Travel Story First Nations offer unique experiences: "This is us, welcoming you into our way of life"

Photo of Suzanne Morphet

Experience some of Canada's indigenous cultures with culinary activities, festivals, unusual accommodation and outdoor adventures. 

For people wanting to experience some of Canada’s unique indigenous cultures, there’s good news: the number of businesses offering aboriginal experiences almost doubled in the last decade or so. More than 1500 aboriginal tourism businesses offer everything from outdoor powwows to indoor art.

Aboriginal Canadians number 1.4 million, just 4 per cent of the population. While a few have grumbled that celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday is more like celebrating 150 years of colonialism, aboriginal people are eager to share their culture.

“We are community-based so it’s a truly authentic experience when people come,” said Jillian Larkham, a board member of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada for Newfoundland and Labrador. “We’re not putting on a show. This is us, welcoming you into our way of life.”

The three provinces with the most indigenous tourism businesses are Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, which are also the three provinces Australians visit the most (BC is the top destination for Aussies, followed by Ontario, then Quebec).

Indigenous tourism once largely meant casinos, and while they’re still around, the range of experiences has expanded greatly to include unique accommodation, culinary experiences and festivals. Outdoor adventures are still the top draw.

British Columbia has the greatest diversity of aboriginal cultures, with more than 200 distinct First Nations speaking more than 30 languages. An aboriginal experience here could mean learning survival skills of the St’at’imc people near Lillooet. They’ll show you how they fish for salmon and hang it to dry in the hot wind that blows up the Fraser River valley. Lillooet is on the Coast Mountain Circle Route, a driving route that includes Vancouver, Whistler and Harrison hot springs.

Next door to BC, Alberta has 48 First Nations, as well as a prominent Metis community. In Canmore, learn about medicinal plants and how to make moccasins with Mahikan Trails. (Canmore was the Nordic centre for the 1988 winter Olympics and is popular for cross-country skiing and mountain biking.)

In Jasper, Metis businessman Tom Vinson loves taking visitors on horseback adventures that range from one-hour rides to 18-day camping trips near Jasper National Park.

The prairie provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba are home to 133 First Nations. Sleep in a tipi, dine on bison stew and enjoy art and dance at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatoon. If you’re in Manitoba during the annual Manito Ahbee Festival, you’re in for a treat. A two-day powwow is part of the event with hundreds of dancers dressed in full regalia. “It’s quite the scene with all the dancers and drummers under one roof,” said Jacquie Black, who manages the festival’s Indigenous Music Awards and Arts Program.

With 139 First Nations, Ontario has the most aboriginal tourism businesses of any province or territory — 479 at last count. The Great Spirit Circle Trail on Manitoulin Island offers guided workshops, educational tours and wilderness adventures. At Six Nations of the Grand River, about an hour from Toronto, sign up for A Day of Play and learn how to play the ancient game of lacrosse.

In Quebec, home to 55 aboriginal communities, be initiated into the spiritual life of the Huron Nation by entering a sweat lodge on the Huron-Wendat reservation, 20 minutes from Quebec City. You can also learn how to use traditional bow and arrows.

The Maritime provinces have only 34 First Nations but it’s still possible to find aboriginal experiences. Fly fish for Atlantic salmon while staying at Metepenagiag Lodge in New Brunswick. In Nova Scotia, shop for Mi’kmaw arts and crafts at the Wagmatcook Cultural and Heritage Centre. On Prince Edward Island, watch members of the Mi’kmaq First Nation make pottery. In Newfoundland, aboriginal outfitters will take you hunting for moose, caribou and bear.

Canada’s three northern territories have the highest proportions of aboriginal people in Canada, especially Nunavut, where 86 percent of people are aboriginal, largely Inuit. Ride by dog sled or snowmobile to look for belugas or polar bears with Arctic Bay Adventures. In the Northwest Territories, go ice fishing or snowshoeing with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. And in the Yukon, Shakat Tun Adventures teach trapping and drum-making.

(At top: Standing Buffalo First Nation Powwow, Saskatchewan. Picture by Tourism Saskatchewan/Greg Huszar Photography.)

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