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Coastal First Nations woo Asian tourist market

Haida Gwaii leaders meet with Chinese officials in bid to attract more overseas visitors
Left to right, Haida Gwaii Hereditary Chief Roy Jones Jr.; FurCanada CEO Calvin Kania; Chinese Consul General Tong Xiaoling; and Chinese economic trade commissioner Shanjun Yu | submitted

Tourists from Asia could become a major driving force for tourism in some of B.C.’s coastal First Nations communities as early as next summer.

That’s the vision of Haida Gwaii Hereditary Chief Roy Jones Jr., who, along with other First Nations representatives, met with Chinese officials in Vancouver earlier this fall to drum up business links between B.C.’s Indigenous community and overseas markets.

For Jones, the reason for pursuing the business of Chinese consumers is simple – jobs, especially for the younger members of First Nations communities.

“It would make a great difference for the younger generation who have little opportunity right now,” Jones said. “We’ve got nature, which is a great resource we can capitalize on, and I strongly believe that, if we got in there real quick, we can start seeing different opportunities even as early as next year if we work through the winter on this.”

Jones’ plan, which he hopes will yield small tour groups as early as next summer, is one of a growing number of examples of B.C. and Canadian First Nations businesses tackling commercial links with Asia after a decade of relative inactivity.

The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada recently launched an online guidebook for Indigenous businesses reaching out to overseas markets.

“We held a roundtable earlier this year … to see if Indigenous businesses are still interested in Asia,” said Asia Pacific Foundation program manager Scott Harrison. “And there was so much of it but no one has really come together to talk about this across the country. There were patches in B.C. that were more aware of the opportunities, but the interest was high to bring more people across different parts of Canada to talk about this.”

According to the guidebook, international business success for First Nations businesses is crucial for not only Indigenous communities but also the Canadian economy at large. Statistics show that “Indigenous peoples are the fastest-growing demographic in Canada and have significant economic potential,” the guidebook said, noting that there were 55,255 First Nations, Métis and Inuit-owned businesses in Canada in 2016. That number was up from 43,000 in 2011 and from 37,445 in 2006.

Additionally, the guidebook says, recent data shows First Nations businesses “export at a greater rate than the average Canadian business,” with each dollar lent under the Aboriginal Business Financing Program generating a $3.60 boost to the Canadian GDP.
This isn’t the first time that an attempt has been made to create First Nations business links with Asia. Back in 2011, the B.C. First Nations Leadership Council launched a China strategy jointly with the Asia Pacific Foundation aimed at responding to foreign interest in B.C.’s natural resources. But such efforts fizzled in subsequent years in the face of environmental concerns and strong opposition from some Indigenous communities.

Harrison, however, noted that talks about tourism and other non-mineral resources (timber, fish and wildlife products) have continued to bubble underneath the surface, and the recent roundtable talks between foundation officials and First Nations leaders revealed the Asia trail has not gone cold.

“That period of low activity was definitely part of the story,” he said. “Things were winding down. There was still interest, but the momentum was stagnating, which coincided in a pivot in Canada’s overall export strategy.… But a lot of the work that led up to the 2010-2011 spike in interest was mainly around resource extraction. It was sector-specific. And what we’ve found since 2014 is that so much is going on in Indigenous tourism, micro-businesses in art, culinary or agriculture, but no one has been tracking it.”

One such industry is the fur industry, where 60% of Canadian trappers are from First Nations communities. FurCanada CEO Calvin Kania, who joined Jones in meeting Chinese officials in Vancouver in October, said potential link-ups could expand much further than just the fur and tourism sectors if talks continue.

“In Canada, any resource development here, all First Nations communities have to be consulted now,” Kania said, noting a wave of change in Ottawa’s dealings with Indigenous groups since the 2015 release of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. “There is now a Supreme Court ruling that says they must be consulted.… And especially in B.C., there are all kinds of resources that the First Nations have control of. And once they start developing these industries, I believe they will one day be able to export directly.”

Harrison said there are other initiatives that the foundation believes can help First Nations businesses in linking up with Asian markets such as China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but the lack of funding means that ideas such as a dedicated website and related mobile apps will have to be saved for a later time.

Meanwhile, officials at the foundation made sure that the guidebook – the “first of its kind in Canada” – is readily available online across Canada in the most cost-effective way possible.

“The online connectivity was a strategic thought right from the beginning,” Harrison said. “When we were looking at how businesses will be using this information … we wanted to put together all the information in one place that’s online and accessible for free. So whether you are a business in a city or further away, you can access this information; and it fits into our message here at the foundation of ‘How do we reach more people in Canada?’”

Haida Gwaii’s Jones cautioned that the process of cementing Asian business relationships with B.C. First Nations won’t be easy or fast, adding that many in his community feel that the federal government isn’t doing anywhere close to enough to help Indigenous business communities improve international business prospects.

But Jones added that the conversation had to start somewhere, noting that officials have invited Chinese counterparts to visit Haida Gwaii in the coming months to deepen the relationship.

“There’s so much work yet to be done,” he said. “It’s not going to be an overnight thing. We’re looking at maybe five to 10 years down the road before we see a major change in our economy through building a relationship with China…. But we can see the opportunities, and there are some young entrepreneurs here with a lot of drive who are really excited. It’s a matter of just getting all the parties in the room and see what comes out of it. We are ready to go.”