The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) has an unusual mission—introducing a new generation of travelers to tours and experiences that are often based on millennia-old traditions. Among their partners are some of the world’s ultimate unplugged and transformative travel experiences like dog-sledding in the Yukon with Dene guides or learning about traditional plant recipes on a medicine walk with Anishinaabe guides on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. Keith Henry, the organization’s president and CEO, is leading the effort to raise awareness of the many Indigenous travel experiences in Canada and the opportunities to learn about both their ancient histories and their contemporary cultures.
Henry, who is Métis, assumed his current role in 2015 after two decades of working for various Indigenous organizations across Canada. We sat down with him to learn about why Indigenous tourism matters and how ITAC is helping bring attention to Indigenous owned and operated travel companies.
When did you first decide you wanted to work in tourism and specifically Indigenous tourism?
I didn’t become involved with Indigenous tourism until around 2008. Before that I had worked on a variety of Indigenous projects in other areas—family services, education, regulatory issues. But I have come to feel that tourism is one of the most effective ways to preserve our culture.
Canada is culturally diverse, with hundreds of Indigenous communities representing many different First Nation cultures, plus Inuit and Métis people. The country is engaged in an ongoing process of reconciliation, and these efforts must start with those communities. Tourism gives people a great way to learn together, to share cuisine, culture, and to listen to each other’s stories and understand why they matter.
What is the greatest reward of your job?
Seeing the businesses we work with flourish. To see them overcome so many barriers, succeed and make a difference, then we give them the marketing tools they need.
And the greatest challenge?
Continuing to build awareness among our partners about how the tourism industry works. We have momentum, but we need to help more people to be successful and reach their potential.
Why should travelers seek out Indigenous tourism experiences?
What I see Indigenous tourism offering is the story behind the sights you see. There are many ways to see the orcas off of Vancouver Island, for example, but with an Indigenous operator you are also getting the stories of how those animals as well as the forests of British Columbia are connected to the people who have lived there for centuries. And in addition you are directly supporting the communities you visit when you use an Indigenous operator.
How can travelers find the Indigenous tourism experience that is right for them?
Travelers headed to Canada should start with our site, indigenouscanada.travel. It includes a variety of experiences packaged into itineraries throughout the country. You can either book the entire itinerary or just individual experiences.
What new trips, experiences or accommodations are you most excited about?
It’s hard to pick only a few. The Wya Point Resort, a boutique lodge on British Columbia’s coast is always a wonderful place to visit. Shakat Tun Adventures in the Yukon has made a healing camp that was once only accessible within their own community available to travelers from around the world. You can see the northern lights; it’s a truly life-changing experience. And I just got back from visiting the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations at Wendake in Québec. I went with my family and everyone loved it. There’s a beautiful village and wonderful cultural performances. The way they are sharing the Huron-Wendat culture and history is remarkable.