Ecotourism should be part of the solution to the economic woes plaguing northern communities

by Julee Boan

My guide, Maurice, is trying to get my attention. He had asked me to wait while he slowly approached a beach ridge. Minutes later, I, too, am peeking over a willow shrub at an enormous polar bear napping in the sun. Up here, a few hundred metres from where the mighty Winisk River pours into Hudson Bay, it is as if no one else exists – just Maurice, the bear and me.

Despite the cultural and ecological richness found in this remote part of Ontario, many people who live here are very poor. The vast majority of the communities in the area are located on Aboriginal reserve land, where unemployment rates often exceed 80 percent and the overall standard of living is well below that of most Canadians. According to census data from 2001, a person of Aboriginal descent in Ontario earned, on average, 34 percent less than an individual of non-Aboriginal descent. Moreover, 31 communities in Ontario’s far north are accessible only by plane for most of the year, so the cost of living is quite high – putting fresh produce on your table is akin to indulging in caviar and champagne.

The need to develop new economic opportunities for communities in the north has never been more pressing. By the end of this year, the massive Victor Diamond Project open-pit mine on the James Bay coast is expected to begin production. Thousands of other mining claims have been staked throughout Ontario’s far north. In response to southern Ontario’s energy demands, a new hydro corridor may be built, which would run straight through Ontario’s intact boreal forests.

Each of these megaprojects represents jobs, but also extremely negative environmental impacts. Ontario’s far north contains 27 species at risk, including golden eagles and woodland caribou. The muskeg of the Hudson Bay Lowlands is one of the largest continuous wetlands in the world. Ontario Nature, and many other conservation groups, are hoping that an increase in tourism activity, particularly light-impact ecotourism, will increase economic stability and maintain the important environmental services these large tracts of healthy forests and wetlands provide. Establishing an ecotourism industry in the north, however, is not so simple.

One of the impediments in the far north is the lack of tourism infrastructure, such as lodging, which is extremely costly to build. Moreover, the summer tourist season is brief while winters are long, yet there is little in the way of established winter activities (for example snowshoeing and cross-country skiing). As well, transportation to remote locations is very expensive.

But despite these obstacles, there are success stories. The Cree Village Ecolodge in Moose Factory is one of the most environmentally advanced accommodation facilities in Canada, with energy-efficient windows and organic wool carpeting and bedspreads. The ecolodge organizes ecotours along James Bay, where guests can photograph wildlife and visit a nearby bird sanctuary. The nearby nature trail provides an opportunity to view native plants and herbs still used by the Cree people of the region. Lillian Suganaqueb, from Webequie First Nation, runs a lodge and has a long-standing angler clientele. She has added natural and cultural heritage components so that her business is more attractive to ecotourists. As part of their package, guests participate in preparing dinner with a group of community Elders who share their traditional methods. Moccasin Trail Tours, another successful ecotourism outfit, matches tour operators with transportation providers and clients.

A World Tourism Organization 2001 report, Global Forecasts and Profiles of Market Segments, states that “experiential” tourism – which encompasses ecotourism and nature, heritage, cultural and “soft adventure” tourism – is among the sectors expected to grow most quickly. In recent years, ecotourism was growing globally three times faster than the tourism industry as a whole. Many Aboriginal communities are very supportive of tourism development that benefits their people.

Ecotourism is emerging as a viable economic activity in the north that uses the remoteness of the area as an advantage rather than a hindrance. We can be part of the solution. Half of all ecotourism travellers belong to an outdoor activity or nature organization, and what northern operators need most are clients.

julee_boanJulee Boan is Ontario Nature’s First Nations outreach coordinator.