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Whistler Centre for Sustainability, SLCC launch Indigenous Tourism Start-up Program

Applications for business mentorship program due Aug. 1
VENTURE ADVENTURE The Lil'wat Nation's Tanina Williams, whose business concept to lead plant-based tours of Joffre Lakes Provincial Park won last year's Squamish Lil'wat St´at´yemc Business Start-up Program pitch competition. That initiative was part of the inspiration for the newly launched Indigenous Tourism Start-Up Program at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre. Photo by Lisa Severn

Building on the success of two similar initiatives, the Whistler Centre for Sustainability and the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) are launching a business development program aimed at giving Indigenous tourism start-ups a leg up in the market.

The Indigenous Tourism Start-up Program is meant for members of Indigenous communities from Vancouver to Lillooet looking to develop an Indigenous-centred tourism business concept. Modelled in part after the Whistler Centre for Sustainability's Social Venture Challenge and last year's Squamish Lil'wat Sáyemc Business Start-up Program, the project is a blend of classroom and distance learning, and runs from September to November 2019.

"For young Indigenous people ... coming to do a tourism start-up, they can see firsthand how a tourism organization [like the SLCC] can work from a First Nations' perspective, and how suddenly beneficial it can be to have a First Nations or Indigenous background, with unique offerings in terms of products," explained Brady Smith, executive director of the SLCC, where the program will be hosted. "They can actually see firsthand that they can come to work in Whistler or the city and have lots of opportunities."

The program was made possible thanks to a $95,000 grant through the BC Rural Dividend Program, which provides up to $25 million a year in funding to assist rural communities with a population of 25,000 or less to strengthen and diversify their local economies. The funding will cover all program costs, including the participants' accommodation and travel.

Smith spoke to the historical barriers that have faced local Indigenous entrepreneurs.

"If you're a First Nations entrepreneur and you're trying to be successful on reserve in Mount Currie or the St'atl'mx area, you have to really be full of grit, because you may not have the clientele coming and knocking down on your door as you would in a larger metropolitan area," he said. "I think the tertiary component there is access to proper mentorship and guidance, and that's why this program ... is so important, because we're providing that mentorship and guidance and really, one-on-one teaching, for Indigenous entrepreneurs to bring forth their business ideas."

Among the program's listed goals is to help participants develop their business planning, financial literacy, marketing, branding and other related skills. The demand for First Nations-based tourism has been on the rise in recent years, with the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada reporting last year that 37 per cent of visitors to Canada are interested in Indigenous tourism experiences.

"Whether it be a museum like ourselves or an outdoor activity such as whale watching, or walking through the old growth forest with a First Nations tour ambassador, people are looking to experience those off-the-grid leisure-based activities," said Smith. "We're primed perfectly to welcome the world to our doorstep and we need to ensure that we have the proper product that is both market and export ready."

Applications to the program are due by 5 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 1 and can be submitted by emailing Dawn Johnson at