Authentic Indigenous visitor experiences are not only a catalyst for First Nations reclamation and reconciliation, they’ll also play a key role in the recovery of Canada’s tourism sector. That message was the key one for attendees at the third Alberta Indigenous Tourism Summit, held November 24-26 at Indigenous-owned Grey Eagle Resort & Casino on Treaty 7 lands of the Tsuut’ina Nation, just outside of Calgary.
The summit opened with an elder prayer, grand entrance, and dynamic and colourful traditional dances to welcome approximately 300 Indigenous tourism operators, entrepreneurs, industry partners, and media.
Pre-COVID-19, Indigenous tourism was one of Canada’s fastest-growing tourism sectors. Worth an estimated $166.2 million and generating 3,000 jobs, it was among the largest employers and economic drivers in Indigenous communities. Indigenous Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s director of business development Teresa Ryder said prior to March 2020, Indigenous tourism was outpacing other tourism sectors in Canada in terms of growth. When COVID-19 hit, 60% of Indigenous tourism jobs were lost and GDP for those communities dropped by 62%.
Indigenous Tourism Alberta CEO Shae Bird said despite pandemic-related travel restrictions, demand for these experiences is climbing. One in three international travellers says they want to participate in an Indigenous experience when they come to Canada, Bird noted. One in three Canadians said they wanted an Indigenous experience when they travel domestically, a number that is on the rise. And 50% of Albertans want to include Indigenous tourism when they travel in their home province.
It all fits with the increased desire among travellers for authentic, transforming experiences in natural spaces with an opportunity to learn as they travel. That emerging interest in Indigenous culture and the desire for many non-Indigenous people to help these communities heal from the trauma of past injustices are reasons why the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Travel in Canada for 2022 will be focused on Indigenous tourism across the country. The ranking will be published in January and the Alberta summit brought together notable thought leaders on the subject to provide learnings and guidance for tour operators and the larger community.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” Bird said in a CBC Radio interview prior to the summit opening, “It takes an industry to grow a sector. We have a landslide of incredible Indigenous tourism experiences. We have members looking to develop their businesses. But we can’t do it alone.”
ITA works to grow and promote Indigenous tourism. It provided a combined $200,000 in stimulus relief to 37 Alberta Indigenous tourism businesses impacted by COVID-19. Its website lists 120 Indigenous businesses that offer activities, accommodation, and experiences across Alberta, from guided hikes, fishing and back country trips, to wellness, culinary and arts-themed activities.
Indigenous tourism is a key part of Alberta’s three-year recovery plan for provincial tourism recovery, Travel Alberta CEO David Goldstein told the meeting.
But Mike Bruisehead, a longtime educator and elder with the Blood Tribe, said Indigenous tourism has to take place within certain boundaries. “Our ceremonies are not for sale. They’re not for exploitation. I tell people, shut the camera off and your phones,” he said.
Also at the summit, four companies were recognized with newly established ITA awards.
Hideaway Adventure Grounds, a rustic camping experience on Kikino Métis Settlement northeast of Edmonton, was named Most Improved Business. The Allyship Award went to Foundry Events with Warrior Women of Jasper and artist Jason Carter. The award for Best Marketing Initiatives was awarded to Powwow Times. The Leadership Award recognized chef Kaskite Wastim (Black Horse) Scott Iserhoff of contemporary Indigenous catering business Pei Pei Chei Ow in Edmonton.
Iserhoff’s dish Nish Klik — panko-breaded SPAM luncheon meat with parsley — was a standout at an exceptional small plates dine-around meal showcasing Indigenous foods. Stations were set up in the hotel ballroom, helmed by Dene-Cree chef Dinia Baltzer (duck soup and maple and gin-cured Arctic char), Iserhoff and the Grey Eagle Resort & Casino staff (pink peppercorn candied trout, juniper and ginger-cured wild boar belly and Saskatoonberry elk meatballs).
As Iserhoff accepted his award, he said he’d been asked what makes SPAM an Indigenous dish. “Why isn’t it Indigenous when I’d eaten it every day for breakfast?” he said, adding prices on reservations are astronomical and canned food is one of the cheapest items on offer. “You can see the barriers that Pei Pei Chei Ow breaks in that moment.”
During the summit, attendees heard from Indigenous tourism business operators, including Moccasin Trails, a tour provider based in Kamloops, British Columbia. Co-founder Greg Hopf said Canadians are eager to learn more about Indigenous culture amid the tragedy of lost residential school children, survivors of residential schools ,and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. Tourism activities run by Indigenous operators can be a bridge to understanding.
Travel media got a small taste of an Alberta-based Indigenous tourism experience, joining Heather Black, owner of Buffalo Stone Woman, as she led an “Indigescape” tour. Taking place on the snowy Grotto Canyon Trail in Kananaskis Country, the hiking tour made the importance of Rocky Mountains to the original inhabitants of the territory feel tangible. We stopped for steaming cups of wild mint tea and learned about tobacco offerings, the land, the significance of the four-quadrant Medicine Wheel, and the story of the buffalo stone and how it helped the Blackfoot people survive a harsh winter.
Later, fortified with tea and bannock, we bundled up against the chill for three truncated tourism experiences behind the Grey Eagle resort. The cloudy sky didn’t hamper Tracey Klettl, who offers land-based Indigenous experiences with her company Painted Warriors. She explained how Indigenous people used the stars as maps, to know the seasons and the time.
Her sister, Brenda Holder, a traditional medicine knowledge keeper, as well as chair of the Indigenous Tourism Alberta board, led a tea ceremony by the fire, similar to what she does with Mahikan Trails, her tour company in Jasper. She taught us to slow down and appreciate the hot mint tea in our hands and the warmth it brought through our bodies.
For her Fireside Chat experience, Matricia Bauer of Warrior Women sang and drummed while we sat in a circle. She encouraged us to ask her any questions we wanted to about Indigenous life, culture, and teachings, and to talk about what feeds our inner fires.
It was a chance to learn about Indigenous culture and share companionship and stories by the warmth of the fire. It was also a chance to contemplate how understanding of Indigenous ways of life can enrich the Canadian travel experience.