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The Rise of Cultural Tourism
Text and photos by Patrick Kane

In Deline, Northwest Territories, a bold new model of tourism based on aboriginal culture and lifestyle is on the rise. Is this the next big thing in travel to Canada’s North?

“You see? It’s nice and warm now,” says my guide, Bruce Kenny, smiling and stoking the woodstove in his ice-fishing hut. I nod in agreement, open my parka and take a big sip of Labrador tea. I stand half-in and half-out of the doorway and look up at a million stars against a deep blue, dusky evening sky. It’s beautifully quiet too. No traffic noise, no television and certainly no Internet. The only sounds I hear are from a gentle breeze coming across the frozen lake and the fire cracking inside. I’m cut off from the rest of the world, and it is perfect.

I’m in Deline (pronounced “day-li-neh”), Northwest Territories, a small and remote community located just below the Arctic Circle on the southwest shore of the eighth largest lake in the world, Great Bear Lake. The only road in or out is on the winter road, which opens in December and closes in April. The rest of the year, Deline is only accessible by plane or a small boat.

NWT-tourism02“That’s what makes this place so special,” says Jason Knibbs, a tourism sales specialist I’m travelling with from the British Columbia-based marketing firm, the Hotkey Group. “I want people who’ve never heard of Deline, or the Northwest Territories for that matter, to see how beautiful this untouched part of the world is: the gorgeous landscapes, the incredible skies, the wildlife too, but most importantly the wonderful people who live here. That’s the key, the people,” he says.

The community, as remote as it is, is full of people like Bruce Kenny, who are perfectly happy to invite complete strangers to ice-fish and sip tea. With a population of roughly 550 residents, the majority of which are aboriginal Sahtu Dene who speak North Slavey and English, it is one of the Northwest Territories’ most traditional settlements. Moose and caribou antlers decorate homes, and the tops of several teepees poke high above modest houses and cabins.

Alfred and Jane Taniton invite us into their small home, decorated with family photos and Dene artwork. Both are respected elders and leaders in the community. Alfred is weaving his own snowshoe in the living room while Jane scrapes and softens moose hide with her ulu— a traditional knife with a rounded blade.

“This is caribou sinew,” Alfred says in broken English. He is intensely focused on his work while we simply watch with curiosity. He is more than happy to give us a play-by-play account of his method. “We use (the sinew) because it’s really strong and tough, so it doesn’t break when we’re out in the bush. We use all parts of the animals we hunt,” he continues.

I turn my attention to Jane who is working just as hard, if not harder, than Alfred. She looks at me for a moment, nudges her head toward the moose hide and scrapes downward in a quick and strong rhythm, demonstrating her technique. I cannot speak Slavey but we manage to communicate by nodding, pointing and smiling.

Scenes like this are commonplace in Deline, regular routines and a lifestyle that, to guests like myself, are incredibly fascinating. Add in the opportunity to mix and mingle with local residents of an otherwise exotic location, and you have a recipe for a fully engaging, immersive kind of travel experience. It is a type of tourism that places like Deline want to be part of.

“Tourists in today’s market are showing a keen interest in experiential travel,” says Knibbs. “It’s not enough anymore for tourism agencies to simply say, ‘Hey, come visitus and look around’. You have to offer a unique product and there is no better product than participating in the local customs and traditions of a far away place. The North is perfect for this kind of cultural, experiential travel,” he says.

According to the Canadian Tourism Commission, the numbers support Knibbs’ claims. In a survey commissioned by the CTC, specifically about Aboriginal Tourism in Canada, the report says, “Among prospective future Canadian visitors, there is a very high level of interest in the opportunity to participate in Aboriginal cultural experiences, celebrations and attractions while in Canada — 82 per cent among the French, 72 per cent among Germans and a solid 46 per cent among UK travellers. This is extremely encouraging for the sector and confirms that it has the potential to become a significant value added cultural product for Canada.”

In Deline, that market is only just starting to be tapped. This past August, the community welcomed its first-ever tour group under a tourism initiative called Destination Deline, a joint-venture between the Deline Land Corporation, the Grey Goose Lodge, The Hotkey Group and the Government of the Northwest Territories. The aim of Destination Deline is to establish a quality tourism industry within the community, without compromising the cultural integrity of the experience.

“This initiative would not be possible without the support of the community,” says Suzanne Hall, Deline’s Tourism Coordinator and manager of The Grey Goose Lodge. “It is both community led and driven. Leaders, artists, elders, children, and individuals have all embraced this endeavour. Occasionally there has been some trepidation, which is natural and to be expected when presented with new situations, but honest communication helps to alleviate some of that,” she says.

