Behind the Images in Aboriginal Tourism by Joe Desjarlais

The Vancouver Sun’s Don Cayo recently posted an article entitled Tourism: Working to Tap Immense Potential. In the article, he quotes Mr. Keith Henry, the CEO of Aboriginal Tourism BC and President of the BC Métis Federation, who describes a growing aboriginal tourism market with great potential and demand, as well as some challenges along the way.

There are other challenges that face Aboriginal people and communities beyond the scope of Cayo’s paper that Mr. Henry and other leaders in aboriginal communities are working to address. Mainstream understandings of Aboriginal people and their cultures in tourism experiences struggle to move beyond engrained barriers and stereotypes.

Last Friday, I enjoyed amazing First Nations dancers and singers as well as music and dance from my own Métis culture in Aboriginal day festivities. Behind the images we all appreciate in these summer festivities, these are peoples and communities struggling to reconcile their historic societies with Canada beyond a legacy of systemic discrimination in Canadian society and the Federal Governments’ past and present assimilationist policies.

I suspect that many in the audience know very little about Métis people in this critical context. I think back to my own standard high school ‘snapshots’ we all received in school. In this version, “Métis” do not exist without “Canada” and this whether or not Métis are characterized as the rebel populists or unscrupulous opportunists, heroic Western pioneers or impediments in the way of progress, progenitors to Confederation or the fur trade’s illegitimate byproduct.

The singular idea of a European inspired Canada has not stood the test of time however, whether in our textbooks, songs, public landmarks, ‘official’ languages and policies, or even our political, legal or economic structures and activities. In our universities, the social sciences and cultural studies have begun to unsettle many of these old ideals and attitudes we took for granted, ideas about our country we thought were ‘inevitable.’ Now this paradigm shift is making its way into mainstream Canada and its institutions.

Aboriginal tourism industry in mainstream Canada is much more than flowcharts, five year business forecasts, or simply meeting visitor enrichment ‘best practices.’ At its best, it reflects the gradual resurgence of indigenous identities back into the Canadian public imagination. In reality, indigenous identities have never gone away, despite grand efforts to limit, commodify or freeze-frame them into the past.

For Canada’s Metis peoples, it will require creative and sensitive strategies to repatriate these identities in full recognition of over a century of cultural discrimination, social prejudice, economic stereotyping and political assimilation. Indigenous art, images and dance in First Nations societies were affiliated with political and social status. In my own Metis tradition, when I think of popular images and representations like the ‘buffalo hunt’, I know that in history this related to Metis legal traditions.

Métis tourism will optimally grow to the degree that Métis communities of interest engage ideas of proximity and translation, where Métis individuals and communities reclaim their unique cultures and histories in their fullest sense and learn to translate this into mainstream Canada.

For my own Métis culture, it’s time to imagine tourism experiences that cultivate interdependence between Métis and Canadian histories where both identities create shared understandings and meanings, a co-inspired past where we learn from each other. This may include exposure to dynamic community life and shared sense of belonging, immersion in governance and legal traditions, collaborative education programming, as well as sustainable community Economic Development.

Aboriginal tourism as a whole represents connections to people and places and gives meaning to the British Columbian landscape. If handled correctly, tourism could broaden ways of thinking about our city and our province. Approached in this manner, there is hope to foster new unforeseen connections, reinforce old kinship connections and foster continuity to those who went before us.

Joe Desjarlais

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