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Waiting for the EcoCultural Tourists

In Alert Bay, the fishing is dying and the future rides on aboriginal entrepreneurs wooing visitors.

By Chris Tenove 11 May 2004 |

Chris Tenove is a journalist and broadcaster based in Vancouver. He writes for magazines such as The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Reader’s Digest, and Maclean’s, and produces radio documentaries for CBC and the Radio Netherlands World Service. He is a contributing editor for The Tyee. For more information, see

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In his teens and early 20s, Jackson Warren spent sleepless nights worrying that all the old-growth forests would be felled, the oceans emptied of fish, and the skies polluted. This future seemed particularly bleak to someone who grew up in Alert Bay, surrounded by cedar groves and bays that teemed with salmon, seals, and migrating pods of killer whales.

"I was pretty sure that I'd become an eco-terrorist," says Warren, as he traverses a wooden boardwalk across Gator Gardens, a picturesque marshland in the hills above Alert Bay. "I didn't see many other options."

Around us, towering cedars and moss-covered stumps rise from inky pools. Ducks paddle away when we approach, and a bald eagle watches us from a distant snag. Warren, whose predecessors include Finnish and Irish settlers as well members of the local Namgis band, shows me a red cedar that was once harvested for a thick plank. You can see marks of axe blows and then the finer cuts by an adze, deep into the tree's cambium. The plank would have been massive -- the size of a pool table-top -- but decades later the tree is flourishing.

Looking for a future that lasts

"I think people would pay to see this," says Warren, referring to the natural splendour as well as the decades-old evidence of Namgis harvesting methods. Several years ago he started Waas Eco-Cultural Adventures. He now plans to run tours of Gator Gardens and other areas around Alert Bay, to teach tourists about the local environment as well as the traditional culture of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, of which the Namgis are a tribe.

"Eco-cultural-tourism" is a phrase that sounds more virtuous than profitable. But Warren believes it is a more effective tool for conservation than eco-terrorism. And for B.C. aboriginal communities like Alert Bay, struggling to cope with decimated fisheries and the social problems that come with chronic underemployment, it is a welcome prospect for economic diversification.

Alert Bay was founded on the fishing industry. But go down to the docks these days and a surprising number of the boats are idle, lacking the necessary licenses. Almost everyone -- aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike -- has been affected by the fishery's decline in some way.

Fishing boom still echoes

The halcyon days of fishing are still fresh in the minds of most residents. A local hotel owner tells me that waitresses could get hundreds of dollars in tips from a single fisherman who returned with a good haul. Fishery stocks started to ebb in the 1980s, and catastrophe struck in 1996 when then-minister Fred Mifflin of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans introduced the Pacific Salmon Revitalization Strategy. The "Mifflin Plan" cut the fishing fleet in half in an attempt to conserve fish stocks and ensure the viability of remaining fisheries operators. That year alone, the B.C. coastal salmon industry lost more than 8,000 jobs.

"The Mifflin Plan devastated the province's fishing industry," says Kelly Vodden, a researcher with Simon Fraser University's Centre for Coastal Studies. "The people who lost their jobs and boats tended to be those who were not as well off, and especially people in reserves. Alert Bay was one of the hardest hit communities in the province."

Vodden lived in Alert Bay during the late 1990s while doing research on community economic development for her master's degree dissertation. She identified a number of opportunities, from arts and crafts to health services. But every day she was struck by tourism possibilities. From the beach near her house she could watch killer whales and humpbacks, seals and eagles, and the occasional, enraptured kayaker. On the town's photogenic main street, a long ocean-side walkway passes old pastel houses and totem poles set in the grassy Namgis burial grounds.

"Now that access to resources is restricted, tourism has real potential," says Vodden, noting that eco-cultural-tourism has become a sort of Holy Grail for many struggling B.C. aboriginal communities. "Everyone is trying to do it, but some communities have unique strengths. In Clayquot they have ready market -- hundreds of thousands of tourists come each year to Tofino, they have money, and there's not much of an aboriginal tourism product there yet. Alert Bay is more remote, but it's fairly well-known internationally."

'Need a four-star hotel'

Not only does Alert Bay have a pretty town and some of the best whale watching in the world, it has the renowned U'Mista Cultural Centre. The centre includes a display of eerily beautiful Kwakwaka'wakw masks, returned to the community several decades after they were confiscated by Indian agents. (The artifacts were taken to punish the Kwakwaka'wakw for performing "illegal" Potlatch ceremonies.) The U'Mista gets about 10,000 visitors a year, and helps coordinate dances and performances at the Alert Bay Big House. But thus far, tourism has only created a handful of jobs for the local aboriginal community.

