Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
ON BOARD THE OCEAN ENDEAVOUR, NUNAVUT — When I tell Phil Fontaine the name of the country where I was born, he chimes, “Oh, Guyana, I’ve been there.” Then his life partner, Kathleen Mahoney, adds, “And we heard, ‘Hey, Phil!’”
“It was a guy from Winnipeg, a restaurant owner, who was visiting the same time we were there for a conference,” Fontaine recalls.
According to Mahoney, the “Hey, Phil!” line has been encountered just about everywhere the former Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) travels. Fontaine’s remarkable achievements — accomplished in partnership with Mahoney, a lawyer from Calgary — drove legislation for recognition of Indigenous rights in Canada. Landmark rulings passed during Stephen Harper’s tenure as prime minister have had ramifications for Indigenous groups around the world as other nations grapple with how to honour and compensate victims and their families of abuses of the past.
Fontaine, an Ojibway leader from Manitoba, was travelling this July with Mahoney aboard the Ocean Endeavour, the expedition ship that Adventure Canada charters to sail passengers on its annual Heart of the Arctic cruise. The pair participated in shore excursions to Inuit communities in northern Quebec and Nunavut, where the legacy of their legislative victories resonate.
They met artists en route, learning about how tourism has brought some economic lift to a region that is troublingly poor. Fontaine also reconnected with people whose lives he has affected through his commitment to fighting for Indigenous rights. Myna Ishulutak is one of them. A resident of Pangnirtung, a small town in Nunavut, Ishulutak has created a short film, “Qipisa,” about her life as an Inuit.
“Phil gave me strength. He helped me believe in myself,” Ishulutak says, recalling a previous meeting with Fontaine in Ontario years earlier. She spoke to politicians and legislators about living in Canada’s north, where impoverishment, addiction, mental-health issues and climate change are an acute part of existence.
Ishulutak studied film-making and Inuit Studies and combined that education in the creation of “Qipisa”, which tells her story of family and the drive to stay connected, even in a community isolated from much of the world. The documentary has won awards and a campaign, which started on the Adventure Canada cruise, is underway to screen it at film festivals in North America and beyond. “Qipisa” is an example of how Indigenous people are using new media to tell their stories to a wider audience. The policies Fontaine championed have helped to support the level of education and funding resources needed to make such endeavours possible.
It has been nearly a decade since Fontaine led First Nations leaders into the House of Commons in Ottawa to receive a historic apology from Harper, who spoke on behalf of all Canadians when acknowledging the atrocities suffered by Indigenous people, particularly for the abuses under the residential school system. More than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken out of their homes to be educated in Christian schools. Fontaine was one of them. He recounted his residential school experience in 1990, pushing the issue into the spotlight and coaxing more Canadians to research the issue.
Fontaine stopped his involvement in active politics in 2009 but remains connected to the cause and continues to speak passionately about the need for change in Canada. As an advisor to the Royal Bank of Canada, he also helps national institutions understand how to find opportunities within Aboriginal communities.
Across many regions of Canada, tourism is a significant economic contributor for First Nations communities. The Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada projects its stakeholders will account for $300 million in Canada’s annual gross domestic product by 2021 and employ 40,233 workers.
Fontaine sees the industry — which includes Aboriginal-owned airlines, luxury hotels, wineries and nature experiences — as a means to potentially connect First Nations people with more people in mainstream society.
“Tourism is about informing and educating,” says Fontaine, who travelled to Nunavut for the first time. The territory was formed in 1999, giving Inuit people control over their own land. “We are looking for ways to make bridges between First Nations and the rest of Canada, and it’s one of the things that can do that.”
While he still says much more needs to be done, and be done quickly, to alleviate poverty and lower the painfully high suicide rates among Indigenous youth, he is happy progress continues.
“I’m confident we’re in a good space now,” he told the Adventure Canada passengers during a presentation given aboard the ship. “People have opened up their minds. They’ve opened up their hearts.”
MORE ABOUT ADVENTURE CANADA’S HEART OF THE ARCTIC CRUISE
Itinerary: The expedition includes a charter flight departing from Ottawa. The planned flight to Iqaluit had to be changed to Northern Quebec because of the accumulation of ice in Frobisher Bay, the location of the Nunavut capital. The 12-night cruise travels through the archipelago near southern Baffin Island, with stops at Inuit communities, Zodiac outings to view wildlife and scenery, and a range of extraordinary on-board programming that includes lectures from leading scientists and subject-matter experts. It culminates with multiple nights in Greenland, exploring its capital, Nuuk, and the spectacular landscape dominated by fjords and the nation’s immense icecap.
Cost: 2017 Fares, including charter flights from Ottawa and back to Toronto at the end of the cruise, ranged from $6,190 to $17,790 USD.
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