For Canada’s 150th Birthday, Indigenous Communities Are Telling a Different Side of History

Naomi Liz—Moral Compass

As Canada promotes the 150th anniversary of its confederation (Canada 150) to international tourists, some of the country’s indigenous people see the celebrations as a way to not only raise awareness of their culture, but also acknowledge and heal the horrors of Canada’s history of federally-sanctioned racism against those known as the Assembly of First Nations.

While the Indian Act of 1876 defined “Indian status” and afforded certain rights to First Nation people, it also introduced numerous assimilation policies: They were not allowed to leave the reserve without a pass, practice cultural traditions, speak their native language, or vote in Canadian elections. This act also introduced abusive residential schools, which forced First Nation children out of their communities and into church-run boarding schools. Children were given new names, made to wear Euro-Canadian clothing, and forbidden to speak their native languages.

Given this painful history, it’s understandable that feelings about government-backed, indigenous-based tourism are mixed, which I experienced firsthand earlier this year when I visited Alberta to learn more about tribes in Canada’s Plains region.

I sat inside a traditionally painted tipi at Spotted Elk Camp—a family-owned business that offers cultural programs for visitors—ate bison and bannock bread, and listened to Chief Lee Crowchild talk about how some First Nation tribes maintain connection to their past. Chief Crowchild is the leader of the Tsuut’ina Nation—located on 68,000 acres on the outskirts of Calgary, Alberta. “We’re a small tribe, but not afraid to take on anything,” Chief Crowchild told me and other visiting journalists about his 2,200-person community. “We’re a little bit fearless.”

The Spotted Elk Camp is run by the Tsuut’ina Nation’s Starlight family: Elder Bruce Starlight, his wife Deanna, and their children Carmel, Joe, and Louie have been doing traveling shows, interpretive programs, and dance performances for more than 30 years.

Despite her forced participation in the residential school system, Deanna dreamed of starting a cultural center where people could gather and learn about the Tsuut’ina culture and way of life that her parents and grandparents secretly taught her.

According to Joe Starlight, Bruce and Deanna’s oldest child, the Spotted Elk’s interpretive programs focus on showing visitors what life was like for the Tsuut’ina before white settlers arrived. Joe’s sister Carmel explained that their people broke off from a larger nation and, being too small to survive on their own, started living with other tribes in the Plains region like the Blackfoot, who helped them keep their traditions and language alive. For the Starlight family, Carmel said, “it’s a part of us to try and educate people on our unique culture.”

Chief Crowchild sees the potential of tourism to be an economic driver in his community. But while there are monetary benefits to indigenous communities that encourage tourism, it does not come without risks or challenges.

Developing the infrastructure for tourism can disrupt ecosystems and displace people who have a deep tie to the land where they live. In Calgary, a proposed ring road around the city’s periphery has been the subject of debate for decades, as a portion of it would pass through the Tsuut’ina Nation. It was finally approved in a vote in 2013, and construction is currently underway. Many reservation residents hope the increased access the road will provide sparks new wealth and opportunity, and the Nation is currently planning retail and hospitality development on 1,200 acres of their land. But some in the Tsuut’ina community have opposed the road, which will displace families and affect burial grounds. Others feel the community is selling out an important piece of their history.

Not every indigenous group in Canada sees tourism as a worthy avenue to maintain their way of life. Keith Henry, president and CEO of Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ATAC), said that among the more than 600 First Nation communities, 60 Inuit communities, and Métis (mixed indigenous and European ancestry) settlements, there are diverse opinions on if and how to engage with tourists. This can cause conflict between entrepreneurs who are trying to start tourism businesses and community members who are opposed. The ATAC offers information to help communities decide if they want to be involved, acknowledging that some groups will not. But overall, “I find today there’s been more interest and support [for tourism among indigenous communities] than I’ve seen in eleven years, so it’s got momentum,” said Henry.

Around Alberta, there are dozens of places tourists interested in learning about indigenous culture and history can visit. But while First Nation interpreters, genuine artifacts, and impressive displays make sites like these feel authentic on the surface, that’s not always the case.

One of the key elements concerned visitors should look for, Henry told me, is indigenous ownership. This is not just about who founded the business, or maintains the site, but about who is telling the story. “Authenticity very much revolves around ownership and who’s creating and designing the stories that are being shared. And of course, who is actually sharing,” he said.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a hunting grounds for the Blackfoot and a UNESCO World Heritage site located a couple hours south of Calgary, has seen its share of criticism. The senior interpreter at Head-Smashed-In, Conrad Little Leaf, told me that some First Nation people feel the government-owned site is exploiting the people and their history. Others have reported that some critics even “see Blackfoot contributions [to the center] as a betrayal of their culture.” From the early days of developing the buffalo jump into a UNESCO site, there was debate among the Piikani Nation, a member of the Blackfoot confederacy, about whether to be involved—due in part to their distrust and skepticism of the government.

Henry confirms that there is still some debate about whether the site is fully supported by the local indigenous community. Although tribes have been involved in the site’s programming and it employs many indigenous people, it is still controlled and managed by the provincial government.

Despite the criticism, Little Leaf told me that he sees his work as a platform and is glad he has the opportunity to share his cultural knowledge. “People come from around the world who don’t know about us. What I do here is educate people.”

While tourism on indigenous lands has its share of nuanced questions, it’s not something we should forsake altogether, especially when communities are eager to share their way of life with travelers who are eager to learn. Striving for authentic information, experienced in a way that benefits both visitor and host, is what responsible tourism is all about.

Photos provided by Naomi Liz