“High tide is rush hour here” smiles our guide Tsimka, “that’s when the kayaks and water taxis usually come.” But since our group paddled over to Meares Island in a traditional flat bottomed canoe at low tide, we have the slippery boardwalk through the ancient rainforest all to ourselves.
Sitting on a fallen log at the massive base of a red cedar tree surrounded by frilly ferns, we eat our packed lunch and listen to Tsimka's animated stories of forest monsters, while the moist evergreen scent and bird songs indulge our senses. Her easy smile and gift of storytelling come from her father Joe Martin, the master carver who made the red cedar dugout canoe that she uses for her tours.
Tsimka Martin is a Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations woman who co-owns and operates T’ashii Paddle School in Tofino, British Columbia. Tofino, a popular west coast holiday and surfing town is traditionally Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations territory and Tsimka's family have been here for generations. They are some of the many indigenous people of Canada who are now ready to share their culture and homeland through tourism.
“Aboriginal” is an umbrella term describing three of Canada's original people: the Inuit, the Métis, and the First Nations – formerly referred to as "Indians". The First Nations people have inhabited Canada for over 12,000 years and have lived mainly on hunting and fishing, migrating seasonally and living very much in harmony with the nature around them. Today, while they’re a part of modern Canadian society, they’re also making the most of their heritage. From authentic experiences and traditional art to modern accommodations and industries, the First Nations are opening up to tourism. I spoke with Paula Amos, Marketing Manager of Aboriginal Tourism BC who explained: "developing Aboriginal tourism isn't only about economic advancement or jobs; it's about strengthening our culture and building cultural pride."
There are a number of ways to actively learn more about Canada's First Nations across the country, so here are three ways to experience a Canadian First Nations lifestyle:
Embrace nature in Tofino
British Columbia is leading the way in aboriginal tourism growth in Canada, but not just for the more traditional experiences. The Ucluelet people near Tofino, for example, simply embrace the adventure afforded by their dramatic surroundings. You can learn to surf and paddleboard, sleep in a yurt, or go offline in a secluded lodge at WYA Point retreat on Vancouver Island to commune with nature on your own. Even in the low season the legendary winter weather provides a challenge for the best surfers, as well as some romantic storm watching.
Spot wildlife along the Campbell River
A three hour drive north-east of Tofino brings you to Campbell River. Here you'll find boat-based wildlife discovery tours by Aboriginal Journeys. With generations of local knowledge and down-to-earth honesty, owner and guide Garry Henkel knows some of the regular passing orcas by sight, but when talking about bear watching, he admits: "We go out and see what we see; there are no guarantees until grizzly season." At the end of a tour, a traditional salmon cedar BBQ can be prepared for large groups.
Get cultured in Alert Bay
For a truly cultural treasure chest, take a short ferry trip to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. The bay is home to the tallest totem pole in the world, measuring 173-feet-high and representing the 14 tribes of its Kwakwaka'wakw people. Interactive experiences such as cedar weaving, canoe paddling, storytelling, and medicinal forest tours are available, but to properly appreciate the traditions and grasp the First Nations history, the first stop has to be the U’mista Cultural Center.
"U'mista" means “when something special comes back” and this cultural centre houses regalia and masks that were confiscated during the “dark times”, when potlatch ceremonies were outlawed. A potlatch ceremony would involve days or weeks of singing, dancing, eating and storytelling and was the primary economic system for the Kwakwaka'wakw. Now visitors are welcome to come and experience this engaging event firsthand. The T'sasala Cultural Group has summer dance performances at the Namgis Bighouse, which give a glimpse into the time-honoured ceremony.