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Jenifer Redsky and her sisters run Oceah Oceah — a First Nations paddling company with a mission to connect people “with and to water” in Tkaronto (Toronto).
“As an Indigenous woman, we’ve always been taught that we have a special connection to the water,” said Redsky. “My sisters and I really believe that by doing the work that we do, by giving people lessons, teaching them the skills, bringing them down to the water, we’re increasing people’s connection to the water, their relationship to the water, how they treat the water and how they protect it alongside us.”
Oceah Oceah started 11 years ago, and over the past decade, they’ve seen their business grow as well as an increased appetite from Canadians to support and engage with Indigenous businesses — especially out on the land.
A recent survey by Sodexo found that 74 per cent of Canadians believe Indigenous businesses help boost the Canadian economy and 76 per cent believe they strengthen the country’s social fabric.
“It makes me feel good that the general public of Canada want to see the history change, so we’re a part of this new world,” said Jonathan Kruger, Indigenous relations director with Sodexo.
“We’ve always been here and we’re going to still be here until the end of time and it’s good that we’re going to be a part of the social fabric moving forward.”
Kruger said it’s exciting that Canada and Canadians are realizing there are opportunities to support and engage with Indigenous businesses.
“In the past 20 years … we were left out of the whole equation, we fought to get here,” he said. “And we’re here now. Things are happening. It’s up to all of us — Indigenous communities need to share their stories.”
That’s where Indigenous tourism comes in.
“The stories of Indigenous communities and Indigenous people are theirs,” said Keith Henry CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC).
“It’s not about us, without us — that means we own stories and we’re going to make sure that we provide the right business platforms for people to genuinely invest and support and leave something behind for Indigenous people.”
Henry said there’s been an evolution in the tourism industry where non-Indigenous-owned businesses went from hiring a couple of Indigenous people as “cultural ambassadors” or add “Indigenous flavour” to Indigenous communities sharing their stories and starting their own businesses.
Currently, there are about 1,900 Indigenous tourism businesses across the country. Henry said they provide close to $2 billion in revenues and direct benefits to the Canadian economy, including 39,000 jobs.
“What I’ve seen now in the last few years is a real genuine interest in learning something new about Canada. And I think that’s where Indigenous tourism has become sort of the forefront of how we position Canada not only to itself but to the rest of the world.“
Discussions around supporting authentic Indigenous businesses have been top of mind for ITAC. It’s developed a program called Original Original so that when visitors see it displayed, they’ll know what they’re getting is authentically Indigenous.
“There’s a lot of what appears to be Indigenous product in this country … that are prints or reproductions,” said Henry. “We really want to encourage (visitors) to look for the marks, look for the brands to make sure that they know that they’re truly supporting Indigenous people.”
And with inflation hitting Canadians hard, Indigenous tourism could serve as an opportunity for local trips and staying close to home. Henry said that with businesses in every community across the country, there’s something for everyone.
“Many Canadians just don’t know it’s in their backyard. So we’ve got platforms like Destination Indigenous that provide a robust map with pricing and linking to our Indigenous-owned and operated businesses,” said Henry. “It’s a great opportunity for families.”