Follow the Path of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples

David Israelson | August 9th, 2017

Photo: Getty Images

Travelling through Canada? Follow the path of this land’s indigenous peoples at these four must-see destinations.

The demand for authentic, respectful indigenous (or aboriginal) experiences is growing. Research by the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada (ATAC) found that one in four visitors to British Columbia seeks an indigenous travel experience.

ATAC is a year into an ambitious plan to grow Canada’s aboriginal tourism industry to employ more than 40,000 people by 2021 and have 50 new tourism experiences ready to market to world travellers. In a survey that it conducted in 2015, it estimated the economic output from indigenous tourism at $817 million in wages and more than $142 million in tax revenues to all government levels.

At the same time, it must be said yours won’t be the first encounter that non-indigenous people have had with indigenous Canada. Let’s acknowledge this before we book our flights or hop in the van. It will take generations for Canadians to overcome a four-centuries legacy of shameful treatment, which is only now beginning to be recognized by non-indigenous people.

One of the main tools Canada used was the residential school system. “Bear in mind that many indigenous Canadians are not celebrating Canada 150 at all—they don’t see any reason to celebrate,” says Beverley O’Neil, a British Columbia-based tourism and marketing consultant and citizen of the Ktunaxa First Nation in B.C.’s Kootenay mountain area. Despite this sordid history, O’Neil says that indigenous Canada does want to welcome you.

Your experience can be as simple as fine traditional aboriginal dining at Vancouver’s Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro. Take in the wisdom of elders at sites like Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park in Alberta, catch some Métis fiddlin’ in the middle of Manitoba. Head out on an aboriginal road trip from Cape Breton through the Nova Scotia mainland, or spend three nights under the northern lights near Yellowknife, learn Aboriginal fishing methods—and eat your catch.

As the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie said, “Let’s get it right this time.” It may be the best experience you’ll ever have.

Where to go?
One of the challenges for experiencing indigenous Canada is how to narrow down your options. First Nations, Inuit and Métis make up 4.3 per cent of Canada’s population (according to the 2011 Census, the most recent available), with 617 First Nation communities and some 55 different languages.

You’re not going to get everywhere. But, the opportunities are infinite for those who want to travel with open eyes and open minds. You can trek to Nunavut and the Far North or Haida Gwaii at the edge of the West or partake in rich cultural experiences a few hours from Quebec City or Toronto. Here is a small sample of some of the worthwhile encounters you can enjoy across our great country – there are many more from sea to sea to sea.

Six Nations of the Grand River
Canada’s largest First Nation community, just over an hour from Toronto and even closer to the U.S. border, is also one of the most accessible. “We’re ideal for a day trip, but there is a lot to see if you can stay longer,” says Janis Monture, director of tourism and cultural initiatives.

Start at the Woodland Cultural Centre, which until 1972 was the Mohawk Institute Residential School. A one-hour school tour—which must be booked in advance and be guided—will help you gain context and understanding.

Woodland also offers guided museum tours, showing some 600 years of history of the Six Nations and taking you right up to today. “It’s a good overview for first-time visitors, and you can pick up maps showing you where else to visit while you’re here on the Territory,” Monture says.

The Six Nations Territory is a sprawling, languorously undulating area hugging the curvy Grand River, with lots of relaxing, compelling stops. Monture’s tourism organization officially oversees historic sites, including Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks, built in 1785, and Chiefswood, the birthplace and family home of celebrated poet E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake in Mohawk).

Six Nations also has touring gardens and a nature trail, and Monture’s organization can help you arrange different tourist packages – a Love of the Arts day of visiting galleries and local artists; Where Cultures Meet, focusing on history and museums; and A Day of Play, where you can learn and even experience the ancient and incredibly tough game of lacrosse.

Adjacent to Six Nations is the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, whose ancestral territory is most of the Greater Toronto Area, right up to Lake Simcoe. If you’re hungry and crave some old-fashioned, cross-cultural good eatin’, head to the Burger Barn, one of the area’s most popular destinations.

