Canada’s new tourism minister said Indigenous rights and decision-making must be respected in how the country operates and develops its tourist industry, which may present unique opportunities for Aboriginal communities to grow those businesses.
Soraya Martinez Ferrada said instances of tourism sites being shut down by Indigenous communities are examples of the nations making themselves heard on issues important to their members.
“We have to make sure that we are working … at the rhythm that they want to do it, and in terms of what they want to show — not what we want to see,” Martinez Ferrada said in an interview on Friday.
“It’s what they want to share in terms of experiences and traditions and culture. And that’s up to Indigenous communities to do that. That’s what we call self-determination.”
The minister’s comments come after two B.C. First Nations shut down access to the popular Joffre Lakes Park for several weeks this summer to assert their title and rights to harvest and gather resources in the area.
The Lil’wat and N’Quatqua nations asked others to honour the decision to remain out of the park to ensure the well-being of their members.
The nations said the closure was supported by both the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that required First Nations consent for the use their lands and resources.
The park was reopened in September after an agreement between the nations and the provincial government.
Martinez Ferrada said the challenge is for each Indigenous community to determine how to operate tourism-related activities on its land in a way to benefit members economically, while not negatively impacting the natural setting that’s both environmentally and culturally important.
She said another example of the need for balance is the increased prevalence of cruise ships and yachts in Canada’s North, which has potential to disrupt fishing and other water-based opportunities that are part of the Indigenous way of life.
“We have to be careful,” Martinez Ferrada said. “We have to make sure that we are developing a new stream of tourism that’s led by Indigenous communities. But they want to make sure that’s not going to impact their fishery.
“So, it’s the right balance that communities want to find, and we have to respect that … and the rhythm and the time they’re going to take to do that.”
In August, a statement from B.C.’s opposition BC United party said the Joffre Lakes disruption came about as a result of the NDP government not properly engaging First Nations communities.
Martinez Ferrada was in Vancouver Friday announcing the launch of a $10-million program to provide grants to small businesses involved in Indigenous tourism across Canada.
The fund, to be administered by the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, will supply qualified small businesses with up to $25,000 each in non-repayable assistance.
Martinez Ferrada said the goal of the program is to build “capacity” among Indigenous businesses to be able to support whatever decisions they make on the direction of tourism on First Nations land.
She said the funding will also help the Indigenous Tourism Association promote an accreditation program certifying businesses that offer “high-quality authentic experiences,” and growing this segment of tourism is one of her top priorities.
The federal government said Indigenous tourism was among the hardest hit sectors of the travel industry during the pandemic, just as it was becoming one of the fastest-growing segments before COVID-19.
The new program will be financed through a $20-million Indigenous Tourism Fund that was announced by the federal government in its 2022 budget.
Martinez Ferrada said the remaining $10 million in the fund will be dedicated to support and strengthen “signature projects” already driving the Indigenous tourism sector and ready to be “shown to the world.”
Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press