“Tonight is about bringing some of my favourite things together: Indigenous culture, Indigenous cuisine and tourism,” said Paula Amos, Indigenous Tourism BC chief marketing and development officer. Amos was speaking on the eve of the first Whistler Cultural Symposium at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC).
On a warm evening in early October, 40 people gathered at a long table in the Great Hall of the SLCC in Whistler’s Upper Village for a four-course dinner prepared by Indigenous chefs. The meal showed the creativity of young culinary stars who are using traditional foods like bannock, salmon, and foraged mushrooms in delicious new ways.
The SLCC is an impressive place, with soaring ceilings and colourful carvings, weavings, canoes, and totem poles. The centre opened in 2008 to showcase the culture and living history of the two First Nations communities that lived in the Whistler area.
Tourism Whistler came up with the idea to hold the inaugural cultural symposium here as a gathering of stakeholders, politicians, tourism professionals, and media to discuss issues around tourism and truth and reconciliation, the climate emergency and how to foster a diverse, inclusive culture around the mountains and outdoor activities.
The challenge from Tourism Whistler President and CEO Barrett Fisher as she opened the day of panels, speakers, and discussions the following morning was how to make tourism a force for good.
But first, we feasted.
British Columbia has about 200 Indigenous tourism experiences that deepen the connection to people, land, and wildlife, said Amos. And there’s a growing enthusiasm for Indigenous food.
“We’re just trying to execute and elevate Indigenous food from what I grew up on,” said Paul Natrall, owner of Vancouver’s first Indigenous food truck, Mr. Bannock.
Natrall, of the Squamish Nation, showed his classic French training with bison cheek slow braised in rich demi-glace with wild garlic, served with Chilliwack corn and chanterelles. There was an airy bannock puff on the side.
He also made a luscious appetizer for the pre-dinner reception, a square of smoked salmon on bannock crostini with huckleberry compote, sage, and edible flowers.
“It’s a pleasure to give my culture on a plate,” said Haida Gwaii executive chef Brodie Swanson, as servers presented his dish, made with all Haida Gwaii ingredients.
The plate included three potato elements: gnocchi, ultra-thin potato chips, and potato puree.
“There’s a bit of a controversial origin with the Haida potato. It is said they originated from Hawaii and were introduced to the Haida in the 17th or 18th century,” said Swanson.
Swanson caught the octopus at the centre of the dish the week before. Tender, smoked slices were served with beets and bright green herb and sea asparagus oil.
Maggie Wallace of the Lil’wat Nation and a staff chef at the SLCC created a braised rabbit dish with morels, served with a multi-layered sweet potato gratin rectangle and rich hazelnut butter. She also made a delicious appetizer of perfectly cooked, plump mussels in the shell atop pureed sunchokes.
Darnell Stager, manager of Vancouver’s only Indigenous restaurant, Salmon n’ Bannock made the dessert: silky sweetgrass panna cotta with a touch of yogurt in the cream for balance, topped with popped wild rice and a poached red cherry.
“I’m an urban Indigenous man who was born and raised right in the city, so I’m a Vancouverite, but I’m very proudly Tsimshian,” he said.
Stager said he flavoured the panna cotta with sweetgrass, a sacred medicine to many Indigenous peoples, for more than its aromatic properties.
“I think that having medicine in our day-to-day lives is so important. And I think that the flavour of the sweetgrass really brings me to a spiritual place,” he pointed out. “I think that gathering around the table together has always been a way to make strong connections with people.”
Pinot noir and Hee-Hee-Tel-Kin white blend from Kelowna-based Indigenous World Winery, the only 100 per cent Indigenous-owned winery in the province, were served with the meal.
The next day, panelists shared knowledge and experiences and took questions from the audience.
Keynote speaker Frank Antoine, co-founder of Indigenous-owned cultural tourism company Moccasin Trails, reminded them that an authentic land or water-based Indigenous tourism isn’t a tour, it’s an experience.
The term reconcili-action was used often, a call that action be a logical follow up to words to further reconciliation.
To that end, Geoff Buchheister, COO of Whistler Blackcomb, said all new employees will start their on-the-job training at the SLCC.
There was also some mention — but few details — of the Indigenous-led bid for the 2030 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler. The vote for host city will be announced in Mumbai in September 2023.
Heather Paul, executive director of the SLCC, said Indigenous tourism is growing 25 per cent faster than other tourism in Canada.
Cecilia Point, director of finance and operations with the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, reminded the attendees that learning has to be done with sensitivity. “It’s great everyone wants to learn about us now, but there’s a lot of trauma tied to it as well,” she said.