Indigenous women in Northern Canada creating sustainable livelihoods through tourism

Over shared stories of lived experiences and examples of best practices, participants discussed the barriers faced by Indigenous women entrepreneurs in the North and their colonial origins.

By Sonya Graci, The Conversation, Yvette Rasmussen, The Conversation - May 16, 2023
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Indigenous women in Northern Canada creating sustainable livelihoods through tourism
Sheila Flaherty, the Nunavut director of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada in Iqaluit, Nvt. Sustainable tourism connects people to the planet and their culture while providing them with livelihoods. (Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada), Author provided

In summer 2022, the Northern WE in Tourism study invited Indigenous women entrepreneurs from northern Newfoundland and Labrador, northern Québec, Nunavut, the Yukon and Northwest Territories to collaborate on an Indigenous-led and ally-supported research project.

In our conversations with Indigenous women entrepreneurs and the organizations that provide support to them, we learned that to create sustainable livelihoods, there should be “nothing about us without us.”

Using Two-Eyed Seeing to guide our journey, we focused one eye on Indigenous knowledge and the other on Western perspectives to find common ground and pathways to sustainable livelihoods.

Developed by Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall in 2004, Two-Eyed Seeing is a practice that provides a way of bringing Indigenous and Western worldviews together.

Indigenous women perform at a powpow.
Anything that sustainably connects people to the planet and their culture by providing sustenance through entrepreneurship is tourism. (Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada) Author provided

Over shared stories of lived experiences and examples of best practices, participants discussed the barriers faced by Indigenous women entrepreneurs in the North and their colonial origins.

History of colonization

The Indian Act devastated the human rights of Indigenous Peoples. Government programs normalized public views of Indigenous people as inferior, advancing assimilation efforts to resolve Canada’s so-called “Indian Problem.”

With the government classifying Indigenous people as male persons with Indian blood, it further disenfranchised Indigenous women. If an Indigenous woman married outside her community, she lost her status. Her children were also denied their right to status, setting the foundation for intergenerational vulnerability and cultural alienation.

Today, Indigenous women are 3.5 times more likely to experience violence than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Almost 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were identified by law enforcement between 1980 and 2012. The victim count grows to this day. Other compounding factors Indigenous women are faced with include racism, sexual identity, poverty and isolation.

The creation of Residential Schools attended by at least 150,000 Indigenous children, and the Sixties Scoop which saw tens of thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children separated from their families, decimated Indigenous communities.

What does this have to do with sustainable livelihoods or this study? Everything.

Indigenous tourism

Anything that sustainably connects people to the planet and their culture by providing sustenance through entrepreneurship is tourism. This includes more conventional things like tours and visitor accommodations. It also includes less conventional things like authentic crafts, music and dance, food and healing, ceremony and storytelling.

A woman sitting at a work desk doing beadwork.
An Indigenous woman doing traditional beadwork. Tourism provides a gateway to entrepreneurship for Indigenous women. (Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada) Author provided

Inuvialuk fashion designer and social media influencer, Taalrumiq, explained:

“We lost so much of our culture, our language, and our identity due to colonization, so it’s important to create pieces that celebrate us, to remember where we come from, who we come from, and what we are capable of.”

Today, tourism training aligned with the Canadian education system and financial programs and the policies that govern them are predominantly developed by non-Indigenous people.

Non-Indigenous organizations determine who qualifies for training and financial support. These conventional systems are not designed to factor the lived realities of Indigenous women into their operations.

The complex challenges facing Indigenous women in Canada’s North cannot be resolved in isolation or at the discretion of the entities that created them.

Often lacking Western educational requirements, business experience or associated skill sets, Indigenous women experience significant bias in accessing support. Geographic location, infrastructure deficits and poverty compound barriers.

Taalrumiq was born in an Indian hospital and is part of the last generation of Residential School children from her community. The hardship of leaving home to attend a Western institution was too much for many of her peers who dropped out of school. Taalrumiq also said:

“The generations before us went through so much and worked so hard for us to have this space, make our voices heard, fight for justice — and we owe it to our children and future generations to continue this work. There is still much to be done.”

Effecting systemic change is the ultimate goal of reconciliation. And tourism provides a gateway to entrepreneurship for Indigenous women, serving as a catalyst capable of influencing societal behaviour on a broader scale.

Understanding success

It’s time to refocus our lens.

Success requires healing and understanding the impact of intergenerational trauma. Viewing success through this lens places value on equity, the concept of continuity of culture and Indigenous integration and stewardship of their lands.

Tents below the northern lights.
The northern lights seen above the Torngat Mountains in northern Newfoundland and Labrador. (Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada) Author provided

As Indigenous business owner Joella Hogan put it:

“I really try to lead my business with the values and teachings that I have been taught. Our Elders give us these teachings so we can be strong Northern Tutchone people and live our lives in a good way. I try to uphold these values in my daily life and in my relationships with people and with the land. For my business, everything comes back to this.”

Connecting women to sustainable livelihoods strengthens the probability of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that prioritize equity and inclusion. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides a road map to advance the declaration and address injustices against Indigenous people.

As Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said: “We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you the path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing.”

It is time for Indigenous-led and ally-supported solutions to create pathways to well-being by dismantling the barriers that exclude Indigenous women from building sustainable livelihoods through tourism.


Sonya Graci is Associate Professor, School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, Toronto Metropolitan University.

Yvette Rasmussen is Project Manager of the Northern WE in Tourism study.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.