Mi’kmaq cultural tourism needs government investment, cultural understanding for growth

SYDNEY, NS – Understanding and investment are key ingredients for the renewal of Mi’kmaq cultural tourism in the Atlantic region according to a leading advocate for the industry.

Robert Bernard, executive director of the Nova Scotia Indigenous Tourism Enterprise Network, said recent government investments in post-pandemic tourism recovery, including $2.24 million to Cape Breton University’s new Cape Breton Island Tourism Training Network, are positive but require meaningful Indigenous inclusion in the development and delivery of an overall plan.

“If you’re a non-Indigenous organization wanting to work with Indigenous people or to build relationships, be sure you approach and include Indigenous people at the early stages, not later on, after the decisions have been made – that’s too late,” Bernard said.

Cape Breton-Canso MP Mike Kelloway, who announced the funding in late March, said the initiative would provide training and learning opportunities around Indigenous tourism and “produce new Indigenous tourism promotional products and enhance visitor experiences here on Cape Breton Island.”

Bernard said he would like to see investments in cultural tourism going to Mi’kmaq-led strategies and initiatives.

“The federal and provincial governments are giving Indigenous dollars to non-Indigenous organizations to help the Mi’kmaw people. Start giving it to us – we know where we need help and where we need to invest,” he said.

“It’s our turn to do it, and our turn to see some of those major investments.”

Robert Bernard:
Robert Bernard: “We want to strengthen our people first, so we can welcome tourists from around the world.” CONTRIBUTED – Ardelle Reynolds


The Nova Scotia Indigenous Tourism Enterprise Network hosted two conferences last week – a two-day strategic visioning session in Truro that attracted 75 people, and a virtual Indigenous tourism summit that included an awards show celebrating local tourism champions.

Bernard said there is “so much opportunity” to grow cultural tourism in Mi’kma’ki, which encompasses Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and parts of Newfoundland and the state of Maine, and is the traditional territory of the Mi’ kmaw, but he said it will take a unique approach.

“Our approach to tourism is through cultural tourism, and that model differs from mainstream tourism – our recovery is not just on a dollars and cents level, and not just focused on the pandemic, it’s focused on a cultural revitalization,” Bernard explained.

“Our people have been affected by culture loss through residential schools and government objectives to obliterate our people, to be honest. So, our approach is really to gather authentic approaches to share our true history with the world.”

Bernard said the conferences brought together artists, business owners, cultural performers, community leaders and other stakeholders from across the province and the country to identify challenges and priorities and create a roadmap for the future of Indigenous tourism in the region.

“We’re talking about the long-term recovery of a culture – I’m talking 10, 20, 50 years here, but it starts somewhere – it starts with government better understanding who we are and saying, as leaders, we are in a role to make some change happen by investing in cultural tourism.”


Unlike what Bernard calls “mainstream tourism,” which largely focuses on infrastructure – hotels, restaurants and attractions – Mi’kmaw tourism needs to be focused on the revitalization of the language and reconnection to traditional knowledge and practices to develop authentic products and experiences.

“We want to strengthen our people first, so we can welcome tourists from around the world and know what our story is across Mi’kma’ki,” Bernard said.

“Because (our culture) was taken from us, so many people in our communities, still, are confused because people were so hungry for our culture and connected to it so quickly, some of what we brought back is actually not ours, not authentically Mi’kmaw,” Bernard said.

Bernard said authenticity guidelines were developed after two years of “tough conversations” with elsewhere to establish traditional practices, songs, dances, and stories, and he envisions a jury of sorts to ensure that Mi’kmaw culture is being shared authentically.

He is working with the Halifax Stanfield International Airport to develop videos and signage to welcome visitors to Mi’kma’ki – something only the Mi’kmaq can do.

Bernard sees Canada as experiencing “an Indigenous awakening” and said the market for cultural tourism is more than international visitors.

“It’s people that live right here in our backyards and surrounding communities but when people look for it, we’ve got to make sure it’s right. We know our culture is important enough that we need to do it right.”

– Ardelle Reynolds is an Indigenous affairs reporter with the Cape Breton Post. Follow her on Twitter @CBPost_Ardelle.

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