Why Indigenous-Centred Tourism is Rapidly Growing | The Agenda
>> Steve: If travelling the province is part of your summer holiday plans, you'll want to listen closely to our next two guests. They're both part of a growing indigenous-led tourism sector that's sharing with non-indigenous people across Ontario, the food, culture, history and traditions that have been practiced on these lands for thousands of years. With us now for more from M'Chigeeng First Nation MANITOULIN island, Neil Debassige, who is a producer on Sportsman Channel Canada's hunting and fishing program, "Fuel the fire TV", he also does fishing charters and cabin rentals on Manitoulin. And in Vaughan, Ontario, Kevin Eshkawkogan, president and CEO of Indigenous Tourism Ontario. It's great to have you two on our program here tonight on TVO.
Kevin, I'll start with you. You've been at indigenous tourism Ontario for more than five years now. Just give us a sense of how the trend is going in your sector. >> Kevin: Well, first, bonjour, Steve, Neil. (Speaking indigenous language).
But you can call me Kevin, that's easier for everyone involved. In the last five years we've seen growth. Even with the pandemic there's been high demand for indigenous tourism experiences and that's largely due to a lot of work that's happened over the last 20 years. Some would say over the last thousand years as we've been hosting guests for that long. With that being said for the last five years, with the growing demand for experiences and learning more, with more sophisticated consumers, they want to learn the true history of the indigenous people of turtle island or in our case here in Ontario, where I am at.
>> Steve: Neil, tell us more about the kind of tourism you do. >> Neil: For sure. We do a number of things in terms of getting people back to centre, if you will.
And the biggest part of that is getting them back on the land and back on the water. So we have some cottages that we rent, air BNB. And we take people out on fishing excursions all over MANITOULIN. We can do the north shore or the south shore of MANITOULIN into Georgian Bay. >> Steve: Kevin, I wonder if any people in your community look at what you do and don't call it tourism, but rather say you're kind of showing the settlers around. Is there any of that attitude involved? >> Kevin: There definitely S and there are a lot of different attitudes in many facets.
Showing people around, teaching them our ways and educating people that's all part of indigenous tourism. I think first and foremost it's about telling our story on our terms and less about the capitalistic side of the business which is generating revenue. And sometimes that causes a problem. But, yeah, you're right. We show a lot of people around.
We share a little quick story. One of our chiefs jokingly and in a very fun way with some visitors on a cruise ship said listen, we only expect one thing at the end of the day and that's to, you know, get back on that ship because we only make that mistake once. But he is saying that very affectionately to those visitors because they genuinely had to get back to the ship because they were heading to the U.S.
after that. >> Steve: I get the joke. But at some point -- at some point I imagine the joke comes up that now here's the land you guys stole from us thousands of years ago, does that kind of joke come up? >> Kevin: It definitely comes up. We have travellers from all over the world. So a lot of it has to do with educating people on what it is we do here. Who we are as keepers of the land.
And we educate, first and foremost. We've got to keep in mind, when we're doing tourism as Neil well knows, it's about, you know, making sure that people enjoy themselves while on a vacation and educating them in a gentle, you know, kind way so that they understand our perspective and become friends and Allies of ours. >> Steve: Got it.
Neil, I heard -- now you tell me if I got this right. Were you a high school principal once upon a time? >> Neil: Yes, I was an educate eras elementary and secondly levels. >> Steve: How did you get from that to what you're doing now? >> Neil: It was pretty much what we did any way.
I was doing multiple roles as an educator. We started the rental business back in 2004. And it's an extension of our daily life.
I mean, we harvest to eat. And we spend all of our waking hours -- or most of them, anyway, outside, you know, on water and on the land. So it really wasn't too much of a stretch.
Even in education. You know, my qualifications were in the sciences, in math and science. And then when we moved into the administration setting, we formed programs around outdoor education so that was a big focus for the school and as many people know, land-based education is all the rage currently.
So that continues to be a focus. >> Steve: And how often, when you are doing your tourism do people say you're the "Fuel the Fire TV" guy? >> Neil: It happens. It's a niche audience in terms of the hunting and fishing world. When we're trying to get people out, typically they're first timers to the island and to MANITOULIN and they're just looking for an excursion that they haven't had the opportunity to do going out on a bigger boat and targeting some of these bigger fish, the salmonoid species, not everyone has that access.
Once we get out there we start to slowly incorporate that mind set or that First Nation world view in terms of gearing the experience around medicine wheel. And we talk a lot about food sovereignty because that's one of the big reasons we do go out onto the water is to harvest. And to be able to come full circle not only stepping into the life cycle of the game that we're chasing but also then bringing that back in a sustenance kind of way so that you can enjoy that experience all over again with family, around a barbecue and the dinner table. >> Steve: Kevin, you well know there has been a huge uptake in ecotourism as it's called.
