Nikki Bayley discovers how to add a First Nations flavour to a Canada holiday
Moose, mounties…and totem poles? Canada may not be the first place that springs to mind if you want to explore the world of aboriginal culture and history but they have some 630 different First Nations as well as Inuit and Métis.
From sleeping in a teepee and tracking rare spirit bears in the rainforest to luxe wineries, spas and golf resorts with a First Nations flavour, you’ll find something to suit all tastes.
Even in the heart of the city visitors can uncover a wealth of First Nations art and culture. First stop, Stanley Park, to admire the Haida Gwaii totem poles at Brockton Point, British Columbia’s most-visited tourism attraction.
Next stop, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, renowned for its huge collection of First Nations art. There’s more downtown at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art (Bill Reid was an acclaimed Haida artist). A fitting end is the Salmon n’ Bannock, a restaurant serving First Nations delicacies such as wild sockeye salmon and elk.
2 Head-Smashed-in buffalo jump
The smashed-in-head doesn’t refer to the actual buffalo, who were stampeded in their thousands over the cliffs here as a hunting practice. The smashed-in-head belonged to a Blackfoot brave who decided to watch from the bottom of the cliff. Big mistake.
This 6,000-year-old Unesco World Heritage Site in the foothills of the Alberta Rockies, south of Calgary, has a wonderful interpretive centre where you can learn about the Blackfoot people and the buffalo hunt. Special events are organised throughout the year from hikes with Blackfoot guides along the ancient drive trails to drumming, dancing and storytelling with elders.
3 Hotel-Musée Premières Nations
Drive 20 minutes from the cobbled streets of Quebec City, North America’s only walled city, to discover the Huron-Wendat community, the only one in Canada.
The modern and ancient worlds blend seamlessly together here in this well-designed hotel with a museum, Nordic Bathing spa and a gourmet restaurant, which serves delicious local food with a First Nations flavour.
The Hotel has a Longhouse-inspired design – the traditional home many of the First Nations lived in. Soak up the atmosphere with a daily Labrador tea ceremony by the fire, take a guided tour of the museum and during wintertime, join a snowshoeing expedition to track caribou.
4 Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Saskatchewan is home to the Wanuskewin Heritage Park, an important national historic site where some of the most exciting archaeological finds in North America have been discovered.
An annual gathering place for the nomadic Northern Plains indigenous people, visitors can delve into the past here and discover what life was really like for them. There are plenty of hands-on activities at the interpretive centre along with a gallery and theatre with First Nations artisan demonstrations, workshops and performances.
Stop by the restaurant to enjoy aboriginal-inspired delicacies such as pulled bison sliders. Groups of up to 12 can sleep in a teepee in the Opimihaw Valley after a night by the fire listening to stories and eating traditional bannock (flatbread).
5 Spirit Bear Lodge
Deep in the Great Bear rainforest of British Columbia lives the white ‘spirit bear’, or the kermode bear.
Rarer than the panda, these beautiful animals have lived side by side with the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nations for centuries.
Now clients can go on a bear-watching tour at the Spirit Bear Lodge, staying in comfort at the lodge where they watch orcas, white-sided dolphins and sea lions swim past the window.
Kayak the shores south of Klemtu river, listen to stories about First Nations life and culture, and experience the unique thrill of searching for spirit and grizzly bears. September and October are the best months to spot the elusive spirit bear.
Image credit: Spirit Bear Lodge
6 Nk’Mip Cellars
Visit North America’s only aboriginal owned and operated winery, Nk’Mip Cellars (pronounced ink-a-meep) where you can taste their award-winning wines on the shores of beautiful Lake Osoyoos surrounded by vineyards and orchards in Canada’s only desert, a four-and-a-half-hour drive outside Vancouver in the Okanagan Valley.
Delve into the world of the Okanagan nation at the Desert Cultural Centre with its interpretive displays, galleries and guided tours.
The nearby Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa is perfect for relaxing with golf, watersports, horse riding and Rattlesnake Canyon theme park close by.
7 Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre
Whistler is home to the new Squamish Lil’Wat centre where clients can step into a fascinating world where ancient cultures and modern life collide.
Guides – authentic First Nations ambassadors from the Squamish or Lil’wat Nations – will share stories and songs, explaining the significance of the mountains, sea and rivers to their people.
Visitors can settle back in a Squamish longhouse and learn how to weave with cedar bark, tuck into authentic First Nations food, such as Squamish salmon chowder in the Thunderbird cafe, and buy a stunning one-off piece of Aboriginal art from the gift shop. In summer, they can stay late and enjoy a barbecue.
8 Whitehorse, Yukon
When clients make it all the way to the Great White North of the Yukon, having hopefully seen the northern lights and learned how to mush a team of huskies, then it’s time for them to explore the small town of Whitehorse and uncover its First Nations history.
First stop, the Macbride Museum, a fascinating reflection of the history of both the Yukon First Nations and settlers. Cross the road to the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, which celebrates the heritage and the contemporary way of life of the Kwanlin Dün people.
A permanent art gallery and guided tour is available along with special events including language classes, storytelling, music and traditional food.
9 Great Spirit Circle Trail
Head northwest from Toronto to Manitoulin Island, the biggest freshwater island in the world, to follow the Great Spirit Circle Trail.
Here visitors encounter stories and legends of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Pottawatomi First Nations, can join a workshop and learn to make a dreamcatcher, take part in an educational medicine walk or set sail in a canoe and paddle into the sunset.
Book an overnight adventure and they can sleep in a traditional teepee after a day riding a horse on the trail and learning to drum around the campfire.
10 Torngat Mountains Base Camp
It’s hard to get further away from it all than at the Torngat Mountains Base Camp in Northern Labrador.
This is an experience for those who like to get back to nature and rough it a little; the tents are cosy and they are run on strictly green tech – there are no hairdryers here!
Guests sleep soundly in Inuit-style tents and wake to hikes through breathtaking scenery and explore more than 5.000 years of Inuit history. They’ll hear the stories from Inuit elders about the land where their ancestors lived and visit Sallikuluk to see Saglek Fjord and explore the island where there are traces of ancient villages.
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