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Indigenous tourism: Songhees Nation plans marine tours that honour its culture

The Songhees Nation is ­preparing to launch an ambitious tourism venture that it says will give the world a first-hand look at the land, culture and history of the Lekwungen people.
Songhees Indigenous marine trail map

The Songhees Nation is ­preparing to launch an ambitious tourism venture that it says will give the world a first-hand look at the land, culture and history of the Lekwungen people.

Cecilia Dick, cultural tourism supervisor for the Songhees Nation, said funding is in place to develop a marine trail tour stretching from Royal Roads and Esquimalt, through the Inner Harbour, along the Victoria and Oak Bay waterfront and up to Cadboro Bay using a 25-foot landing-craft vessel holding up to 12 passengers.

The trail highlights significant sites where the Lekwungen fished, gathered shellfish and berries, as well as traditional home and seasonal camps, sacred areas and other significant sites, including Tl’ches, also known as Discovery Island Marine Park where Takaya, the legendary lone wolf, lived for a decade.

The tours will be developed by a cultural advisory group of elders and others, and is expected to start in 2022, or when it is considered safe to do so under public health orders.

“It’s an exciting time for the Lekwungen people,” said Dick. “For our people to go forward in tourism — to show people who we are and tell our story — is a great thing. It’s an economic driver for all of our community — from our elders to our youth.”

The province provided $637,900 from its Community Economic Recovery Infrastructure Program that will allow the Songhees to procure the landing craft, engage cultural experts and create program materials.

Dick views the new venture as a way to develop new skills training and job opportunities for youth and others from the Songhees interested in arts, culture, land management, transportation, food and beverage and other tourism and hospitality occupations.

“We hope there will be paying jobs to many in the nation, not just youth, but everyone,” said Dick. “We want to thrive as a nation.”

The nation cited potential jobs such as base hosts, canoe tour crews, boat crews, guides, guardians and caretakers for conservation sites, conservation tour program managers, cooks, promotions and communications and cultural advisers.

The landing craft vessel will provide accessibility by land and sea, and will also be used for educational purposes, such as transporting First Nations youth on tours to areas to learn about how their ancestors fished and gathered plants for medicinal purposes, said Dick.

Tourists will also be able to have guided canoe tours, take the Seven Signs of the ­Lekwungen tour, and engage in nature walks, retreats, bannock-making, storytelling, art demonstrations and other workshops.

The Songhees hope to eventually create three- to five-day packaged itineraries and develop more infrastructure to support expanded tours and events.

“People know the colonial side of Victoria, but not many know the Lekwungen’s history, and I think there is a great interest in who the Lekwungen are,” said Dick. “Our people still live off the land. In salmon season, we catch our fish. We smoke our own fish. We collect our seafood. We look for the plants we need for medicines. We take only what we need and that’s our way of life.

“Before colonialism, ­Victoria was a hub area for all First Nations to come and visit. They came from the Island, further north and the U.S. It’s an important area in history.”

Indigenous experiences are considered the fastest-growing sector in the tourism industry, although the overall sector has been hammered by the ­COVID-19 pandemic.

According to recent research by the Conference Board of Canada and the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, direct economic benefits attributed to the Indigenous tourism sector in Canada rose 23.2 per cent between 2014 and 2017, going from $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion. That was compared with a 14.5 per cent increase in overall tourism activity in Canada.

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