How an adventure with Indigenous First Nations people in Canada changed the way I travel – for the better

Culturally conscious travel opens our eyes to the world, while expanding our own sense of self, as Ben discovered in Alberta
Culturally conscious travel opens our eyes to the world, while expanding our own sense of self, as Ben discovered in Alberta | Benjamin Kempton

It’s all too easy these days to fly in and out of a destination without getting to know its history or its Indigenous inhabitants. On a recent trip to Canada, however, Ben Kempton did just that. Here’s how a meeting with Alberta’s First Nations tribes changed his outlook on just about everything.

When the email came in, asking if I wanted to go to Canada, I didn’t need to finish it before making my mind up. Absolutely yes. No-brainer. After the excitement settled and I stopped jumping around the room, I had a chance to finish reading the rest of the message: “…the trip will be centred around Indigenous tourism and the opening of a new educational centre.”

Indigenous tourism. What on earth could that entail? Sleeping in tipis? Horseback riding across great plains? Maybe sitting around the campfire singing songs? It wasn’t what I’d imagined a trip to Canada would look like, but still, as long as I’d be able to see the Rocky Mountains and pour unhinged amounts of maple syrup over everything, I supposed I could listen to what the Indigenous people had to say. Sign me up, I responded, unaware of my total naivety on the subject, and the profound effect the next few weeks were about to have on me.

Touching down a week later in Calgary, I was greeted by the group I would spend the week with: four Canadians, one American and Joe Urie, our larger-than-life tour guide, who wore a beaded buffalo pendant around his neck. “Welcome to Kitaskinâw” he said. Kitaskinâw? I thought I was in Alberta. In fact, it was the name of the land, he told me, long before British settlers came and claimed it as Alberta, naming it after Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter (who never stepped foot in Canada). I felt a flush of conspicuousness at being the only Brit on the trip, and found myself wishing for a French companion to share the spotlight with.

As we drove out of the city, across the unfurling plains towards the Rockies, the cluster of skyscrapers that is downtown Calgary disappeared in the rearview mirror. At the Siksikaitsitapi medicine wheel (a circle of rocks that represent the First Nation people’s spiritual connection with the land), Joe requested that we introduce ourselves, describing to the group who “our people” are. After sheepishly giving the most boring answer, I listened to Joe tell us about his people, the Métis Nation, who originated in the 1700s when Scottish fur traders married First Nation women. A community who lived off the land, hunted, created, and above all, exalted the buffalo. He was passionate and animated talking about what he cared about most, then the atmosphere chilled as he said: “We are a resurgent community, pushed aside and persecuted by a colonial power who didn’t want to understand or acknowledge the beauty of who we are.”

It was a lot to process, and my mind was filled with questions. Why, if so much pain was caused, are the Métis inviting Brits like myself to come and holiday with them? My questions would have to take a backseat for now: we were finally approaching The Rocky Mountains, the backbone of the world. Snow-capped peaks rose up from the horizon, silhouetted by the crisp blue canvas of sky behind them. Lakes and rivers of startling turquoise popped amongst the limestone landscape. It was like driving through a desktop screensaver all the way to Banff, where I had a steak the size of my thigh for dinner – they call it cattle country for a reason!

We woke early the next morning to panoramic mountain views at the Juniper Hotel for a smudge ceremony, which involved a Métis Elder burning sage and sweet grass in a shell as an offering to nature, then fanning the smoke into his face. We took turns to reciprocate his action and listen to his prayer to “purify our bodies, clear our hearts and souls, and open our minds”. I don’t know what was in that sweet grass, but it left us in a serene, zen-like state that no amount of yoga could ever achieve.

The following days were like a dream you don’t want to wake from. We drove along the Icefield Parkway, regularly voted one of the most scenic roads in the world. On a tour through the enchanting woods surrounding Cascade Ponds, we were introduced to the medicinal plants that have been harvested by First Nations tribes for centuries. We were guided across the ethereal Athabasca glacier by Tim Patterson of the interior Salish people, who told us about the myths and history of the surrounding mountains, and canoed down the North Saskatchewan river at Métis Crossing, a waterway once used in the fur trade. If the Elder’s prayer at Juniper Hotel was for us to feel the majesty of this place somewhere deep in our hearts, it had been delivered.

Ben marvels at the splendour of the Athabasca glacier hike

One evening however, the uncomfortable truth of why we were there came to light. We were joined at dinner by Simon Ross, Director of Indigenous Leadership at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and a hereditary member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation in British Columbia. At first, he was reserved – an unassuming character, despite his imposing frame. It wasn’t until the mains were cleared from the table that he started unpacking his story. Ross, at the age of eight, was separated from his family and put in one of Canada’s Indian residential school systems, a network of boarding facilities created in the 1800s to strip Indigenous children of their native identity, in order to assimilate them into the westernised version of Canadian society. These were the schools where children risked their lives, and often starved or froze to death trying to escape. Schools such as Kamloops, where in 2008, the bodies of 215 children, some as young as three, were found buried.

Ross was given an adoptive mother and father – white, of course. His biological father died while he was gone and he didn’t see his mother again until he was in his thirties; at their reunion, he told us, she sat cross-armed, looking at him as if he were a stranger. The kick-in-the-gut moment came when I asked him what sort of people did that to him. He responded, frankly: “People who looked and sounded like you.”

I was literally lost for words. It felt glib to say “sorry”, but insensitive to say nothing. Luckily for me, it turned out I didn’t need to say anything. Ross gave the warmest of smiles and proceeded to tell us about his path of reconciliation. He now has a family of his own and a successful career that he loves. The reason he tells people about his trauma, he explained, is not to make anyone feel ashamed or guilty, but to bear witness to what really happened so that society can learn from its mistakes. We parted ways after a warm embrace.

We met many different Indigenous people on the rest of our travels. Sculptor and artist Jason Carter showed us his gallery in Banff, and explained how contemporary urban living as an Indigenous person manifested, in his case, by amalgamating his heritage with modern art. At the Buffalo Nations Museum, Tania Big Plume of the Cree Nation explained how passing down centuries-old creative techniques to new generations was her form of therapy, to help her “ forgive the horrors of what happened to my people”.

Newly released Percheron Horses roam the auburn fields of Métis Crossing

We finished our trip at the Métis Crossing. Down by the river, in the orange glow of sunset, I sat at a table sharing stories with my travel companions and the Indigenous folk of the Crossing – a group of people I would likely never have met in my lifetime had it not been for this trip. And that, for me, is what Indigenous travel is all about: disregarding ignorance and prejudice, and conversing with people from different walks of life. As Joe said at the start of the trip, to gain a better understanding of other cultures is to gain a better understanding of our own. To have had the privilege to listen to their stories and take part in their ceremonies was a real-life lesson that can’t be replicated inside a classroom. It was hard to say goodbye the next morning and head back to reality, but I boarded the return flight a different person to the one who arrived not long before; rejuvenated and full-hearted.

To book this trip, visit North America Travel Service (northamericatravelservice.co.uk).

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