Canada’s indigenous peoples are made up of three distinct groups which include its First Nations people, Inuit, and the Métis.
Well over one and a half million Canadians identify as indigenous and many are eager to share their history and culture with visitors.
Canada’s indigenous groups all have their own unique histories, languages, and spiritual beliefs. From First Nations Reserves to important historical sites and celebrations that recognize the aboriginal people of the country, there are many ways that travelers to Canada can learn about and appreciate these unique cultures.
Top Indigenous Sites and Celebrations to Visit in Canada
First Nations Reserves
Land within Canada that has been designated for exclusive use of First Nations groups are known as First Nations Reserves. Despite these reserves being set aside for First Nations peoples, many across Canada often invite the public into their reserves in order to spread awareness about their culture.
Haida Gwaii is an archipelago north of Vancouver Island which is home to the Haida Heritage Site. The islands are home to burial caves and indigenous villages such as SGang Gwaay which offers a glimpse at authentic weathered totem poles.
Today, half of the islands’ population is indigenous, despite its population being decimated to around just 350 by 1900 due to the arrival of Europeans.
Northern Ontario is home to Wikwemikong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island which offers a chance to learn the Indigenous culture and language of the Anishinabek.
The community hosts several cultural events throughout the year and daily cultural tours that include canoe trips, nature-based tours, indigenous culinary experiences, and hiking the Bebamikawe Memorial Trail.
The Tsleil-Waututh Nation of BC offer canoe tours of Burrard Inlet, while Six Nations, the largest First Nations reserve in Canada, offers up indigenous art studios, historic sites such as the Mohawk Chapel, visits to Kanata Village to see its 17th century replica Mohawk longhouse, the Chiefswood National Historic Site, and a range of cultural experience packages.
For a truly unique experience, you can stay at the indigenous-owned Spirit Bear Lodge within the Great Bear Rainforest which makes up part of the world’s largest coastal temperate rainforest.
Staying at the lodge not only provides access to Kitasoo Xai’xais cultural sites, but also wildlife watching tours in coastal BC to search for the mystical spirit bear which is a rare white-colored variant of the black bear subspecies known as a Kermode bear.
First Nation Casinos
Canada is known for being a big gambling destination, with ample casinos on offer in most of Canada’s provinces and territories such as the popular Casino de Montreal and Niagara’s Fallsview Casino. This is in addition to popular online casinos in Canada such as Jackpot City.
There are also numerous First Nation casinos in Canada on reserve lands which are an essential part of providing the communities with various essential needs and programs.
When you gamble at First Nations Casinos, your gaming proceeds fund a range of charitable programs that directly benefit the community that the casino is located in.
Gambling proceeds go to things like safety programs, education, healthcare, housing, senior assistance, and running cultural events. They of course also provide a great deal of employment opportunities for the local community.
You’ll find most First Nations casinos located in Alberta and Saskatchewan, with a few also sprinkled across Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia.
Notable casinos include Alberta’s River Cree Resort & Casino, Manitoba’s Aseneskak Casino, Ontario’s Casino Rama, and St. Eugene Golf Resort & Casino in British Columbia.
The Great Spirit Circle Trail
The Great Spirit Circle Trail offers the chance to experience a wide range of guided indigenous experiences from a number of First Nations peoples.
The Trail of cultural experiences is found on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island and is considered to be the world’s largest lake island. The island actually contains around a hundred inland lakes of its own including Lake Manitoulin which is the largest lake within a lake island in the world.
The list of cultural experiences includes tea-harvesting, wilderness eco-adventures, drum making, smudging ceremonies, Shenguindah First Nation Traditional Pow Wows, sunset canoe tours, and educational hikes along the Cup and Saucer Trail.
Image credit: Gael Varoquaux (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
Huron Traditional Site
Just a short drive from Quebec City, is the Huron Traditional Site which sits on the Huron-Wendat Reservation. Explore a reconstructed indigenous village that includes a longhouse, drying huts, and a giant teepee.
The site is open year-round, allowing you to enjoy both summer and winter activities. Learn how to make and use snowshoes or canoes, participate in indigenous games, sample authentic First Nations cuisine like wapiti pie and bannock bread, and hear ancient tales from indigenous storytellers.
Great Northern Arts Festival
The annual Great Northern Arts Festival takes places during summer in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. It’s an indigenous festival held under the midnight sun since it takes place during a season where the sun refuses to set for roughly two months.
For around ten days, talented craftspeople gather to showcase the many ways indigenous Canadians express their creativity and share their culture. There are demonstrations, exhibitions, concerts, workshops, and more.
Well over a hundred local and traveling guest artists gather to bring you everything from wood carvings and jewelry to paintings and sculptures. You’ll experience cultural presentations nightly during the length of the festival.
National Indigenous Peoples Day
This past summer, Canada celebrated the 25th anniversary of its National Indigenous Peoples Day which takes pace annually on the Summer Solstice which is June 21.
If you’re in the country during this festive day, you can take part in one of many events that take place across the nation that help to recognize and celebrate Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis Indigenous peoples.
In many communities, the holiday marks a day-long celebration that is filled with activities, feasts, games, entertainment, and fun for the whole family. Be sure to check out the many events happening across the nation to see how you can get involved.
Canada’s Indigenous Children Recently in the Spotlight
Image credit: Joey Coleman (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr
After highlighting the top indigenous sites to visit across Canada, let me also touch on a recent news story that relates to Canada’s indigenous peoples.
One high-profile traveler to Canada that will be visiting the country in the near future is Pope Francis. Though far from his visit marking a joyous occasion, he has agreed to visit to assist with reconciliation efforts with indigenous groups.
The hope is he will issue a formal apology on behalf of the church for its role in the past creation of a residential school system that saw indigenous children taken from their homes in an effort to educate and assimilate them into white society.
It’s a similar story to that which took place in Australia with its tragic Stolen Generation which also tore children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent away from their families mostly in the first half of the 20th century in a bid to erase their true culture and history.
Canadian Indigenous parents were once threatened with persecution unless they surrendered their children, leading to the tragedy that saw over 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children being removed from their homes and families.
This “schooling system” would last up until almost the 21st century, whereby thousands of children would end up dying from instances that included neglect, physical/mental abuse, and disease while attending the school.
Many children were buried in unmarked graves, with their families not being able to pay their respects. These child graves are now beginning to be uncovered such as the hundreds of bodies found buried on the grounds of the once Catholic-run Marieval Indian Residential School on Saskatchewan’s Cowessess First Nation.
The most recent unmarked child graves were uncovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, Canada’s largest institution within its past residential school system that destroyed Indigenous cultures and languages as it forced children to learn to speak English and French along with converting to Christianity.
Despite this awful cultural genocide, Canada’s Indigenous cultures managed to live on. With the first public apology made by the Government of Canada in 2008 and now hopefully with another coming from the Pope soon, we will have learned from this tragic past and move forward with respecting, embracing, and promoting the rich histories and cultures of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.