Ancestors of original inhabitants have many stories to tell
When it comes to Canadian tourist attractions, many of us are more familiar with the country’s awesome natural wonders and European heritage than with the numerous sites that preserve its Aboriginal traditions. From the Maritime Provinces in the east to the sweeping plains and majestic mountains in the west, Canada counts some 600 different native nations, each with its own culture and spiritual beliefs.
The term Indigenous encompasses First Nations people, those who for centuries have lived on the land now called Canada; the Metis, a culture that resulted from the union of European and Aboriginal people; and the Inuit, inhabitants of the far northern regions.
Groups can get in touch with these cultures at museums, historic sites and other places that share native traditions through a variety of experiences. Your travelers can enjoy interactive exhibits, study archaeological dig sites, and partake in outdoor adventures offered by native-owned tour companies and wilderness resorts. They can shop for native arts and crafts, dine in restaurants offering ethnic specialties, and enjoy casinos, bingo halls, and music and dance performances.
Here is a sampling of the many options that await tour groups:
Six Nations of the Grand River
Six Nations Tourism offers a variety of activities and places to visit. Close to the U.S. border and Toronto and Hamilton airports, the southern Ontario community contains historical sites, a park with cabin accommodations and the 1785 Mohawk Chapel, the oldest surviving church in Ontario. There are shops, restaurants and art studios. Exhibits at Woodland Cultural Centre shed light on the Haudenosaunee people of the Eastern Woodlands.
Dinner by the Grand Dinner Theatre in Ohsweken offers Indigenous cuisine along with music, dance and storytelling. Other Six Nations facilities include a spa and bingo hall. Guided canoe tours on the Grand River feature commentary on Haudenosaunee history, culture and spiritual beliefs. Walking tours along the Six Nations Nature Trail explore the largest stand of Carolinian (deciduous) forest in Canada. Six Nations is Canada’s most populous First Nation.
Huron Traditional Site
Only 15 minutes north of Quebec City, this reconstructed village offers guided tours that explain the lifestyles of the Hurons from yesterday to today. Tours are primarily outdoors and visit various stations, including a longhouse. Optional packages include storytelling, crafts and other activities. Groups, for example, can work with deer leather and goose feathers to make a medicine wheel, a decorative creation used to chase away illness. For active groups, canoe and snowshoe outings can be arranged. The Huron site is one of the many First Nation historic sites, restaurants, shops and lodgings under the Wendake Tourism umbrella.
Metepenagiag Heritage Park
Metepenagiag Heritage Park, near Red Bank in central New Brunswick, spotlights one of the province’s oldest continuously inhabited communities, home to the Mi’kmaq people, the largest First Nation in Atlantic Canada. In the modern Metepenagiag Interpretative Centre, guests can tour the exhibit halls and see a 20-minute movie. The park’s two archaeological dig sites—a burial ground dating to 600 B.C. and remains of a village that traces its origins back 3,000 years—are Canadian National Historic Sites.
In the company of a guide, groups can follow in the footsteps of the Mi’kmaq people’s ancestors on groomed walking trails that go down to the Miramichi River.
The 10-room Red Bank Lodge, a beautiful cedar building overlooking the river, offers comfortable accommodations and a dining room serving traditional local foods.
Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Located just outside of Saskatoon, Wanuskewin Heritage Park is a multi-faceted, indoor/outdoor attraction that explores Northern Plains culture. One trail leads to the bison viewing platform, which affords panoramas of grasslands inhabited by free-roaming bison. Reintroduced to the prairie in 2019 after disappearing 150 years ago, the bison represents the deep spiritual connection between the people and their land.
Following extensive renovations completed in 2020, the trails have been refurbished and the visitor center has more than tripled in size. The building has interactive exhibits, videos and galleries showcasing works by Northern Plains Indigenous artists. Items on the restaurant menu include elk patties, bison burgers, bison stew, and a salad with wild rice, dried berries, pumpkin seeds and shredded bison.
The park also has Canada’s longest-running archaeological dig and tipis for tourist sleepovers. Guided group tours are available year-round, and there are dance performances from May to September.
Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park
A Canadian National Historic Site less than an hour south of Calgary, this park on the Bow River celebrates the culture of the Siksika First Nation, also known as the Blackfoot. The state-of-the-art building has interactive exhibits and a theater showing an introductory video that explains the location’s significance as the site of an important 1877 treaty between native nations and the Canadian government. Indoor tours are led by a Siksika interpreter. Dance and craft demonstrations are offered at certain times.
Historical markers are interspersed along an interpretive trail, and the park holds the remains of an ancient earth lodge. The Tipi Village offers overnight accommodations for groups of up to 90 who bring their own sleeping bags. The cafeteria serves authentic Blackfoot cuisine. Groups can request custom menus and book a storyteller, dancer or drummer. The gift shop abounds with Indigenous arts and crafts.
Rainforest Adventures in Canada
Canada’s westernmost province is home to 204 distinct First Nations and to the Metis. Together they account for one-third of the country’s Indigenous residents.
In the culturally rich territory of the Kwakwaka’wakh on Northern Vancouver Island, boat tours organized by native-owned companies explore coastal waters and shorelines of the Great Bear Rainforest. From Port Hardy, for example, Coastal Rainforest Safaris brings visitors in contact with diverse species of wildlife—grizzly bears, birds, giant humpback whales and Stellar sea lions—that inspired the myths and legends of local First Nations. Sea Wolf Adventures does similar excursions from Port McNeill.
By Randy Mink
Lead Photo: Metepenagiag Heritage Park, New Brunswick. (Photo credit: (Photo credit: Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada)