Story by Miranda Post
On June 21, people across the country celebrate the contributions of aboriginal people to Canada’s history, culture, landscape and economy. There’s no better way to experience and honour aboriginal culture than visiting a destination owned and operated by local aboriginal people.
In British Columbia, aboriginal tourism opportunities are a plenty. From the shores of remote Haida Gwaii to the golf courses of the East Kootenays to the wine cellars of the South Okanagan, there are many ways to see BC through an aboriginal lens. Plus, what better way to celebrate National Aboriginal Day than to visit one of the province’s most spectacular ports of call? Herewith, a list of some of my favourites.
This compilation spans the province but by no means is all inclusive, but it is genuine and I hope it helps you plan your next getaway.
St. Eugene’s Golf Resort and Casino: Out of darkness, can come light. When the Ktunaxa First Nation near Cranbrook wanted to expand their community’s business opportunities, they decided to convert St. Eugene’s Residential School into a multi-faceted resort.
Today, the historic building and property houses a 125-room, three-diamond hotel, casino and golf course. Located in a picturesque river valley, St. Eugene’s features a much-lauded 18-hole golf course. Nestled near the St. Mary River in between the Kootenay Rockies and Purcell Mountains, St. Eugene’s is just about five minutes from the Canadian Rockies International Airport. St. Eugene’s has four eateries: the Purcell Grill, Fisher Peak Lounge, 19th Hole Bar & Grill, and Fred’s Saloon. Visitors wanting to learn more about Ktunaxa (pronounced too-nah-hah) culture can visit the resort’s interpretive centre, which displays artifacts and details of the community’s history and mythology. Admission to the centre is by donation.
Ksan Historical Village & Museum: This attraction near the northern town of Hazelton is on Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert. It is far closer to the Alaskan border than it is to British Columbia’s well-known southern cities. If you’re in this remote part of the province, be sure to stop in at this alluring replicated Gitxsan village.
Located on the shores of the Skeena River, just south of where it joins up with the Bulkley River, the village is run by Gitxsan Nation. It was built in the 1960s to emulate an ancient Gitxsan village and educate locals about the Gitxsan. The village is a great place to stop for a couple of hours to picnic near the Skeena and learn about Gitxsan Nation houses, ceremony and history. The museum contains more than 600 artifacts from Gitxsan communities — including ceremonial and every-day items, such as bent boxes, button blankets, regalia and fishing gear. A wander through the village will satisfy photographers, who are sure to be captivated by the majestic house poles reaching to the sky. In July and August, every Thursday night features a Gitxsan performance group who demonstrate ancient song and dance at 7 pm.
Haida Heritage Centre: Haida Gwaii’s name itself is enough to make a people-centric traveller like myself infinitely curious. It translates to “Islands of the Haida people.”
Perched where the ancient seaside village of Kay Llanagaay stood, the Haida Heritage Centre acts as a community gathering place, Parks Canada office and education centre for both visitors and residents of the archipelago of 150-plus islands. Located just over 100 kilometres off British Columbia’s northwest coast, the Haida Heritage Centre features exhibits on local ecology and the community’s way of life. The totem poles outside of the centre are instagrammable as are the views of the oft-stormy, oft-sparkly Aliford Bay.
[box_light]Read “How to Lose Yourself in Haida Gwaii” on Vacay.ca[/box_light]
Spirit Bear Lodge: Bears, bears and more bears. The lush, temperate region of BC’s coast is nicknamed ‘The Great Bear Rainforest” because of its abundance of the beguiling mammals. How better to see the region’s namesake than with a person whose family lineage in the area can be traced back centuries?
Besides various kinds of Ursidae, visitors to the Spirit Bear Lodge will likely see salmon, eagles, ravens, orca and countless other species. Spirit Bear Lodge is in the remote coastal community of Klemtu, accessible by daily flights from Vancouver during the summer. Owned and operated by the Kitasoo/Xai’xais people of Klemtu, the waterfront lodge is open June 1 to October 10. During those summer months, the Spirit Bear Lodge specializes in bear-viewing tours. Lead by experienced guides and Klemtu residents (including junior wildlife spotter Cameron Robinson, age 12), Spirit Bear Lodge tours run from three to seven days, the longer the stay the higher the chance of seeing an elusive Spirit Bear, a ghost-like white bear whose recessive genes make it a highly localized, natural wonder in this part of the world.
