den­tal that their place on that Tourism Coun­cil rank­ing is 58, 102 spots ahead of us.

With the right in­vest­ment, and ded­i­ca­tion to a part­ner­ship of equals, places like Arviat and Win­nipeg could well be­come Canada’s new tourist pow­er­houses.

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