Indigenous tourism operators in the NWT are feeling nervous about the future after learning that Budget 2021 allocated a significantly lower than requested amount of funding to the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC).

Budget 2021 proposes to provide $2.4 million in 2021-2022 to ITAC. That amount falls far short of the $68 million that ITAC requested, with $50 million of that targeted for the period of 2020 to 2024 and $18 million in emergency funding, said association CEO Keith Henry, from Vancouver.

“We’re extremely disappointed,” he said. “To only see one year and three per cent of what we asked for was pretty demoralizing.”

The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) requested $68 million for the new federal budget, but was allocated only $2.4 million for 2021-2022, an extremely disappointing amount, said ITAC president Keith Henry. photo courtesy of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

The $2.4 million allocation follows a difficult time for ITAC and Indigenous tourism across Canada, as the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a “loss of 30 years of progress” to the industry, Henry stated on ITAC’s website.

The association provides financial, marketing and training support for tourism operators across the country.

Operating on a budget of $21 million in 2020-2021, the organization managed to provide 683 non-repayable grants of up to $25,000 each to Indigenous tourism operators trying to survive economically during the pandemic.

But the organization’s funding difficulties might force ITAC to make uncomfortable decisions like cutting provincial and territorial memorandums of understanding (MOUs), laying off staff and ending grant and marketing programs, such as the Indigenous tourism recognition initiative RISE and Indigenous Culinary of Associated Nations.

“We have a multi-year MOU with Travel Manitoba. This year we negotiated in good faith to get a fairly good investment in recovery,” Henry said. “Travel Manitoba would put in $250,000 to stabilize that with the understanding we’d be able to contribute as well, but we just don’t have the resources now. We were trying to do that with NWT Tourism as well. Now it’ll be almost impossible for us to make that commitment.”

‘Shocking and devastating’ to tourism

One NWT Indigenous operator who has benefited from a partnership with ITAC is Joe Bailey, owner of North Star Adventures in Yellowknife.

His company has been a member of ITAC since 2015 and received about $37,500 in program development assistance and COVID-19 relief funding during that time.

“From what was requested to what was received is shocking and devastating to Indigenous tourism not only here in the NWT, but right across Canada,” Bailey said of the federal government’s allocation to ITAC.

“This is bad news for many small Indigenous tour businesses who are struggling to survive with each passing day. It is unbelievable to see the federal government failing Indigenous tourism like this,” he said. “If nothing changes, if ITAC does not get its budget, it could spell the end of ITAC as we know it, and many Indigenous tour businesses as well. We’ll definitely feel that impact.”

‘Where will we go for funding?’

James Marlowe, owner of Rivers East Arm Tours in Lutsel K’e, was also taken aback by the news of ITAC’s funding.

The association helped him secure funding for new equipment and ice fishing supplies after his efforts to seek assistance from the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment and the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency didn’t pan out.

Hearing about ITAC’s funding woes was a huge disappointment for Marlowe.

“I’d like to thank Keith Henry and all of his hard work for us Indigenous tourism operators. ITAC helped a lot of members that belong to that organization,” he said. “If they cut back on staff and the operations … where (will we) go for funding and other stuff? It’s very, very unfortunate that the minister or the federal government has to decrease the amount of funding for ITAC. That won’t benefit anyone.”

Frontier Lodge – also in Lutsel K’e – joined ITAC after the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation bought the lodge in December 2019.

General manager Corey Myers said ITAC’s funding problems are “incredibly disheartening.”

Myers lauded the association for supporting Frontier’s attendance at this year’s Rendezvous Canada virtual tourism marketplace in May.

“We hope (it) will help us dramatically in terms of marketing the new Thaidene Nëné packages we plan to launch in 2022. To be honest, we likely would not have been able to attend this year without (ITAC) support,” he said.

Miscommunication, or low priority?

Henry is scratching his head at ITAC’s small allocation after he said the organization met with Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) and Innovation, Science and Economic Development dozens of times in the last several months to communicate the association’s needs, providing written documents to reinforce its position.

“Either cabinet didn’t get the requests we made or, frankly, the departments just didn’t recommend an Indigenous-led strategy. Either way, both are unfortunate,” said Henry.

He acknowledges some of the positive aspects of Budget 2021, namely its $18 billion allocation to Indigenous communities and $64 million earmarked for Indigenous entrepreneurs, which could help with tourism investment.

However, he decries the “failure to recognize an Indigenous-led tourism strategy” that risks hurting the industry.

ITAC is still communicating with the Department of Finance to see if there’s a possible solution to the funding deficiency.

The release of the April 19 federal budget comes just over five months after CBC reported that ITAC’s board of directors approved a $25,000 bonus for Henry, one day after ISC announced in June that the association would receive $16 million in stimulus funding.

ITAC said the $25,000 didn’t come out of the stimulus funds.

ISC did not respond to a request for comment by press deadline.

Blair McBride

Blair McBride covers the Legislative Assembly, business and education. Before coming to Yellowknife he worked as a journalist in British Columbia, Thailand and Ontario. He studied journalism at Western...

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