A new Indigenous tourism strategy from Explore Edmonton that's aimed at international travellers could be a step towards economic reconciliation, but observers note such work can also create unhealthy expectations unless Indigenous communities are in the driver's seat.
"Tourism is really an avenue for economic reconciliation," Paul Hawes, vice-president of destination development and marketing for Explore Edmonton, told Taproot. "If you think about the tourism business, it's driving funds and money, and line of sight, into Indigenous business, the stories of Indigenous peoples, and then putting money into Indigenous communities."
Hawes said Explore Edmonton's 56-page Indigenous Tourism Strategy: Walking Forward Together, known in Cree as mâmawokamâtowin, is an effort to increase the economic benefit of the tourism sector, including reconciliation. Hawes and Explore Edmonton built the strategy with input from five Indigenous people, who created an advisory circle.
Still, observers caution that while cultural tourists can bring dollars, they can also create pitfalls. Challenges, they say, are often related to environmental impact, as well as cultural commodification, where a specific cultural group can feel pressure to perform a digestible version of their identity in order to align with tourists' expectations.
"If you're having folks that don't live in these areas, tourists coming from abroad or even just other parts of Canada, there are expectations that people have," Jacquelyn Cardinal, CEO of Indigenous consultancy Naheyawin, told Taproot. "It's up to Explore Edmonton and other organizations that do this important work to make sure that they actually place Indigenous peoples in the driver's seat, because there is an absolute risk of external entities trying to come in to shape or control the narrative in line with commodification for a broader appeal to the market."
Hawes led development of the strategy to integrate with Explore Edmonton's broader Tourism Master Plan. The strategy speaks extensively of building relationships among existing Indigenous tourism companies and using storytelling to promote these companies. It was fuelled in part by research that demonstrates growth in Indigenous tourism in Canada is outpacing growth in non-Indigenous tourism, and that international travellers are often the paying customers.
"We identified 57 initiatives from the tourism master plan that we will tackle over 10 years," Hawes said. "There were two pieces of work that we really needed to tackle first and foremost, because they'll probably be a lens for almost all of the work that we do ongoing. One of the pieces is around our regenerative tourism strategy … and then the Indigenous tourism strategy."
Hawes said the regenerative tourism strategy within the master plan focuses on "responsible, sustainable and regenerative" approaches to tourism that can limit the environmental consequences of tourism, and is linked to the agency's overall Indigenous strategy.
"The advisory circle said this to us a lot — 'This is what we do, Indigenous culture is making sure that the land is rejuvenated and not taken from,'" he said. "We found that there were different organizations working on the two pieces, but they've met together to share insights on each of the strategies because of the alignment and overlap."
While there is a national strategy on economic reconciliation, as well as an economic stream within the province's Indigenous Reconciliation Initiative, the term means different things to different people.
Cardinal has a layered perspective about it.
"It's all about, basically, bringing equity to our economic system," she said. "How can we help close the gap between how Indigenous peoples connect with our economic systems? How can we close those disparities that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, which I think is incredibly important, but I think that in some ways doesn't go far enough."
The advisory circle continues to be involved in the strategy's implementation. Its members are Lorraine Makokis, an elder and member of Enoch Cree Nation; Amberly Morin, tourism manager with Enoch Cree Nation; Nathan Rainy Chief, the founder of 49 Dzine and a member of Kainai First Nation; Sean Gray, a student and member of Enoch Cree Nation; and Carrie Armstrong, the owner of Mother Earth Essentials.
"What's been incredible is that (with the) advisory circle, we've been able to work on a number of different projects, ideas, and questions," Hawes said. "It really is an open door and a two-way conversation. I felt truly blessed to be brought into the community, and have these folks that are willing and available to ask questions, and really be that stop-check that we need when we're moving forward with other projects."
Hawes has worked in tourism in numerous markets around the globe, including Destination NSW in Australia. He said Edmonton is ahead of the rest of Canada when it comes both the master plan and the Indigenous strategy. That meant he drew from experience and international markets to inform his work at Explore Edmonton.
"The challenge with a lot of the work that we do from the tourism master plan from Explore Edmonton is (that we are) ahead of the game … We don't have a lot of peers to work with," he said. "If you think of New Zealand and Australia, they've been doing this work for longer than we have. And so there's definitely been some learnings to gain from both of those countries in the work that they do."
Cardinal said efforts to build economic reconciliation must be approached with care, otherwise they could encourage assimilation. She cited language from land treaties and stories she's heard from other Indigenous people as evidence that colonial economic structures can lead to erasure of cultural practices.
Economic reconciliation is "definitely something that actually needs some rejuvenation, and some resurgence," she said. "It's important for Indigenous people to be able to participate in the economy, but I also think it's really important to try and figure out how we can look at economic reconciliation as also an opportunity for us to revitalize traditional economic systems that have existed on Turtle Island since time immemorial."
Building capacity and preserving authenticity
An imminent part of implementing Explore Edmonton's strategy is the organization meeting with Indigenous business owners and experience providers over the next two years to consult with them and offer support on market-readiness. Hawes said 95% of tourism businesses in the region are small and medium-sized enterprises.
"We talk a lot around being market-ready," he said. "And what that means is that the product or experience is ready for our international visitors. That it's beyond just being professional and safe. That there is a depth of experience. There's that authenticity. We're also able to help point these fledgling businesses into funding opportunities, whether it's through Travel Alberta, or perhaps federal funding streams."
Cardinal said capacity-building such as this is critical to economic reconciliation.
"I see this as an increase in nuance of the kind of challenges that Indigenous makers have, so I think that it's a good thing," she said. "But I think that it's going to be about how they are helped to become market-ready … Making sure that there isn't pressure to scale up production, and then leave behind the cultural authenticity piece, because that would be a really sad thing."
Cardinal and Hawes both see Indigenous tourism in an urban context as important. Pei Pei Chei Ow inside the Whiskeyjack Art House at 11051 97 Street NW and 49 Dzine at 9122 51 Avenue NW both came up as businesses worth a visit for anyone interested in Indigenous tourism within town. As Edmonton is home to the second-largest population of urban-based Indigenous people in the country, it makes sense that they shape the city.
"The historicization and ruralization of Indigenous peoples are not by accident," Cardinal said. "All of the sites where cities are, even historically, these were always where Indigenous peoples would gather to trade. They would travel on these roads, and they would be important places for millennia prior to the coming of newcomers."
Explore Edmonton continues to implement its Indigenous tourism strategy with support from its advisory circle over the coming years. The blueprint emphasizes gathering, relationships, empowerment and learning, storytelling, and shared leadership.
Meanwhile, Nehayewin recently launched its first "educational product," a gamified, self-directed online course covering some fundamental history of Turtle Island, a pre-colonization description of North America.
Some ways to participate in Indigenous tourism in and around Edmonton include I.A.M. Collective's market at Alberta Avenue Community League from Nov. 10 to 12, tasting dishes from new Métis Crossing chef James Levy out in Smoky Lake, and visiting ceremonial site kihcihkaw askî-Sacred Land (operated by the Indigenous Knowledge and Wisdom Centre) in the River Valley. Explore Edmonton also maintains a things-to-do page dedicated to Indigenous experiences.