Indigenous Experiences and Adventures in British Columbia

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In British Columbia’s Thompson Okanagan region, you can drive from Sicamous to Kamloops in about 90 minutes. Most of the route out of Sicamous (population 1,786) follows Highway #1. Traffic is almost always light and the scenery is pleasant, a mix of small settlements, low hills, and semi-arid desert. It’s a nice drive.

Settle into a canoe and spend a week paddling between the two towns, however, and you might get the kind of experience that changes your life.

That’s what happened to Frank Antoine. In 2013, Antoine took part in a 23-canoe, 200-person convoy that started in Sicamous and paddled past the tree-lined bluffs and sandy beaches of massive Lake Shuswap, through Cinnemousun Narrows Provincial Park and Little Shuswap Lake, then along the broad South Thompson River to Kamloops. The journey was taken by members of local Indigenous communities and various law enforcement agencies—Royal Canadian Mounted Police, municipal police, other detachments—as a way to improve trust and relations between the two groups. For Antoine, though, it was the simple act of stroking an oar through his Shuswap Nation’s ancestral waters that made the biggest impact.

“It slowed everything down for me,” recalls Antoine, now 54. “Everything in life is fast-paced. You don’t have time to take in the elements around you. There’s a highway running beside a lot of that river and from a car you wouldn’t even know the river is right there. It’s a totally different ecosystem.”

It wasn’t just the eagles, osprey, trumpeter swans, waterfowl, salmon (the South Thompson River is an important spawning thoroughfare), and other wildlife along the waterway that changed Antoine. It was the sense of connection he immediately felt.

“When you get in a canoe and put a paddle in your hand and share that experience, you become a family instantly,” he says. “That trip drew me into the culture and made me realize how much I was missing.”

Antoine had spent more than a decade developing authentic Indigenous tourism programs and projects for the world-class Quaaout Lodge & Spa at Talking Rock Golf Resort owned by the Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band. Shortly after the 2013 trip, however, he dove into canoe culture—eventually building a traditional canoe from cottonwood—and started thinking about launching his own company.

In 2018, along with partner Greg Hopf—born and raised in the tiny Dene community of Liidlii Kue (Ft. Simpson) in Northwest Territories—Antoine launched Moccasin Trails. The company leads hikes and canoe trips through traditional lands and waters of the Secwepemcuu’l’ecw (Shuswap Nation). From large canoes that can accommodate 12 or 16 paddlers, visitors learn history from a local Knowledge Keeper who tells stories while guiding visitors along a path Indigenous people have followed for centuries.

“’Co-founders’ is what Greg and I call each other, not ‘co-owners,’” says Antoine. “The reason is this land is not ours to own, the culture is not ours to own. It’s ours to share and we found a way to share it.”

Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre | Blake Jorgenson

Indigenous Tourism is Booming

Antoine’s story is inspirational, but it’s not necessarily unique. Indigenous tourism is booming in all corners of British Columbia, producing record-breaking statistics, opening new territory to visitors and creating important opportunities for First Nations communities.

According to a 2018 report from Indigenous Tourism BC, 401 Indigenous tourism-related businesses operated in the province in 2017. That figure represents a 33 per cent increase over 2014. Indigenous businesses accounted for 7,400 full-time jobs and $705 million in 2016. Those numbers are only expected to grow.

“Indigenous tourism operators (are) optimistic about prospects for their businesses over the next five years,” said the report. “About 75% of them anticipated increasing their staff complements during that period.”

“Indigenous tourism is still a sleeping giant for many Indigenous community leaders, they don’t see it as an economic giant yet,” says Antoine. “But people are starting to be more and more aware of the potential of the land and stories they can tell.”

Part of the success, as always, is tied to BC’s astonishing diversity. Whether visitors want an urban experience, culinary journey, deep dive into First Nations’ history, or a flat-out, hair-raising adventure, Indigenous tourism operators in the province offer world-class opportunities.

In the heart of Vancouver’s historic downtown, Skwachàys Lodge is Canada’s first Indigenous arts hotel. Each of its 18 rooms and suites is uniquely furnished and decorated by a team of artists and designers to reflect a different theme—Longhouse Suite, Paddle Suite, Canadiana Suite, and more. In the hotel lobby, the Urban Aboriginal Fair Trade Gallery is a social enterprise created by the Vancouver Native Housing Society to provide a community-owned resource for Aboriginal artists.

Along the coast north of Vancouver, the Squamish and Lil’wat nations’ magnificent Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler showcases both nations’ art, history, and culture. The centre’s massive bank of cathedral windows looking into an ancient cedar forest lends a dramatic touch to the fine collection. In small but important Alert Bay, a center of totem pole carving, potlatch history, and Indigenous art, the U’mista Cultural Centre houses an exceptional collection of elaborately carved masks and other regalia from bands that share Kwakwaka’wakw heritage.