"Our problem is we don't have the necessary infrastructure in place," says Andrea Sandborn, executive director of the U'Mista. "Day packages are not a problem -- we can feed and entertain them and show them the island. But we don't have a big enough restaurant or hotel to cater to tour groups."

Day trips are fine for Squamish, but Alert Bay is 350 km and a short ferry north of Nanaimo.

"What we really need is a three- or four-star hotel -- people want to be wined and dined," says Randy Bell, the Youth Employment supervisor for the Namgis Community Development Department. One of his projects is a new tour offered through the Nimmo Bay Resort (an isolated high-end lodge offering heli-fishing packages starting at US $1,500 a day) that would include Kwakwaka'wakw cultural events. He shows me a glossy brochure, which includes the blurb "As your transformation evolves, you will partake in ceremonial dances in the Big House in Alert Bay, paddle in tribal canoes and view the ancient totems mirrored in the sea…"

Bell is also coaching Jerry Joseph, 24, and Nicole Alfred, 27, as they develop a business plan for a kayaking tour company. "There are lots of kayak tours around here every summer, but none are aboriginal," says Jerry, who leads me through a Power Point presentation on his hypothetical Stwayu Adventures company.

Jerry has been a professional fisher since he was 13, but says that it's increasingly hard to make a living. Kayaking tours will bring in some money and allow him to stay out on the waters. "I can paddle these trips blindfolded," he says. "It will be awesome."

Elders found tourism 'demeaning'

Not everyone in town is enthusiastic about tourism. Down at the Pool Hall, a local restaurant, an elderly man tells me, "We get all the people who say 'Come and look at the Indians.' I don't know why we need them."

Alert Bay's earlier experiences with tourism left a bad impression. In the 1970s, cruise ships would set anchor near town and shuttle hundreds of tourists over. The milling crowds gawked and pointed, they shut down all unrelated activity in town, but they rarely bought anything more than postcards.

Lawrence Ambers, band manager for the Namgis First Nation, says the older generation in particular found tourism demeaning. "But there is a greater realization today than yesterday that something needs to fill the economic vacuum," he says.

One obstacle to economic diversification is the past success of fishing, says Ambers. "Lots of people expect the fisheries will turn around and bring back all those opportunities. They think they just have to wait for it, and they pass that attitude on to their kids."

Training a full-time job

There is plenty of government funding available for aboriginal business development and vocational training, says Ambers, noting that some Alert Bay residents treat the courses as their main employment. What is lacking, he says, are opportunities to get work experience and support during the difficult process of starting a new business.

Kelly Vodden agrees that on-the-job training is needed, but she says there's not a lot of entrepreneurial skill and experience in the community, particularly in marketing. "People think that tourists will just come to them--they don't appreciate the amount of marketing needed."

There's little doubt that, for many tourists, the idea of local native culture reinforces an appreciation of the area's natural beauty. While there is some resentment that non- Kwakwaka'wakw use the culture's iconography for their businesses, aboriginals in Alert Bay are clearly willing to sell cultural experiences to outsiders. Over the years, they have decided what parts of their culture to share with tourists and what to keep to themselves. For instance, dance troupes at the Big House only perform some traditional ceremonies for tourists, but not others.

'Aborginal peoples meet the Borg'

Lurking behind the issue of economic development in Alert Bay is the tension between me-first, competitive business practices and the traditional system of production and consumption. David Newhouse, chair of Native Studies at Trent University, notes that until relatively recently, aboriginal communities were non-market societies. In his essay "Resistance Is Futile: Aboriginal Peoples Meet the Borg of Capitalism," Newhouse argues that widespread support (and pressure) for entrepreneurship in aboriginal communities will inevitably change social rhythms and relationships.

"We have participated at the edges of capitalism," writes Newhouse, "as labourers, as small business people, as debtors. Now we seek to enter its heart. We will be transformed by it…What we can do is mediate the worst effects of capitalism through the continued use of our values and the transformation of these values into institutional actions."

Jackson Warren believes eco-cultural tourism can give him a chance to strike that balance. To improve his tours of areas like Gator Gardens, he has delved deeper into the traditional Kwakwaka'wakw understanding of the environment, and he is able to introduce that value system to tourists. Rather than eco-terrorism, he says, "My model now is stewardship."

As we leave Gator Gardens we look out over Alert Bay, across the wind-roughened inlet, and towards the distant, jade green mountains. In a place this beautiful, says Warren, you know people are going to come, whether aboriginals want them or not. "It comes down to getting tourists to pay us to show them around and teach them to appreciate these areas," he says, "so they don't go off by themselves and screw it up."

Chris Tenove, who has contributed to the National Post, CBC Radio, the Globe and Mail, Maclean's, and Adbusters, files irregular dispatches to The Tyee from around British Columbia.  [Tyee]

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