Sophie Pierre speaks at the BC Tourism Industry Conference in Kelowna. Photo: Barry Gerding/Black Press

Tourism offers chance to preserve Indigenous culture

Job opportunities reconnect Aboriginal youth to their cultural heritage

The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver created many legacies.

Sidney Crosby’s golden goal. Canada establishing itself as a perennial winter sports power. Canadians winning gold on the ski slopes and speed skating oval.

But for Sophie Pierre, those Olympics represented a turning point for Indigenous people across B.C.

Pierre, the long-time chief of the ?aq’am band of the Ktunaxa Nation in the Kootenays, said First Nations were invited to be a part of the Olympic celebration, in particular to present a traditional pow wow grand entry for the opening ceremonies in BC Place.

“Up until then, it was inconceivable for us to be part of something like that, to be a full partner in the effort to promote tourism, Indigenous tourism opportunities, to all our international visitors,” said Pierre.

“Prior to 2010, Indigenous tourism was like a pin on your lapel, a button on a blanket, when it came to being a part of promoting tourism in B.C. or Canada, even though our story was and is a major part of the fabric behind tourism in Canada and B.C. At those Olympics, all eyes were on us.”

Pierre said one other moment at the Olympics illustrated how the Indigenous culture was an integral part of the cooperative effort to promote B.C. tourism over those two weeks.

She recalled how the BC Aboriginal Tourism Association set up headquarters on the third floor of the Pan Pacific Hotel to market themselves.

“If you know the Pan Pacific, you know from the front entrance you are required to go up two escalators to reach the third floor, and that presented a problem when it came time for a large traditional canoe we had carved for the Olympics had to be moved to our location,” she recalled.

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“The canoe was huge and heavy, and it took 24 people, with the escalators shut down, to carry that canoe. Hotel staff and Indigenous band members joined together to carry that canoe up those stairs.

“That single effort was a shining example of cooperation and collaboration…When many hands come together, we can accomplish what may appear to be impossible.”

Pierre, who served as chair of the BC Aboriginal Tourism Association from 2008 to 2011, talked about the role Indigenous tourism will play in the overall growth of the province’s industry at the BC Tourism Industry Conference in Kelowna on Thursday.

Pierre said her band is an example of how promoting tourism plays a role both in Canada’s reconciliation process and creating economic opportunities that come from preserving and celebrating Indigenous culture, language and history.

In the early 1990s, Pierre said her band was presented with a chance to transform a symbol of repression to her people, the Kootenay Indian Residential School which she attended for nine years, into a hotel.

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The band members held a vote and approved the move. Added to the hotel would be a golf course, followed by a casino and RV Park near St. Mary’s River, one of the best flyfishing spots in B.C.

The irony of such a negative symbol of Canada’s attempts to wipe out their Aboriginal heritage, she said, evolving into a different symbol, one of future economic promise and rebuild her culture, is not lost on her.

That tourism success in turn has led to younger generation beginning to reconnect with their past.

Pierre said it’s difficult to share the Indigenous culture experience with tourists if you don’t know what it is.

“Our young people employed by these businesses are starting to reconnect with their past, realizing that their grandfather or uncle talked about our history but they never bothered to pay attention. Now they are beginning to understand more about what that means to their people and to them personally,” she said.

“For our young people, it has been rewarding for me through the opportunities presented by tourism to see them bloom and come into the knowledge of who they are.”

Her takeaway lessons from tourism are that the Indigenous culture is a key foundation of the provincial tourism industry expanding.

“It has been shown that when First Nations benefit from economic activity, the whole region benefits. We can’t always say, unfortunately, the same works the other way around,” she said.

“Our history, our culture is a big part of the foundation for B.C.’s tourism industry. Through cooperation, partnership and collaboration, Indigenous tourism will benefit everyone.”

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Luke Galimberti, senior advisor with the Indigenous Business Investment Council of B.C., represented his group at an exhibit booth for the B.C. Tourism Industry Conference. Photo: Barry Gerding/Black Press

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