By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News
Last week, the federal government announced a $1.3 million investment into the Indigenous tourism sector in Alberta. According to a recent release from Prairies Economic Development Canada, “pre-COVID, Indigenous tourism was one of Canada’s and Alberta’s largest and fastest-growing tourism niche sectors, worth an estimated $166.2 million.”
The government of Canada will invest $843,000 which will go toward developing a mentorship program and supporting Indigenous tourism operators with web development, as well as a resiliency partnership program. The remaining $500,000 will be allocated to Calgary’s TELUS Spark Centre as the organization works on developing an immersive digital experience called “The Sacred Defenders of the Universe (SDOTU) experience,” which is aimed to attract curious visitors to experience and share in learning Indigenous ways of knowing and traditions through an animated series featuring Indigenous superheroes. “With these investments, Indigenous Tourism Alberta expects to help create, maintain, or expand 45 Indigenous businesses and 100 jobs, and TELUS spark expects its project to attract over 19,000 visitors by 2023.”
SDOTU will involve Blackfoot Elders gifting knowledge and acting in an advisory capacity for the project. Eirin Bernie, media manager for TELUS Spark Science Centre said, “there are several Blackfoot Elders and Knowledge Keepers as members of the Spark Advisory Circle, whom will support in further connecting the “Sacred Defenders” stories to the ancestral land the Science Centre is on.
The tourism sector in Alberta was hit hard by the pandemic, and with so many incredible natural sites in Alberta, the demand for continuous growth within the tourism sector will require additional financial supports in the coming years as the industry re-builds. According to the government of Canada, “these investments will build resiliency, and help businesses adapt and develop unique experiences that will attract domestic and international visitors to the province, positioning the growing sector for continued success in the long-term.” Shae Bird, CEO of Indigenous Tourism Alberta added, “COVID-19 hit Indigenous tourism operators particularly hard (…) Indigenous Tourism Alberta looks forward to continuing our work with the Government of Canada to support the diverse and impactful Indigenous visitor economy in what we now know as Alberta.”
Justin Towell, creative director for SDOTU said, “The Blackfoot community plays the biggest role in the production as hosts of the Land for Telus Spark, for 450,000 tourists, SDOTU give an opportunity to share their space, educate, entertain, leave an impression of their unique identity, mark their territory on the global map, provide insight to future stories and future partnerships.”
The Sacred Defenders of the Universe: the Four Sacred Elements project supports Indigenous communities because the project is intended to encourage indigenous students to embrace the exploration of science within Indigenous stories, and will “allow Indigenous people and youth to see themselves and their stories represented in science. Telus Spark Science Centre hopes this experience can begin to inspire Indigenous students to explore their connection to the Land and their ancestors, to spark a curiosity towards science through multiple lenses.”
In addition to investments to support Indigenous operators in the tourism sector, the conversation calls into question how tourism-based businesses can strike balance between experiencing and honouring the environment and Indigenous cultures while strengthening the industry. There are many destinations in Alberta worthy of funding and preservation which also serve as educational sites, and sacred sites of Indigenous knowledge. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is located 68km west of Lethbridge, and offers visitors a curated and impact-conscious access to the space. Its designation as UNESCO site means the site h as secure funding and protection. Writing on Stone, just over an hour from Coaldale, holds significant historical significance as well.
Towell explained, “having an Indigenous-led production on large scale platforms like Telus Spark Science Centre externalizes Indigenous culture through digital media for future generations as history- provides self-reflection, positive acknowledgements, opens conversations, and dialogue.”
He said the production can, “create jobs, creative industry mentorships, and inspire the next generation of youth for possibilities. It spreads cultural views and awareness to community challenges and progress. It promotes teamwork, connection, new friendships, and new experiences. The positive impact and opportunities are endless.”