In the heart of Saskatchewan’s boreal forest is Waters Edge Eco Lodge.
The tourist destination is located on the traditional lands of the Lake Waterhen First Nation. The people of that nation have just reclaimed that land.
The nation recently purchased the complex, located 50 kilometers north of Meadow Lake on the west side of Greig Lake. The purchase marked the beginning of an ambitious community leap into the world of indigenous tourism.
Tourism will not only provide visitors with a special experience, but will also benefit the Waterhen community both spiritually and financially.
“You’re coming home to the land where we once stood, where our ancestors once practiced,” said Jesse Morin, operations manager for Waterhen Lake First Nation Development Corporation and interim manager for the newly acquired Water’s Edge Eco Lodge. “Not only was it a welcome home, but this is where we will take the future. The Eco Lodge and tourism is what will feed our children in the future.”
Waters Edge Eco Lodge was recently purchased by the Waterhen Lake First Nation. It is now completely managed by indigenous people. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)
The shelter is already open to the public, but Morin has big plans. It will soon bring 10 tipi lodges and is planning tour packages that take advantage of the boreal forest and traditional Waterhen territory.
He said the First Nation will stay away from stereotypical commercialism. This means not exploiting indigenous culture, but rather educating people about what that culture means.
“When it comes to our traditional culture and spirituality, there is a fine line between education and experience,” he said.
Morin said those who visit the Eco Lodge will learn how indigenous people in the area live off the land now and how they used to.
“We don’t want a cheesy approach to our indigenous tourism, we want to be a little more authentic. So you’re experiencing the earthy, you’re experiencing the food, you’re having an amazing stay,” Morin said.
“We want to give them more of an experience of what we were doing here, whether it’s taking a canoe ride, maybe pitching a tent or going out on a mock trap line, maybe identifying some of the herbs and medicines in our area. “
Morin said that indigenous tourism has become very popular in recent years and that Waterhen is ready to get involved.
Now, Waterhen is expecting an influx of European tourists over the next two years and is also focused on building a strong domestic clientele.
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An authentic experience
Waterhen is not the only First Nation confronting indigenous tourism in Saskatchewan.
A recent survey of North American and European tourists found that there is an appetite for indigenous-led tourism, but only if it does not exploit the community and provides an authentic cultural experience. The problem is that the notion of authenticity is often based on stereotypes.
This is often on the mind of Kevin Seesequasis. He is the tourism and community development officer for Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation, located about 90 miles northeast of Saskatoon.
It is part of an indigenous tourism corridor in the area that includes a casino, a golf course, and a bison heritage center. Soon, the nation’s tourism blueprint will include tipi-inspired lodges for a ‘glamping’ experience. They hope to get permission from the province of Saskatchewan to place the lodges in Fort Carlton Provincial Park.
It was recently announced that funds from the Trans Canada Trail and Tourism Relief Fund will be used to build more than 20 kilometers of trails, to be called Pêmiska Trails, through the Beardy’s & Okemasis community.
“We found that many international visitors have this perception from Disney of who the indigenous people are,” Seesequasis said. “We have to educate people more and better about who we are as authentic indigenous peoples. We are not the Indians in the style of Peter Pan.
Kevin Seesequasis is the tourism and community development officer for Beardy’s and the Okemasis Cree Nation. He stands in front of the tipi-inspired lodges the First Nation hopes to launch soon for local tourism. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)
He said the nation wants tourists to know they don’t wear buckskin dresses, headdresses and feathers every day.
“I think we were able to strike a very, very appropriate balance. We had very, very good meetings with our knowledge gatekeepers and our elders in our community, and they told us what we can show and what was certainly off limits.”
So what is prohibited for tourists?
Seesequasis said sundances, pipe ceremonies and sweat ceremonies are for the community only. But he said educating tourists about residential schools is a focus for Beardy’s & Okemasis Cree Nation.
He said that people have a desire to know more about the history of colonization and Why reconciliation is important in Canada.
“Those very, very dark truths that we’re going to show and tell those stories. Despite all of that… look at who we are now.”
Empowering the community
Forty kilometers northeast of Waters Edge Eco Lodge, in Waterhen Lake First Nation, Chef Garnet Heinrichs is visiting from Saskatoon to teach residents ready-to-work culinary programs for the Saskatchewan Tourism Education Council.
Participants are taught how to cook online, learning how to make all kinds of food, including Italian, Asian and Canadian food.
“We get them all the certificates they need. We give them the essential workplace skills they need to get into the workforce, and we teach them some cooking skills, some service skills, so they can go out into the real world and succeed.” at a resort or a mine or wherever they choose to work,” Heinrichs said.
Chef Garnet Heinrichs, left, is visiting from Saskatoon to teach Waterhen Lake First Nation residents ready-to-work culinary programs for the Saskatchewan Tourism Education Council. Jowel LaPratt, at right, is one of the participants. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)
Participants earn 15 certificates for kitchen work, including FoodSafe. Everyone is ready for work when they walk out the door.
Heinrichs said he hopes many will take these skills and put them to use at the Eco Lodge. So they will be close to home. But he said he also wants to see them explore their possibilities.
“It changes their lives. A lot of them have been on the reservations their entire lives. And when they leave, they get to see a lot more and experience a lot more. So it’s really good for them to go.” and spread their wings.”
The beautiful scenery at Waters Edge Eco Lodge. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)
Twenty-year-old Jowel LaPratt is currently in a ready-to-work program with Heinrichs. She said that before the show she was shy, but now she is no longer intimidated by the prospect of working in the hospitality industry.
LaPratt said he believes ready-to-work programs will help people in Waterhen be more successful.
“I think it was very, very helpful because a lot of people can’t really get off the reserve and it’s a little hard for them to get jobs. With Eco Lodge, there are more job opportunities.”
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Authentic indigenous tourism is a growing trend
Harnessing the boreal forest
Meanwhile, back at Waters Edge Eco Lodge, Morin hired Métis chef Jenni Lessard to develop an authentic menu that uses ingredients from the surrounding boreal forest. Lessard is up for the job, as she runs the Inspired by Nature culinary consulting business. Previously, she was also executive chef at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, another indigenous tourist destination.
Lessard grew up in the boreal forest north of La Ronge.
“I grew up eating wild blueberries, Labrador tea. I was right in my backyard, picking mint from the lake. And I look around the lodge and I see my childhood,” Lessard said.
“There is an enormous thirst for knowledge of indigenous culinary experiences, indigenous culinary tourism experiences. And who better to do that than the people who have occupied these lands for hundreds and hundreds of years?”
Chef Jenni Lessard, center, is developing a menu for Waters Edge Eco Lodge. Julie Bear, left, is a Shoal Lake Cree Nation apprentice, and Trenton Fiddler, right, is a Waterhen Lake First Nation apprentice. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)
One of the menu items at Waters Edge Eco Lodge will be wild rice, wild cranberry stuffed chicken breast with rosehip cream sauce. Another is a bullet soup with dandelion leaves and Labrador tea.
Lessard is training the culinary team in the Waters Edge kitchen and said they will be able to speak with pride about the area where the ingredients were harvested and how the dishes were created.
“Indigenous cuisine can vary from one region to another. And I think what’s authentic is the person who cooks it, who translates that dish, who can tell the story behind it,” Lessard said.
“I think that people who have the opportunity to tell the story of the earth, the story of food through a plate is incredible.”