Steam comes off Lost Lagoon as the morning sun wakes Stanley Park from its cold winter slumber.
Along the path that circles the water, tour operator Candace Campo stands beside the sacred tree of her Squamish people.
“The cedar tree has an oil that is mould resistant, bug resistant,” Campo explains, her voice steady and soft. “So we were able to make clothing that was rain resistant. We refer to it as our Gortex back in the day.”
This is the type of history that Campo, owner and operator of Talaysay Tours, typically shares with tourists from around the world during her Talking Trees tours.
Watch Campo explain the significance of some of the vegetation in Stanley Park:
Business has grown steadily for years, Campo says. But it was leading up to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games that she really started to notice a rise in demand.
“The promotion of our Indigenous communities for the Olympics was really strong and as a small tour company it really did benefit us,” she said.
Keith Henry, president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, says the 2010 Games were “truly life-changing” for many of the association’s members — and many of them are still reaping those benefits today.
“It was the biggest single event in Canada’s history for our Indigenous tourism sector that put us on the map globally,” Henry said, sitting in his office in downtown Vancouver.
Many acknowledge that the Vancouver Olympics were unprecedented in their inclusivity and representation of Indigenous cultures at an Olympic event.
John Furlong, former CEO of VANOC, the Vancouver Organizing Committee, says establishing a strong partnership with local First Nations was important to Olympic leaders.
“We did something that was not easy to do but really enhanced the look and feel and made us all feel quite a bit more proud,” Furlong said.
One of the key outcomes of VANOC’s partnership with the Four Host First Nations — Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh — was high visibility.
Indigenous participation was incorporated into the torch relay and opening ceremonies, and was on daily display at the First Nations Pavilion and other programming throughout the Games.
Even Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, leader of the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs and staunch critic of the Games, admits that 2010 promoted First Nations to the world.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the 2010 Olympics showcased the diversity, beauty and strength of Indigenous culture here in B.C.,” Phillip said.
Demand brings challenges
Henry says that representation awakened tourist demand in a way that’s never been seen before. But he also admits that spike in demand has come with challenges.
There are also ongoing problems with authenticity and representation, he says. Issues like chintzy made-in-China totem poles were brought to light during the Games, Henry says, but the problem remains today.
“Indigenous artwork, whether it’s owned by indigenous people or not, is worth billions of dollars in Canada right now,” he said. “And most of it, unfortunately, has zero connection with the local Indigenous community.”
The issue of representation extends to tour operators keen to capitalize on demand for Indigenous programming but who don’t provide an authentic product.
For example, Henry says, he regularly comes across companies offering trips like teepee tours on the West Coast, even though teepees were mostly used by Indigenous groups from the Plains.
Indigenous tourism providers say they also encounter stereotypes from their customers, some who don’t understand that Indigenous cultures aren’t stuck in the past.
‘It feeds the soul’
Alison Pascal, programmer at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in the Sea-to-Sky region, says people are often shocked to see artisans in the building using power tools.
“They’re really shocked to see that we can make use of this modern technology,” Pascal said. “They really question whether or not we could still be authentic while we’re using power tools.”
But many Indigenous tour operators also see those encounters as an opportunity to address misconceptions and share more accurate information.
Campo, a former teacher, says educating her clients also comes with personal benefits for her.
“When you get to share your culture and your history, it’s healing,” she said. “I talk about my ancestors and I come from an exceptional people, and it just it feeds the soul.”