Jess Fortner, the GNWT’s manager of Parks and Tourism for the Sahtu Region agrees with Hall that community buy-in is necessary for cultural tourism to work in the NWT. “From the GNWT perspective, the major challenge with this type of tourism initiative is finding communities who are ready and willing to set the goal and then develop and execute a plan,” he says. “In the case of Deline, there were almost two years of community consultations between community leadership and the GNWT, and on-going community information sessions before the first tourists arrived under the Destination Deline banner. If the community is ready, willing and in agreement to commit to the endeavour, then the rest of the challenges become manageable,” he says.

If maintaining cultural integrity is at the forefront of Destination Deline, then the residents and stakeholders will be happy to hear that travellers to Canada want authentic interaction too. The CTC’s report on Aboriginal Tourism also says that visitors hope that Canada’s Aboriginal cultural products would not disappoint them as other countries have, which is to say they do not want to be toured on a bus to a commercial area, see a scripted cultural performance and then be asked to purchase a mass-produced trinket.

“Ideally, our visitors to Deline would be culturally sensitive and open to learning about foreign customs and traditions,” says Knibbs. With that in mind, the Hotkey Group reached out to Road Scholar — an agency that offers travel packages marketed at educated retirees with money to spend — to help promote and book the Destination Deline tour.

“It is quite expensive to get to Deline and the community only has the capacity to handle groups of eight to 10 people a few times a year,” says Knibbs. “By getting the right visitors here — visitors who will understand the costs involved and appreciate a unique opportunity like this — is extremely important for us,” he says.

In return, the people of Deline see this is a great opportunity as well: income for the local economy, training and education for their youth, and the ability to share their culture with visitors from all over the world.

“Beyond the stimulated economic activity that tourism creates, there are intangible benefits as well,” says Fortner. “A sense of community and cultural pride, a desire to improve community landscaping and infrastructure, greater emphasis on producing works of art, and increased training and capacity building for young people and the individuals involved in the service delivery are positive offshoots from an initiative like this,” he says.

NWT_Tourism01Hall adds that recently one of her front office staff completed a First Host Trainer program and now has the skills to train the rest of her staff. “There is another team member who has decided to go back to school, having recently graduated grade 12, and pursue a degree in Hospitality & Tourism Management,” she says. “It is my understanding that before joining our team at the Lodge, he hadn’t been aware of this option as a viable career,” she says.

Under a similar program called ACE, launched in Arviat, Nunavut, in 2012, the community has experienced an economic and educational windfall as well. It has even garnered some well-deserved national accolades, including being named a finalist in the Canadian national tourism awards in 2012 in the cultural product category. It was then selected by TIDES Canada as one of their Top 10 social change initiatives that same year.

If Arviat is the poster-boy for cultural tourism in Nunavut, then Deline can be that for the Northwest Territories. “A tourism program like this brings our community together and it creates local employment in a culturally safe manner,” says Hall. “There’s also a great opportunity for our residents to look at their own lives through a new lens, that of the tourist. We get to see how amazing visitors think everyday life in Deline is.The cultural exchange goes both ways,” she says.

Back at the dining area of the Grey Goose Lodge, the walls display stunning beaded tapestry made by local elders, taxidermy of musk ox and bears, along with a mount of the largest freshwater fish caught in North America — an 85-pound Lake Trout hauled out of Great Bear Lake, one of the best destinations worldwide for sport fishing.

At dinner, the Lodge fills up with people. It’s here where tourists rub elbows with elders, artists, community leaders, and just about everyone else in town. Morris Neyelle, a respected leader (not to mention excellent fisher and hunter) sits down with me and pours a cup of coffee. “How are you enjoying yourself? Having fun and meeting lots of people?” he asks. I reply that I am as he offers me a warm piece of homemade bannock. His questions and courtesies extend to the people around us too, and soon several tables are sharing food and stories with each other. This isn’t a tourist trick; nobody is trying to pitch a sale to the visitors. This is genuine Deline hospitality.

“Well, just thought I’d come say hello,” says Neyelle as he puts on his parka and heads out the door. Then he pops back in and looks in my direction. “There’s supposed to be a nice sunrise tomorrow morning,” he says. “I’ll come find you and we’ll have a coffee. Then if it’s not too cold, I’ll take you to a good little spot by the shore and you can get some pictures of the sun coming up over the lake,” he says. “Sounds perfect,” I say.NWT-tourism04