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Struggling Arctic communities see tourism as economic lifeline

Ellis QuinnEye on the Arctic
Ellis Quinn photo

If there's one thing Danny Gaudet likes to talk about, it's Deline.  

This remote predominantly aboriginal community of 552 people sits on the southwest shore of Great Bear Lake in the Sathu region of Canada's Northwest Territories. It may not look like much at first glance, but Gaudet believes he can change that.

He talks about what life is like on the shores of Great Bear Lake, Canada's third largest lake after Lake Superior and Lake Huron in Ontario. "The freshest water in the world," he says proudly. "Our ancestors' traditional hunting trails are all around it."

Revving his 4x4 through Deline's narrow, snow and ice-covered streets, Gaudet points out where the community's famous prophet Louie Ayah (1857-1940) lived. Renowned in the Sathu region for his predictions, he's seen as a holy man and is still quoted today by people in the community.

At another stop, Gaudet points to where Sir John Franklin, an early explorer, noted in his diary in October 1825 that people were playing hockey on a frozen lake.

Series: Challenges for Arctic economies

"I know places like Windsor (Ontario) and others like to claim hockey was born there but Sir John Franklin documented it first so I think we have a pretty good case," Gaudet says, beaming as he adjusts his ever-present baseball cap.

Winding up the impromptu tour, Gaudet gets back in his car and starts the engine.

"See how much we have," Gaudet says. "Now we just have to find a way to get people up here."

Economic struggles

Despite the energy and mining boom in Canada's Arctic, many aboriginal communities in the North are still struggling economically. While it's true climate change has put the Arctic in the spotlight as far as energy and resource development are concerned, these industries have not benefitted the aboriginal population as hoped.

In many regions, only one in four aboriginal students ever finish high school. That means many are under-educated for the most lucrative jobs in these new industries. While many companies provide trades training for northerners, many aboriginals find the jobs require being out of the community for significant periods of time away from their lands and families.

Many report everything from homesickness, to culture shock to racism have caused them to leave these jobs, no matter how well remunerated, so they can return to their communities.

More still report highly ambivalent feelings toward these new industries perceived as polluting or disruptive of the environment and their traditional lands.

"I think people are lost between two worlds," Gaudet says. "We don't have economies, we don't have an education system that meets standards. We have to grab the interest of people and understand what they want in life and then meet those needs in terms of employment. But the reality is that we're in trouble."

Spotlight: Deline

Even among Canada's remote polar communities, Deline's situation presents a challenge.

It's in a region with one of the highest costs of living in the country but also with one of the lowest average salaries among the aboriginal community. The unemployment rate is 23.9 percent.

Despite the resource boom in other areas of the territory, much of the benefits have bypassed Deline. There were hopes the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, an ambitious project that would deliver natural gas from the Beaufort Sea to southern energy markets through the Sathu, would give Deline new-found prosperity. But now that the project seems permanently stalled, many locals feel their small town is on its own.

But far from giving up, Deline thinks it may have a solution in tourism built around their aboriginal traditions and lands. Now all they need is to get someone to listen to them.

'A clean, uncontroversial industry'

Theresa Bitzer is the business manager of the Deline Land Corporation. She's been working on the tourism model for the community for several years.

Bitzer acknowledges the logistical challenges of getting the tourist industry off the ground in the community. It's in an isolated location. It's a fly-in community with exorbitant ticket rates. And its winter ice-road is only open three weeks of the year- a time period that is getting shorter because of global warming.

But despite these obstacles, she believes tourism would have both economic and social benefits in the community.

"We have little to no resource development in our district so we have a higher than average unemployment rate and with unemployment come other social issues," Bitzer says.

"In Deline we still practise our cultural and traditional ways of life and people want to see that" she says. "People are blown away when they're taken out of the land and living in a camp setting. I'd just like to develop a way we could share that with not only southern people from southern North America but also people throughout the world."

In areas of southern Canada, tourism built around aboriginal communities has already had some success, especially in provinces like British Columbia and Manitoba.

The Northwest Territories Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment has indicated encouraging tourism in aboriginal communities like Deline has become a priority for them too. 

An Aboriginal Tourism Forum was held in April 2012 to discuss the development of Aboriginal tourism in the territory.

Bitzer, the Deline business manager, envisions a future where visitors would be paired with a Dene guide and would be able to participate in everything from traditional camp life to Dene food preparation and beading.

Bitzer calls tourism "a clean, uncontroversial industry" that could benefit the community more than just economically, but also socially -- encouraging young people to learn traditions, skills and knowledge that apply to a modern world.

"If there's a reason other than survival to learn traditional skills then, of course, you're going to be more inspired to maintain that knowledge."

First hand experience

Gina Dolphus has first-hand experience. After struggles with alcohol, Dolphus returned to the traditional sewing of her mother, and began selling it to tourists and in southern markets, something she credits with helping her finish her schooling and establish herself financially.

"I went back to school in Alberta -- went to take native clothing design. I came back to Deline to help put on workshops for youth on beading and fish scale art. I attended Inuvik Art Festival. I did fashion shows and it all started with traditional sewing."

At a recent traditional skills workshop for youth in Deline, Leory Andre, the community wildlife officer, explained how cultivating traditional hunting and trapping skills could help establish people in today's economy, either by becoming guides one day, or selling furs and hides.

But as Andre prepared to explain the proper way of skinning a marten, he paused for a moment and made eye contact with the teenagers circled around him before explaining why respect for what they are about to do is so important. "This animal has given their life to provide your family with some income" Andre said.

"We need to get our young people engaged in their culture again," Andre said the day after the workshop. "In the past we relied on our traditions for survival, but today we can also rely on our traditions for survival in the modern world while sharing them with the modern world."

A 17 year-old hovering on the outskirts of the workshop, spent much of the workshop joking with his friends. But once it came time to work with the marten skin himself, he sat quietly, manipulating the skin carefully and occasionally asking a senior trapper nearby for help.

"Yeah, I can see myself doing this one day," he said.

Looking to the future

As climate change and resource development brings more industry and development to the North, Theresa Bitzer, the Deline business manager, says it's more important than ever that southern people see the North first hand.

A sustainable, developed tourism-based economy in aboriginal communities like Deline, could have a long-term legacy that's may even be more important than economic development she says.

"Right now, among most people, there's very little knowledge of what exists up North. Little knowledge about the unique qualities that are here and why aboriginal people would want to preserve that. But if we can show this to outsiders by promoting things like tourism, then they too will see the unique quality of our aboriginal lands and cultures and they'll want to fight with us to preserve it when it comes time."

Series: Challenges for Arctic economies

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.