OUR HOME AND NATIVE BRAND.
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
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
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.