In Our Own Backyard: Indigenous Tourism in Saskatchewan

Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Photos Courtesy Tourism Saskatoon and Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

Photos Courtesy Tourism Saskatoon and Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

With over 6,000 years of history, the Northern Plains in Saskatchewan is a place where nomadic peoples came to gather food and medicinal plants, hunt bison and escape the icy prairie wind. Amongst these grassy plains lays the Wanuskewin Heritage Park Centre. Visitors to the Centre can wander the historic grasslands and look over the cliff into the lush Opimihaw Creek Valley below, imagining the many Indigenous Peoples who lived and walked these lands thousands of years ago. The University of Saskatchewan has been conducting research in the area for the last 35 years, making the Wanuskwin Heritage Park home to Canada’s longest running archaeological dig.

“Our long-term vision is to become a global centre of excellence in fostering education and respect for the land based on expressions of Indigenous culture, heritage and arts,” says Andrew McDonald, sales and marketing manager of the Wanuskewin Heritage Park Centre.

The Centre is currently undergoing a $40 million renewal project to expand their Interpretive Centre and gallery spaces, as it seeks UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. As part of this, the Park planted native seeds to the area in May, for the first time since 1902, to prepare for the return of bison, as a new outdoor experience. This is all to further facilitate visitors who want to take part in Indigenous experiences.

Indigenous tourism in Canada is outpacing the tourism industry overall within Canada. According to a recent study conducted by the Conference Board of Canada, in 2017, Indigenous tourism in Canada brought in a total of $1,742.6 million in GDP, with Saskatchewan making up 6.7 per cent of this, bringing in $116.7 million in GDP. The 23.2 per cent increase from $1.4 billion in GDP in 2014, to $1.7 billion in 2017, shows dramatic and steady growth within Canada’s Indigenous tourism sector.

“Indigenous tourism is having a huge impact on Canada’s cultural and economic success,” says Keith Henry, president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC). “Investments being made in Indigenous tourism are paying off for the entire country.”

Photo provided by ITAC.

Photos Courtesy Tourism Saskatoon and Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

In October 2018, the federal government committed $1.5 million from Western Economic Diversification Canada to four Indigenous projects. One of which is developing Saskatchewan’s first Indigenous tourism corridor, with experiences at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Whitecap Dakota First Nation, and Beardy’s & Okemasis’ Cree Nation.

Also, Tourism Saskatchewan recently commissioned a 10-year Product and Visitor Experience Development Strategy for Saskatchewan, identifying Indigenous tourism as a cornerstone to differentiating Saskatchewan as a travel destination.

With its historic parks, noteworthy museums, and relaxing resorts, Indigenous culture within Saskatchewan is rich. As Indigenous tourism continues to grow across the country, Saskatchewan is working to highlight its Indigenous history through the many Indigenous experiences available to visitors. One third of visitors to Canada want to partake in an Indigenous experience, according to the Conference Board of Canada research. To help link visitors to Indigenous experiences, ITAC put together a Guide to Indigenous Tourism in Canada, highlighting various experiences across the country, separated by each province. With 90 different Indigenous businesses across Saskatchewan – roughly five per cent of the country’s total – the province is well-equipped to take on the growing demand.

“Travellers are increasingly choosing destinations that offer authentic, unique experiences. They want to make new discoveries and learn about diverse cultures that shape our world,” says Mary Taylor-Ash, CEO of Tourism Saskatchewan. “Tourism Saskatchewan is actively working to expand experiential tourism and support businesses that offer unique, awe-inspiring products and experiences.”

Last year, ITAC launched a new website featuring itineraries and packages aimed at helping visitors map their own vacations to include an Indigenous experience – indigenouscanada.travel.

“We want to give people the tools to learn about the many Indigenous experiences each province has to offer,” says Henry. “There is so much Indigenous culture to showcase and share, the options are truly endless – people just have to know about them.”