Leaders in aboriginal tourism gather in Whistler 

Meeting draws criticism from some segments, others see opportunities

Tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy in B.C.

It is also emerging as an avenue for success for many First Nations groups who want to showcase B.C.’s aboriginal culture at home, across Canada, and around the world.

With this in mind some 450 aboriginal leaders in culture and tourism, government officials, corporate big wigs and international participants will meet next week in Whistler to forge new alliances and lay plans for the future.

But the $2.5 million meeting is not without controversy.

Just 45 kilometres to the north some in the impoverished community of Mount Currie are questioning the spending of this much money on a conference by the federal government when so many First Nations communities across the country are in dire straits.

"My reaction when I first heard about it," said Lil’wat Rosalin Sam, "the money could be spent better elsewhere instead of having a three day party.

"People are screaming for health care, for money for education, they are screaming for support for our elders, so the money could be spent well there."

Sam does not believe the conference will result in any direct benefits for her people financially or otherwise.

"We never see results," she said.

But for B.C. Chief Sophie Pierre of the Ktunaxa/Kinbasket Tribal Council the conference is an important piece in the puzzle to get aboriginal tourism and businesses launched and on the road to success.

"It creates an awareness with the rest of the country about the possibilities for aboriginal tourism and it also then creates an awareness within our own communities about what possibilities are there," said Pierre who is a keynote speaker at the three day conference, hosted by federal Heritage Minister Sheila Copps.

"It brings us focus so that ideas that maybe people have had a for a while, but were not really going anywhere with, well, this gives them a reason to bloom and it will help those ideas come to fruition."

Aboriginal tourism realizes annual revenues of around $9 billion. The federal government expects that figure to grow over the next few years, across Canada, to $1.9 billion.

Pierre is well aware of the criticism, which has been aimed at the $7,000 per delegate price tag of the conference.

"There are always going to be social needs so either we just continue to pour all our money into those, which never ever puts us in position where we become economically independent, or we start putting some of the money in to long-term objectives," she said.

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