Feast on Aboriginal Cuisine
If the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, then you could say I’m in love with British Columbia’s awesome aboriginal eateries. Vancouver’s Salmon ’n Bannock, Fort Langley’s Lelem Arts & Cafe, and Merritt/West Kelowna’s Kekuli Cafe serve up First Nations foods from BC and beyond.
Salmon ’n Bannock ranked among the Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada in 2012. Whether you love tucking into a robust elk burger or delicate salmon mousse appetizers, Salmon ’n Bannock includes flavours from a number of different nations. Staff are from Nuxalk, Haida, Blackfoot and Wet’suwet’en communities. Langley’s Lelem Arts and Cafe serves up a contemporary menu that prioritizes organic ingredients and riffs on fusion foods with aboriginal flavours such as bannock pizza for the wee ones or pulled bison sandwiches for big people. In the Thompson-Okanagan area of BC is one of the province’s spunkiest restos: Kekuli Cafe. Though various bannock dishes is what Kekuli — which has two locations — is known for, it also makes delicious Saskatoon berry drinks.
[box_light]Find Out More in Vacay.ca About Salmon n’ Bannock’s Cuisine[/box_light]
Skwachays Lodge: Ever wondered what would happen if you combined a chic boutique hotel concept with fair-trade modern First Nations art? The answer is Skwachays Lodge, Canada’s first aboriginal boutique hotel in Vancouver. Housed on the ever-renewing edge of Gastown/Chinatown, Skwachays features aboriginal art in almost every aspect of the hotel. From the videos that play in the lodge’s storefront, to the fair-trade art gallery that the front desk is located in, Skwachays caters to globe-trotting art lovers. Each room of the 18-unit hotel features a unique theme. Writers will love the Poem suite adorned in the word art of Tlingit artist Clifton Fred, while forest nymphs will feel at home in the Forest Spirits suite covered in the work of Peter Chapman First Nation’s Jerry Whitehead.
Nk’mip Cellars in Osoyoos: Who knew wine and snakes paired so well? Visitors to Nk’mip Cellars in Osoyoos can taste award-winning wines for the first part of their visit and become familiarized with Okanagan Nation history and threatened species like Western Rattle Snakes and Great Basin Gopher Snakes. Lauded as Canada’s first aboriginal-owned winery, Nk’mip is situated in one of the country’s only deserts. Overlooking Lake Osoyoos in Canada’s version of Palm Springs, Nk’kip Cellars is a fantastic place to spend a day sipping, relaxing and snake charming (or not). Many of the staff at the cellar are members of the Osyoos Indian Band, acting as friendly hosts, storytellers and vintners.
[box_light]Read More Coverage of Nk’mip Cellars on Vacay.ca[/box_light]
T’ashii Paddle School: Off the shores of Vancouver Island’s west coast, the Tashii Paddle School is a local First Nations (Tla-o-qui-aht) owned and operated company. Specializing in dug-out canoe tours and guided stand-up paddle-board experiences, T’ashii is a Tla-o-qui-aht word that means “path on the water or land.” From March to October, T’ashii guests can paddle a 25-foot, carved dug-out canoe to Meares Island, home to some of BC’s tallest evergreens. Year-round T’ashii offers stand-up paddle tours and lessons in the calm waters of Tofino Inlet. Groups are small — maximum six people per lesson/tour — and family-friendly as children 10 and up can participate.
National Aboriginal Day is one of my favourite holidays. Whether it’s the drumming at community events or the chats with people who so readily share their customs with others, it’s an occasion worth observing.
Now that you have an idea of some of the First Nations attractions in British Columbia, start planning your trip. A couple of good places to start include www.hellobc.com, the website of Destination British Columbia, and the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC’s website. Trust me, trip exploring the lives of BC’s original residents will broaden your horizon and your heart.