This post by Guillermo Serrano was originally published on the Hello BC blog.
Before cities like Victoria were built, before the world-famous Butchart Gardens opened and internationally renowned hiking trails like the West Coast Trail attracted visitors from around the world, there were Indigenous villages.
Vancouver Island is the largest island by size off the Pacific Coast of continental North America, bigger in land mass than many European and Asian countries. For centuries, Indigenous people like the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Kwakwakaw’akw lived on what much later became known as Vancouver Island. The temperate rainforest and ocean provided them with food, an avenue of transportation, and harvest.
Today, these groups of people tell their stories through cultural presentations, art, adventures on land and by water, and interpretive centres with fascinating displays.
Here are five unique Vancouver Island experiences, all operated by members of British Columbia’s Indigenous communities, keen to share their living culture with you.
Mike Willie started his Indigenous tourism and water taxi business as a way to reconnect to the land and language of his people, sparking a culture revitalization for himself and his guests. His company, Sea Wolf Adventures, links travellers to the Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw Nation and its heritage, much of which is tied to the Great Bear Rainforest, the jaw-dropping and beautiful natural wonder that is approximately the size of Belgium. The rainforest is on the British Columbia mainland but Sea Wolf sails guests into it from its home base in Port McNeill, an outpost on northeastern Vancouver Island.
Through grizzly-bear viewing and cultural tours with Aboriginal guides, Sea Wolf gives its clients both an education in Indigenous practices and a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experience.
“Our language comes from the land and is only a reflection of our surroundings, so the inspiration for my company was to get out there into the natural surroundings,” says Willie, who grew up in Kingcome Inlet, located in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Willie, whose Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw name is T’ɬalis (Breaching Whale Around the World), is devoted to offering a comprehensive and immersive journey into territory that has been home to his people for millennia.
The town of Sidney is the ideal spot for seeing whales because it is located in the middle of the feeding grounds for Vancouver Island’s resident orca population. Visitors reputedly can get an average of 30 minutes more “whale time” here than at any other departure location on the island.
Sidney Whale Watching, a family-run company, is just five minutes from the BC Ferries terminal and the Victoria Airport. Headed by owner Mike Child, Sidney Whale Watching has 30-foot walk-around vessels that allow visitors to view the sea from every possible camera angle. The guided tours include excursions in sea kayaks or the chance to charter an entire boat.
Child notes it is a privilege to operate within the traditional territory of the Salish People. He is from Fort Rupert and his Kwakiutl Nation name is T’lakudlas.
“Through the teachings of my grandparents and elders, I have always felt drawn to the traditional knowledge of my people,” he says. “There exists an inherent philosophy of stewardship and respect that manifests in all of the legends, origin stories, and everyday ways of doing things.”
Tours: Visitors can choose from a variety of vessels to experience the beauty of the Salish Sea (which includes the Juan de Fuca Strait, the Strait of Georgia, and Puget Sound). Boats are equipped with platforms for video or still photography. There are even hydro phones on the vessels to listen to the language of the whales. Check out the company’s private charter page on its website for more information.
When you join a trip with West Coast Expeditions you’re not only going to enjoy some of the best sea kayaking on the planet, you’ll also experience a culture that has continued to paddle along the northwest coast of the Pacific Ocean for more generations than anyone can count.
Operated by members of the Ka:’yu:’k’t’h/Che:k:tles7et’h’ (Kyuquot/Checleset) Nations, West Coast Expeditions gives you the chance to learn in depth about Indigenous culture. Its highly personalized sea-kayaking tours begin on Spring Island in Kyuquot, which is about 150 kilometres north of Tofino. Visitors trek into a surrounding of old-growth forests and idyllic beaches, sharing the water with abundant sea otters in this enchanting wilderness retreat.
Cultural host Lana Jules, often accompanied by up to four generations of family and friends from Kyuquot, nourishes guests with an Indigenous salmon feast and an evening of cultural sharing around a fire.
Tours: Visitors can sign up for tours ranging from four to eight days, and can choose fishing tours along with the sea-kayaking trip, or slightly less strenuous adventures.
This family-friendly marine provincial park is only accessible by foot passenger ferry or boat. But that doesn’t mean it’s hard to reach.
Traditionally known as Saysutshun, Newcastle Island is located within Nanaimo Harbour. Once you’re on Newcastle Island you will be in the territory of the Snuneymuxw Nation, and you will encounter their magic as soon as you arrive. Beautiful pristine beaches, shaded by giant trees, surround the park. Everything on the island is within walking distance and the panoramic views of Nanaimo and the Coast Mountains are inspiring. Campers can reserve a site, while day visitors can park their car and catch a ferry.
Once on the island, hikers and cyclists can use the trails. Swimmers can wade into tidal pools and beachcombers can stride on the shore. When it’s time to replenish, head to the Sayutshun Bistro, where a restored 1930s teahouse in the dance pavilion serves burgers, smokies, seafood chowder, and salads.
Activities: Snuneymuxw guides impart their knowledge of traditional medicines that are still being used by their people and share stories of their culture. Guided nature walks begin at the Totem Pole. If you’d like to feast, you can make arrangements prior to arrival for a Snuneymuxw chef to cook a traditional salmon barbecue. You will also learn how to cook sockeye salmon using traditional methods. Tour information is available on the park’s website.
For coastal Indigenous people, the potlatch was one of their most important and sacred ceremonies, serving a crucial role in the organization and social structure within their communities.
After the Canadian federal government introduced Anti-Potlatch laws in 1884, those ceremonies had to move underground. People who participated in potlatch were often arrested and some imprisoned and their ceremonial goods were confiscated.
Over the years, many of those pieces made their way off Vancouver Island and into museums and private collections around the world. In 1975, Hereditary and Elected Chiefs of the Kwakwak’wakw Nation founded the Nuyumbalees Society to negotiate the return of their Potlatch Collection and Regalia. In 1979, the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre opened its doors with the goal of revitalizing the Kwakwaka’wakw language and culture. You can visit this important site and see the returned artifacts for yourself this autumn.
Classes: A conversation class provides a basic introduction into the language and culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw. Visit the centre’s website to sign up.