I wonder how that affects what you're trying to do. >> Kevin: It's interesting. In my role at the provincial level and in the work that we do, we're here to support fellows like Neil and business operators who want to do good things and share their stories and help educate through educational, interactive and experiential experiences. So when we think of ecotourism, it seems to be the trend right now, Steve.
But in reality, when I first came into the industry for working for the communal good, working for the people, it was at the forefront back in 2002, 2003. And, you know, it's new but it's not new. And it's simply a way of our living.
As I said we've been doing this for thousands of years and sustainability was a big part of that. And ecotourism throw it has a fancy name like most things with the aboriginal people we've been doing this sufficient for a long time. And I'm quick to say we're some of the original hosts, the original scientists, doctors. We've done a lot of things we're the first in a lot of things. When it comes to ecotourism we've been doing it for a long time before we know what we call it today.
We've been managing these lands for a long, long time in a very sustainable manner. And it didn't have fancy names like ecotourism. But we did take care of these lands in a very productive manner and provided for all. >> Steve: Neil, let me follow up with you on this front. Let's say, for example, you're organizing a fishing trip. How is a fishing trip, quote/unquote, indigenous-led or indigenous-focused in ways unlike other trips.
>> Neil: One of the things we do is start off with safety. But we also start it off by making an offering and tobacco is one of our sacred medicines in indigenous culture. And so we actually -- I want to make a point to start off our fishing trips with that offering. Giving thanks to create this attitude of gratitude notion.
And so that we understand that we're giving thanks for the opportunity. The opportunity to experience something from all quadrants of our medicine wheel, from the emotional, the spiritual, the physical and mental sides. And we don't want people to think that if we had a really good trip and we do an offering at the end of the trip that it has anything to do with oh, we better do an offering of medicine for good luck. Because that's not the point of that.
And so that often starts the discussion and it eases people into this understanding of what those medicines mean to us. And then how we incorporate that into our every day life. And, you know, fishing is, for us, it's almost an everyday activity. And it's something that we want to get into the habit of realizing and being in the moment and realizing the importance of awareness about where you are, where your food comes from and how we can, you know, take matters into our own hands and create the sustainable environment for everyone. >> Steve: Kevin, appreciated your previous answer.
It was very thoughtful and a great reminder to people that you are the original stewards of the land and have been caring for these lands for many, many, many centuries. But there are aspects of tourism that are not consistent with good environmental practices. I think about people who, for example, hop on a plane to get to wherever they need to get to-do start their tourism journey. And I wonder how you sort of reconcile the negative aspects of what you're involved in by virtue of the fact that people have to either get in cars or get on planes to get to where they want to get to with what you're trying to do. >> Kevin: Yeah, that's a great comment and question that we need to address collectively as an industry.
Often we don't want to talk about the negative impacts of tourism. And we can see during the pandemic that clearly if we travel less, the earth will take care of itself and it will rebound. And taking as many measures that we can as an industry collectively, the better off things will be and the more sustainable it will be to maintain itself for everyone to enjoy in future generations.
But some of the things that we've started to do to help Ottawa raters like Neil is we've embraced technology. So as we meet today here, in three different locations, we've done this sort of thing with our operators. We've embraced technology to do augmented reality, virtual reality and now we're doing drone shows and different activities that minimize the impact.
And that's where we're starting. At the same time, we've brought in a professional who's a climate expert to help us measure the emissions that the indigenous tourism industry puts out and we'll develop a strategy to go along with addressing that. This model of tourism that we currently see is not something we refer to when we talk about what we've been doing for thousands of years because it isn't. And we all need to collectively address it.
There are a lot of people in the tourism industry to do their own thing to try to help alleviate some of the pressures on the environment that tourism creates. >> Steve: For you, Neil, I can imagine there is a fine line between you wanting to share the experience of being indigenous and being out in the wilds on the one hand and then on the other hand with so-called settler culture gawking, if you like, at how you do what you do. There's a fine line there. How do you sort of reconcile all of that? >> Neil: Well, I think when we look at -- one of the common things we all have to do every day is eat. And I want people to start asking themselves, you know, from the start of their day, where are they? Their food system? And unfortunately, here in Canada, as fortunate as we are to live in this great country, we're number three in terms of food wastage. And so when we start asking ourselves where are we in our own food system, am I a producer, am I a harvester, am I a distributor, or am I simply a consumer.
If I am a consumer, do I waste -- what percentage of my food do I waste? And how do I take matters into my own hands in getting bath to the centre of that and become a little bit more connected to where my food comes from. Understanding that then leads into a number of other areas. Especially conservation. I sit on a board, a not for profit board here called MANITOULIN streams and we work very closely with the public -- especially during the tourist high season -- but we also work very closely with schools and educating. Not only First Nation students but also students, you know, across MANITOULIN who to talk about stream health and we to micro-hatcheries in schools. Students take an active role during the summer and in early fall in stream restoration.