Adventure travellers have multiple Indigenous-led experiences to choose from. Based in Williams Lake, highly awarded Cariboo Chilcotin Jetboat Adventures takes visitors on thrilling explorations of some of the province’s least-visited and wildest areas. Its Wild Bighorn Sheep Range Safari on the Fraser River is an all-day trip on which guests often spot bighorn sheep, bear, mule deer, and golden eagles. Also on the Fraser, the Iron Canyon Adventure is a two-and-a-half-hour adrenalized charge through challenging rapids and otherworldly hoodoo formations that tower above the river.

“The Fraser River cuts through the most northern desert in North America,” says the company. “The First Nations of the area continue to practise traditional cultural activities that have been passed down through generations. … The land is also rich with the history of the exploration by Simon Fraser and the gold rush that followed.”

One of the more remotely located groups, the Kwadacha Nation around Fort Ware has a population of about 270 members living 570 kilometres (354 miles) north of Prince George. At the confluence of the Fox, Kwadacha, and Finlay rivers in the Rocky Mountain Trench, it’s accessed by plane from Prince George or an eight-to-10-hour drive on a logging road. To engage visitors with this inspiring and rugged paradise, Kwadacha Outfitters operates eco-tours, fishing expeditions, and fair-chase hunts in the wilds of north-central BC.

Kamloopa Powwow | @nathanielatakora

The biggest annual event on the Indigenous travel calendar—and among the most photo-ready for visitors—is the Kamloopa Powwow, scheduled for August 2-4, 2019. Each year on the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Powwow Grounds in Kamloops, a thousand-plus dancers gather for one of the largest celebrations of First Nations’ culture and heritage in Canada. It’s a mesmerizing display of the Secwepemc people’s heritage storytelling, song, and dance in traditional regalia. First Nations cuisine and other food vendors dot the grounds.

“Our Society supports multiculturalism,” says Kamloopa Powwow Society president Delyla Danials. “We encourage and welcome all people to enjoy our territory and celebrating through arts, song, and dance.”

Power of Indigenous Tourism

For visitors the rise of Indigenous tourism brings multiple benefits, not least of which is an immersive cultural experience along with access to wild First Nations’ lands that might otherwise be restricted.

First Nations, too, are seeing the positive impact of tourism on their ancestral lands. Nowhere is this more evident than at the first-class Spirit Bear Lodge in Klemtu on Swindle Island. Located in one of the coast’s impossibly scenic fiords, about halfway between the northern tip of Vancouver Island and Prince Rupert, the lodge opened in 2011.

Owned and operated by the Kitasoo and Xai’xais people, it draws visitors from around the world who come to experience the area’s undisturbed beauty and see an array of wildlife. The main attraction, naturally, is the rare Spirit bear, a white- or cream-coated black bear whose colouration is caused by a genetic trait uncommon within coastal black bears. The lodge says visitors have about a 50 per cent chance of actually spotting one of the 75 to 100 Spirit bears that live in the Kitasoo and Xai’xais peoples’ massive territory. But the pristine natural surroundings make any trip special.

For all the unforgettable experiences Spirit Bear Lodge has provided visitors, however, it has received as much in return.

“One thing we’re bragging about how is we’re into third-generation employment now,” says Bridgett Orsetti of Spirit Bear Lodge. “Quite literally there’s a grandpa driving the boat. Someone my age (46) might be a bear guide, and a teenage kid is an assistant bear guide and has been on the boat or in the lodge since they were about seven. What an amazing opportunity if you live in a remote community to be able to work with your family members and develop that into a real, full-time job.”

As with most other First Nations tourism business, sustainability is central to Spirit Bear’s mission.

“The lodge has had a major positive effect on the general protection of area resources,” says Orsetti. “We put a lot of money into groups that are helping preserve the area. … The money is all going in a circle for good.”

So good, in fact, that Spirit Bear Lodge has emerged as a model for other Indigenous tourism businesses. In recent years, Indigenous groups from Northwest Territories and as far as Indonesia and Mongolia have come to Klemtu to learn how they can apply the successes of Spirit Bear Lodge to their own burgeoning tourism efforts.

“We’re offering unique travel experiences, paying wages, and making sure the territory is protected,” says Orsetti.

Indigenous or not, that’s a winning formula on a road worth travelling.

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Header image: Moccasin Trails, Niki Kennedy

POSTED BY: Chuck Thompson

CHUCK THOMPSON is the author of five books including the acclaimed comic travel memoir Smile When You’re Lying and a two-volume World War II survey regarded as the most comprehensive catalogue of World War II sites in existence. He spent seven years with CNN, as executive producer of CNN Travel and editorial director of CNNGo.com. He’s also been a features editor for Maxim and editor in chief of Travelocity and Mariner magazines. Thompson’s writing has appeared in numerous publications and websites including Outside, Atlantic Monthly, Salon, Men’s Journal, National Geographic Adventure, Esquire, Popular Mechanics, Outdoor Life, Reader’s Digest, and the Los Angeles Times. Raised in Juneau, Alaska, he’s lived in Japan, Hong Kong, New York City, Dallas, and Portland, Oregon, and travelled on assignment in more than 60 countries.

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