Photo credit: Indigenous Tourism Alberta

Indigenous Tourism Narratives: Stories We’ve Ignored

Photo credit: Indigenous Tourism Alberta

Over the past few years, Tourism HR Canada has been involved in multiple perception and sentiment studies around tourism as a place of work, including national surveys and several regional studies conducted through its portfolio of consulting projects. A close demographic analysis of the responses has produced two contrasting profiles which correspond to widely recognized ‘personas’ of Canadians:

  • The Adventurer: White, young, middle-class. These are people who are working (or have worked) in tourism-related occupations on a part-time, seasonal, or casual basis, often while studying. They tend to see tourism as a good place to develop transferrable skills that they will take into their future careers, but they do not see tourism as a career in and of itself. They are often drawn to the field because of a close alignment with their personalities and interests, and when they leave the sector, it’s because they’re ready for the next phase of their life—higher pay, a more ‘professional’ lifestyle, or a more prestigious career.
  • The New Canadian: Visibly non-White, mid-twenties or older, less financially secure. These are people who enter the tourism workforce because that’s where they can get entry-level work, and they are driven primarily by financial reasons: a steady paycheck and a reliable job. Their initial impressions of the sector are generally favourable—the pay is good, the promotion prospects fair, and the jobs are interesting. They tend to see tourism work as a viable long-term career, although the longer they stay in Canada, the more they become disenfranchised with the conditions, the pay, and the work itself.

These two personas are not exhaustive by any means: there are many workers in tourism who are neither Adventurer nor New Canadian. Nevertheless, these two identities emerge out of survey data, through clustered responses across a number of questions. Moreover, these personas align with two primary driving narratives of ‘Canadian-ness’: the ‘real Canadian’ who has been raised with the idea that they can achieve whatever they want in life if they work hard enough, and the ‘grateful immigrant’ who will do the labour that ‘real Canadians’ don’t want to do. These personas, and the narratives that they intersect with, reflect larger ethnic, class, and socioeconomic divisions in the country, in spite of a national mythology that stresses egalitarianism and a shared citizenship built on ideals of individual agency. Canadians tend to resist any explicit discussion of race or class divisions, but even a casual survey of who is doing which jobs in which sectors can be very revealing of these basic social categories, and the rights and privileges that go with them.

Business operators in tourism gravitate to these narratives as well. International recruitment for labour-intensive jobs (such as housekeepers and kitchen helpers) tends to target a different profile than those looking for fun-oriented jobs (such as ski lift attendants and bartenders). The narrative repeats itself across the country, across the sector, across the economy, and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Adventurers don’t want to clean toilets (or pick fruit), so employers have to look elsewhere for people who will do those jobs: enter the New Canadian.

What is conspicuously absent here—from these dominant narratives of so-called Canadian-ness, as well as from the perception and sentiment studies carried out on tourism—is the Indigenous story. This is a direct product of the colonial lens through which Canadian history has been viewed: the ‘story’ of Canada is one of peaceful settlement, not one of displacement and violence. These deliberate omissions of the uglier dimensions of Canadian history have had a lasting impact on narratives of Canadian-ness and national identity, to the extent that the marked absence of Indigenous peoples from these narratives has until very recently gone largely unnoticed amongst non-Indigenous Canadians.

That seems to be changing, or at least starting to change, in the current political climate. Discussions at the Tourism Labour Market Forum in September 2022 touched on some of the Indigenous perspectives around tourism as a sector, and its (potential) role in redressing some of these historical and ongoing wrongs. Links were identified between Indigenous tourism and paths towards reconciliation, with tourism positioned as an opportunity to celebrate cultures and traditions that have been violently suppressed for generations, and to foster intercultural dialogue. Tourism demand for authentic Indigenous experiences is increasing domestically and internationally, and the tourism sector may present an area for strong economic growth in Indigenous communities.

However, these potentially positive outcomes must exist in tension with legitimate fears of continued cultural appropriation, commodification, and consumption. Tourism is a service industry: the inherent posture of subservience and deference may not sit comfortably alongside the ideals of reconciliation, of two peoples meeting on equal footing and sharing openly. In a marketized system, it is ultimately the consumer who determines which counternarratives they will endorse, and which are too unpalatable to the mainstream Canadian myth, and the risk of further marginalizing Indigenous people and Indigenous narratives is always on the horizon.

Indigenous attitudes towards the tourism sector will inevitably be more complex and nuanced than standard perception and sentiment studies are equipped to capture. Such studies are structured in a way that balances practical constraints against demographic representativeness: they usually aim for the smallest sample size from which reliable generalizations can be drawn about the population at large. This approach means that, regardless of whether the surveys are asking the right questions in the right ways, there are too few respondents who identify as Indigenous to draw any reliable conclusions about how this sector of Canadian society feels about tourism as a place of employment. The last national perceptions survey Tourism HR Canada undertook included only 59 respondents who identified as Indigenous—out of 2,504 in total.

In the next few weeks, Tourism HR Canada will be fielding a focused survey of Indigenous Canadian perspectives on tourism that attends to some of these larger underlying social issues and to the potential for tourism to act as a bridge between nations. These issues are too complex to be fully addressed by something as uni-dimensional as a survey, but a survey can help identify and articulate the questions that call for deeper exploration. The questionnaire will be developed in collaboration with our Indigenous partners in the sector, and it will serve as a starting-off point for refining the conversations that we need to be having and the further research needed to support those conversations.

Given the potential for tourism to mediate between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, both socially and economically, it is of paramount importance that we work to build a better base of knowledge and understanding on how Indigenous Canadians position themselves, and see themselves positioned by others, in relation to tourism in Canada.

Collaboration and partnership with Indigenous knowledge keepers will be essential to the success of this project, from the early stages of information gathering through to the more in-depth considerations of developing policy and advocating for meaningful social and economic change. If you would like to be involved in this project as it develops, please get in touch with us at, or stay tuned to Tourism HR Insider for updates as the survey is released.

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