Imagine the experience of crossing a boardwalk at the edge of the Earth’s greatest expanse of freshwater – right here in Canada – while discovering the history and traditions of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg (formerly Ojibways of the Pic River First Nation). Or exploring the mystique of Lake Superior’s islands immortalized in Lawren S. Harris’s paintings, and paddling in the wake of birchbark canoes that have travelled this ocean-to-ocean trade route for thousands of years.
These rich visitor experiences in Northern Ontario are coming to life thanks to an ecotourism program initiated by the Trans Canada Trail (TCT) and its local trail partners and supported by the TD Bank Group this past year. Five projects funded under the Grants for Aboriginal Trail Tourism (GATT) Program have been designed to leverage the development of TCT-related tourism initiatives by aboriginal communities and/or aboriginal entrepreneurs in the region that extends from North Bay, Ontario, to the Manitoba border. The Chief of the Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, Duncan Michano, says the program aligns with his beliefs and those of his community. “I am a strong advocate for trails. Wilderness trails get people out on the land and strengthen their ties with the land, the history and the ecosystems they are hiking through,” he says.
The GATT Steering Committee assessed applications for funding using several criteria, including benefits to trail users, creative approaches, educational opportunities, plans for sustainability and the prospects of being completed in a relatively short time frame. In addition to the Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, other communities that received funding include Serpent River First Nation, Garden River First Nation, Mississauga First Nation along with the Métis Brennan family.
The benefits of the program will be far-reaching, says the chair of the GATT Steering Committee, Kevin Eshkawkogan.
“These trails and interpretation projects will further connect The Great Trail in Ontario, build valuable tourism assets and help improve socio-economic conditions within aboriginal communities,” he says.
Eshkawkogan has been involved in aboriginal tourism initiatives in Ontario for many years and has a first-hand perspective on not only the economic benefits that can flow to communities, but also the cultural ones.
“I’m passionate about initiatives that help indigenous communities to establish economic foundations,” he says. “Having First Nation communities tell their own stories to visitors contributes to their cultural revitalization and gets more of our youth involved and taking pride in sharing our knowledge and history.”
The TD Bank Group, a longtime supporter of the TCT, was excited about this new collaborative project, which it sees as a perfect fit with its corporate values. “In many ways, this initiative embodies who we are – a bank committed to environmental leadership and supporting aboriginal peoples and communities,” says Clint Davis, vice-president of Aboriginal Banking at TD Bank Group.
“We knew that aboriginal tourism was a growing area of investment, as more Canadians sought out travel experiences that offered authentic interaction with indigenous peoples in natural settings – like the Trail,” Davis adds. “And we knew, from past consultations, that indigenous communities were keenly interested in developing Trail tourism businesses.”
Experiences that combine Canada’s natural environment with education about the country’s indigenous peoples are strong attractions for visitors from both Canada and abroad, says Eshkawkogan. “Demand is growing and there is good market potential for more growth. These types of projects appeal to people who want to learn more about our country’s indigenous history and preserving an ecosystem that is unique to Canada,” he says.
Davis agrees that expansion of the Trail with these projects will strengthen the tourism base in the region and support jobs and business opportunities in local communities. “It’s right that Canada’s founding peoples play a leading role in developing The Great Trail.”