Next: British Columbia, Nunavut and Quebec…

Paddles painted with family crests at the Haida village of Skidegate, B.C. Photo: Getty Images

British Columbia and Haida Gwaii
“You’ll often hear the phrase ‘time immemorial’—that’s where we’re at. We live a modern life that’s guided by traditional values,” says indigenous tourism expert O’Neil.

In addition to learning, you’ll find limitless opportunities for golf, fishing, hiking, rafting, visiting indigenous galleries, craft centres and wineries.

“You can plan your experiences based on events. For example, if you like whale watching, go to Tofino and take a trip with a First Nations-run tour operator,” O’Neil says.

“I’d also try and go to a powwow—then the experience comes to you,” she adds. The term, once specific to particular First Nations, has become more generic: powwows are ceremonial gatherings involving feasting, music, ceremony and regalia.

Many people consider Haida Gwaii to be the place that must be experienced at least once in a lifetime.

“Our visit was a spiritual experience,” says Brad Nixon, a southern Ontario lawyer who recently visited Haida Gwaii with his wife, fellow lawyer Carol Beckmann.

“The Haida’s sense of their place, their homeland, is palpable,” he says. The archipelago, once known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, includes islands protected under legislation as a National Park Reserve and Haida heritage site, the result of a bitter but successful battle to protect its ancient trees from logging.

A visit to Haida Gwaii requires considerable planning. A good place to start is Haida Gwaii’s travel planning site (

Quebec: Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations
Less than an hour drive from the heart of Old Quebec City, the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations is a 55-room, four-star boutique hotel that serves as centrepoint for experiencing the region’s thriving Wendake culture. It is adjacent to the Huron-Wendat Museum, opened in 2008.

Aboriginal-themed museums are an increasingly important part of the efforts of indigenous people to tell their own stories. The Wendat—known as Huron to the French—lived from lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario to the St. Lawrence River.

The hotel and museum are year-round attractions. In summer, you can relax on the terrace by the banks of the Akiawenrahk River and experience a women’s drumming ceremony while you dine on local and wild delicacies and enjoy a Microbrasserie Archibald Kwe corn-based beer, available only in Wendake.

At the museum’s permanent interactive exhibit, you’ll pass through a depiction of a creation myth and arrive at a forest. Behind this are showcases arranged in a great circle, which lead visitors to understand the Wendat peoples’ poetic vision of the universe.

Enjoy the hotel’s spa, fine dining and educational packages. Outdoor activities include shoeshoeing, cycling, boating, visiting Kabir Kouba Waterfall and nearby, a guided tour of the Huron-Wendat’s Fresco, designed by two local artists. There’s even a helicopter tour.

If you’re in Wendake this June 30 to July 2, you can feel the community’s heartbeat at the annual international powwow.

Jeffrey Keay, a Toronto broadcast executive, was recently on a business trip to Iqaluit, population 7,000, and he fell in love.

“Nunavut is addictive—but it requires a willingness to embrace the cold, the isolation, the long dark winters,” he says. On the other hand, he actually did help build an igloo.

“Nunavut was surprisingly easy to get to—First Air and Canadian North have regular flights out of Ottawa, which take about three hours,” he says.

Outfitters can arrange dogsledding trips onto the sea ice or, if you’re up for more adventure, multi-day snowmobiling trips to neighbouring communities like Kimmirut, 175 kilometres southwest of Iqaluit. In summer, you can fish for Arctic char.

“On a clear day, from the top of the large hill overlooking Iqaluit, the view of low, rolling hills, some of the oldest granite in the world, is seemingly infinite. This is big sky country, and the feeling of remoteness is awe-inspiring. It’s amazing that the Inuit have been able to survive here for thousands of years, hunting seal, caribou and whale, fishing and trapping,” Keay muses.

A successful encounter with indigenous cultures can mean new friends, new insights and new understanding. We all gain.

“Recognize that we’re a living culture, and living cultures evolve,” O’Neil says. “What stays alive are the principles and values that are most important.”

A version of this article appeared in the Special 2017 edition with the headline, “In Their Footsteps,” p. 65-66.