Meet the Trailblazers Who Are Shaping Indigenous Tourism in Canada
These leaders are using tourism as a way to shape a new narrative for Indigenous women in Western Canada.
by : Chloe Berge- Jun 21st, 2022
COURTESY OF TRAVEL ALBERTA (B. HOLDER)
On a pine-edged trail that traces the shore of Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park, the female-run Indigenous tour company Mahikan Trails leads traditional-medicine walks, allowing the forest to reveal itself in new ways. The Cree and Iroquois First Nations peoples use the delicate leaves of wild strawberries in digestive tonics; rosehips peppering the understorey are foraged for their vitamin C; and the inner bark of aspen trees is used to cure sore throats. A natural pharmacy blooms around every corner.
Mahikan Trails isn’t the only West Coast tourism business that’s amplifying the voices of Indigenous women and helping travellers connect with the land in new ways. Indigenous Tourism Alberta recently reported that nearly half of Indigenous tourism ventures in the province are now run by women. This is a significant departure from early tourism in Canada, which often excluded or misrepresented Indigenous women while also appropriating Indigenous culture and displacing communities for the creation of national parks, including Banff National Park. Now, female Indigenous entrepreneurs are using the renewed interest in travel to reclaim these lands and create a new narrative shaped by First Nations, Metis and Inuit women in Canada. By sharing their culture and traditions—through activities like foraging for medicinal salves and getting up close and personal with bison at a new cultural centre—these four women are shifting the tourism landscape and empowering themselves and their communities.
MAHIKAN TRAILS, SUNDRE, ALTA.
Founded by Cree-Iroquois knowledge keeper Brenda Holder, Mahikan Trails was established with the goal of sharing traditional plant wisdom. “I began to see that we had some very different skills compared to most people and decided to utilize tourism as a forum to help people understand our culture,” says Holder. The founder and her knowledgeable guides lead visitors on medicine walks in Sundre, Banff and Canmore, Alta., sharing with them the forest’s myriad healing species.
The role of women as healers and providers is centuries old in Cree and Iroquois culture, and sharing this long-held knowledge as part of an ecotourism venture has been a welcome development for Holder. “Women are the keepers of the fire; we’re the berry gatherers,” she says. For those who want to do a deeper dive, the tour company offers multi-day workshops that teach people how to make traditional salves and medicines from foraged ingredients as well as wilderness first-aid courses. The idea behind all of Mahikan Trails’ offerings is to guide visitors in viewing the land through a new lens, one of respect and reciprocity. “I say to people ‘Don’t walk on the land. Walk with the land,’” says Holder.
PAINTED WARRIORS, MOUNTAIN VIEW COUNTY, ALTA.
This Alberta tour company takes its name from the paint that was applied to horses in Plains Cree culture when a new skill was mastered. Owner Tracey Klettl (who is Holder’s sister) challenges the Western stereotype that Indigenous women are subservient by teaching guests traditional Ojibway, Cree and Mohawk skills, such as archery, backcountry horse skills and wilderness survival know how. “A lot of women are understanding how important it is to be able to fend for yourself,” says Klettl.
At Painted Warriors, the skills visitors learn offer insight into hunter-gatherer cultures and their sacred relationship with the land. But for Klettl, it’s also about recognizing that Indigenous women are redefining themselves. “[It] really shows me that we’re stepping back into our power,” says Klettl. “It’s a realization that we have to empower ourselves and that we deserve better than the violence we’ve experienced in our past.”
TALAYSAY TOURS, VANCOUVER
On a Talking Trees Tour, Talaysay Tours founder Candace Campo gives visitors a version of the story behind the iconic Stanley Park from the viewpoint of the Shíshálh and Squamish Nations. Guests are led on an interpretive walk, learning about how the local cedar, fir and berries were used for food, medicine and technology by local First Nations for centuries.
Some of the company’s walking tours are geared specifically toward sharing Indigenous women’s cultural and historical knowledge. “Women are the ones who learn, remember and teach,” says Campo. “We’re the leaders in our families and now we’re the leaders in tourism, so this is work that makes sense to me.” Campo also runs sailing tours on the Sunshine Coast that immerse travellers in local Indigenous culture.
Talaysay Tours recently partnered with the Fairmont Waterfront hotel on an experience that includes a guided walk and dinner at Salmon n’ Bannock, an Indigenous restaurant that’s owned by Inez Cook, a woman of Nuxalk descent, and serves up plates like candied salmon and game sausage alongside warm bannock.
MÉTIS CROSSING, SMOKY LAKE, ALTA.
An hour and a half north of Edmonton, Métis Crossing is Canada’s first Metis interpretive cultural destination, a place where traditions and history are shared through activities like snowshoeing or paddling, depending on the season. The historic site, which sits on 278 hectares of land on the Saskatchewan River, was a major settlement and trading area for Metis in the 19th century and is now home to a cultural centre and an intimate 40-room lodge.
“We talk about our past, our present and our future,” says CEO Juanita Marois of the visitor experience. This means not only learning Metis history but also exploring contemporary Metis culture, including arts and handicrafts, and educating younger generations. “The facilities that we’ve built at Métis Crossing are not just for tourists,” says Marois. “They’re used by our own communities so that they can experience the best of [our] culture and we can build our own definition of who we are.”
In the summer, visitors can experience Paddle Into the Past, an excursion during which they’ll travel down the river in voyageur canoes (which were used during the fur trade from the 17th to the 19th century), explore the Victoria Settlement provincial historic site and learn about Metis hunting and trapping history. Guests can also partake in traditional-art workshops and visit a bison camp, where they’ll get up close with the animals in five connected paddocks and learn about how they formed the foundation of Metis culture.
Marois says it’s been encouraging to see Indigenous women stepping into leadership roles in the tourism industry. “In Metis society, women have a matriarchal role and help define what a family is going to do and how they’re going to live or move across the land,” she says. “Women have the capacity to lead from the heart.”
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