Riding the Polar Bear Express: And Other Encounters between Tourists and First Peoples in Canada

By Blundell, Valda | Journal of Canadian Studies, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Riding the Polar Bear Express: And Other Encounters between Tourists and First Peoples in Canada


Blundell, Valda, Journal of Canadian Studies


This paper considers how First Peoples and their cultures are encountered by tourists in Canada. The discussion takes into account government policies aimed at linking aboriginal cultures more closely with tourism as well as efforts by First Peoples to gain greater control over how their cultures are represented to tourists. Based on visits to selected attractions across the country, examples are given of alternative representational formats currently in place for tourists, including those designed by First Peoples.

This is not a contrived tourist experience," announced our guide over the train's intercom. With some 200 other tourists, I was riding the Polar Bear Express, an Ontario Northland train that runs from southern Ontario to Moosonee and the Indian community of Moose Factory in the Arctic tidewater area of James Bay. My fellow travellers included Canadian and American tourists, many of whom had seen advertisements for this trip that depict the Cree Indians of the area and promise opportunities to experience the "reality" of their Native way of life.(f.1) The Polar Bear Express is but one of a growing number of attractions promoted as places where tourists can encounter the cultures of Canada's First Peoples, a trend that has been strongly supported over the past decade by state tourism officials in their efforts to increase the country's tourism revenues.

I took the Polar Bear Express during the summer of 1991 as part of a research project on First Peoples and tourism in Canada. Given the increasingly widespread promotion of Native cultures for tourism, I wanted to determine what kinds of attractions are actually in place for tourists in Canada and what kinds of ideas about First Peoples these attractions convey. The purpose of this paper is to address these questions and in the process also to consider how First Peoples are themselves involved in tourism. Before turning directly to these issues, however, I want to summarize briefly the policy and political contexts within which aboriginal cultures are currently being linked with tourism.

The Tourism Policies of State Agencies

The promotion of aboriginal cultures for tourism is part of a broader strategy by government agencies to increase tourism in Canada by highlighting the nation's distinctive cultural forms. Since the mid - 1980s, for example, federal tourism policy has called for increased promotion of a wide range of Canadian cultural forms to pleasure travellers, a form of tourism commonly referred to as "cultural tourism." While various definitions of "cultural tourism" have been offered, the term is generally used to refer to forms of international mass pleasure travel that provide tourists with opportunities to experience the cultural attractions and the cultural distinctiveness of the area they visit.(f.2) References are commonly made to a country's or a region's art, craft and heritage forms; its museums, art galleries, and historic sites; its culturally different populations; and the different "sense of place" that tourists can experience.(f.3) In one definition widely quoted in Canada, Robert Kelly defines cultural tourism as "the consumption of cultural experiences (and objects) by individuals who are away from their normal place of habitation."(f.4) Over the past decade state officials have stressed this view of cultural tourism as the "consumption of cultural experiences," while repeatedly arguing that such experiences can be commoditized for tourists. For state officials, the promotion of cultural tourism can generate benefits for the Canadian tourism industry and at the same time provide a means of economic development for marginal areas and disadvantaged groups who market themselves for tourism.

However, officials argue that the cultural experiences promoted for tourism must be authentic ones, and this raises questions regarding what is considered a contrived versus an authentic experience. In his analysis of federal tourism policy of the past decade, John Harp shows that tourism texts have repeatedly represented regions and communities in less developed areas of Canada "within a rhetoric of 'heritage' whereby some idyllic past is presented as the authentic life and as something the urban dweller has lost. …

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