So we have a number of initiatives that we're involved in to really allow people -- and students especially -- to be participants rather than observers. >> Steve: Let me follow up with Kevin on that. Education, obviously S. a -- is a huge part of what you're trying to do here. But are there some aspects of indigenous life that you think ought to be off limits to non-indigenous people who you are doing business with? >> Kevin: Yes, and first and foremost, Steve, it's not my individual call to make. It is the call of the community.
And it's up to them what's appropriate to share or not. With that being said we're doing our small part at indigenous tourism Ontario. You've got what's called the indigenous cultural integrity advisory group. It's individuals made up of people from various nations across Ontario. We've got Anishinaa-bekwe and Cree individuals sitting on the committee in a meaningful and respectful way but at the same time not become cultural police so to speak. With that being said, we'll help set guidelines.
Communities can embrace them as much as they feel fit but they should also go through their individual processes to identify what they're going to share and to each community it's going to vary. It's going to be different because there's such diverse groups right across Ontario. >> Steve: Neil, it does make me wonder because there are people that come from all over the world who come to experience Northern Ontario and all the beautiful things it has to offer and the spectacular indigenous culture that you are offering as well.
But when people say we've come here for the indigenous experience, do they actually know what they mean? >> Neil: I think it's our responsibility to teach them that. And to, you know, for everyone that I've taken out has been completely respect of the rules on the boat for one because there are safety rules. But also it's more of an education piece of, you know, I didn't know this. I mean, if you look at the residential school effect and over the course of generations, and in the curriculum of provincial schools, that has been, you know, avoided for the most part.
And I think it's this education piece that's -- that everyone is now more aware of. And that's the start. Where we start to have these healthy discussions around -- from residential schools to, you know, the 60s scoop or whatever topic they're interested in, I think asking questions and being okay with that is one of those first steps toward reconciliation for all of us. >> Steve: Kevin, how does that work in your world? Do those issues come up as well? >> Kevin: Absolutely. And everyone's looking to learn. And the surprising thing is, it's hard to put it into words to them what they're going to experience initially with the operators.
There's such a diversity across businesses in Ontario and across the country and across turtle island that they just want to check the box typically, Steve where they see an experience or hear something really cool and they hear, okay, indigenous tourism is this really cool thing. However, when they get here they find that when they meet Neil it's just the tip of the iceberg doing that. One day or two-day experience with them. Where they actually want to learn more. And the hunger starts to grow within them. It's an amazing thing to see.
We've had visitors in some of my other operations where they've come back multiple times to learn about the same thing over and over again. And it reminded me of some of the simple teachings about teachings. Is what you hear today may not be what you hear tomorrow.
Not because the story changed but because you are at a different place individually, spiritually, mentally, emotionally. From that you are going to learn something different. So every time they come, even though they might go with Neil, you know, five times one summer or the next summer or they might learn five new different things. And that's what's really amazing about epidemic tourism is it's constantly building. Although we've been -- the history of our people has been for so long. There's so much to share and so much to learn and it takes multiple trips to do so.
>> Steve: Neil, let me ask a down and dirty business question here. As much as you two are involved in the business of sharing spirituality, education and memorable, life-long experiences, you are also at the end of the day in competition with non-indigenous businesses trying to make a living in the tourism field as well. How much friction is there with other, for example, non-indigenous tourism operator that you find in the course of doing your business? >> Neil: It's a good question. There are two ways to look at life. You know, there's this abundance mentality or there's deprivation theory and I'm going to choose the former. I'm going to look at it from this notion of abundance.
Some people want the First Nation experience. And, you know, they gravitate to us. I think, you know, we are the centre of the universe here.
I mean that's a little egocentric. But when we look at turtle island and that heart beat and you look at what's at the centre and fresh water is at the centre of us as an organism. Well, it's also at the centre of turtle island. And MANITOULIN is that heart beat. And I think there are so many people wanting to come here and experience.
They're just -- you know, there is a lot of room for growth and, you know, if people want to try -- if you look at Facebook and people say, I want to go on a fishing Charter, who do I look up? There will be 10 fishing Charters. You've got Luc from WASS tours, Brian still from stillwater fishing. And you've got the other non-native businesses as well. And there is enough to go around. We can only take out one group at a time.
And, you know, I'm at that stage where I like to do, you know, one Charter a day. And we run another Charter boat, you know, with another captain the other part of the day. So it's one of those things where it's not this rat race.
It's one of the things, it's a model that my mom, you know, taught me way back, which was do more of what you love and less of what you don't and live your life by that rule. And so you get to be fortunate enough. You get to go fishing every day.
>> Steve: Great sentiments. I wish you both well in your efforts to improve spirituality, to education, and, yeah, let's say it -- and to make some money this summer as well because that's a good thing, too. Neil Debassige and Kevin Eshkawkogan, thank you so much for coming on to TVO tonight, Megwitch and have a great summer. >> Neil: Thank you. >> Kevin: Thank you, Megwitch.