culture as economic development

The new Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre in Whistler delivers a powerful triple whammy: culture, First Nation pride and economic development. The centre was the perfect location for a conference last weekend tackling aboriginal economic development.

The new Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler delivers a powerful triple whammy: culture, First Nation pride and economic development.

The centre was the perfect location for a conference last weekend tackling aboriginal economic development. As this columnist debated the issues with other participants, a steady flow of tourists and school groups filed through the exhibits, gift shop and restaurant.

Most left with a Lil’wat medicine bag made in a workshop or a fine piece of Coast Salish art.

The Squamish are one of the more economically successful First Nations in British Columbia, and they own businesses ranging from marinas to lucrative real estate in Vancouver. But it turns out that their cultural centre not only creates jobs and captures tourist revenue, but is also a source of hope and inspiration to Squamish youth as well as a tangible way to celebrate First Nation culture.

The project is the culmination of 10 years of collaboration between the two First Nations who both have Whistler in their traditional territories, as well as the town of Whistler, the UBC Museum of Anthropology and various government and corporate Olympic sponsors. It nestles between the mountains on one side and the Four Seasons Resort and Whistler village – teeming with tourists – on the other.

The centre is in an eye-catching building meant to evoke a traditional Squamish longhouse, and houses the exhibits and activity rooms beside a circular conference room shaped like a Lil’wat istken or pithouse.

The exhibits include spectacular cedar canoes and re-creations of traditional clothing, tools and cultural artifacts. There is also an 80-seat theatre with a visually stunning film locally produced by the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations.

Outside, there is a fascinating walking trail exposing the visitor to local flora and how each plant took its place in traditional life.

The building’s contents are remarkable, but the most arresting element of the visit is the people.

Beside the historical cedar-bark hats or goat-hair cloaks repatriated from museums in Ottawa or Boston are modern versions, recreated by Squamish and Lil’wat artisans. The pride of the guides and artists is obvious, as is their enthusiasm in sharing their culture with visitors. One of the guides, named Bill, had worked on some of the carvings and recounted with relish how they take the museum’s largest canoe out on the ocean every year to help young people connect with their culture. Meanwhile, a teenage Squamish girl smiled broadly as she shuttled between German and Texan tourists teaching them how to weave goat-hair blankets the way her ancestors had done.

So what makes the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre successful, and likely a bigger draw for visitors (and more economically viable) than a traditional visitor centre?

Firstly, quality content and museum-quality exhibitions.

The Squamish and Lil’wat materials are well curated, presented in visually stunning rooms and explained clearly to visitors. Importantly, they are also unique. Tourists will not find many other opportunities to see full replicas of traditional clothes and tools, ranging from cedar-bark hats to raven masks.

Secondly, the institution is a ‘living museum’ trying to succeed both as a magnet for tourist dollars and a dynamic platform to engage the community and sustain aboriginal culture. Well-informed and enthusiastic Squamish and Lil’wat guides also provide a big part of their centre’s ambience.

The final item is to maximize revenue, since none of the above is cheap. In addition to the usual gift shop items, the Squamish Lil’wat centre hosts an art gallery which sells First Nation art. This ranges from button blankets to cedar masks to snowboards with coastal art motifs. Conference revenues are also important, with the staff able to raise the giant cedar canoes into the air on cables to make space for large gatherings. The museum has also formed a partnership with a nearby restaurant so it can serve conference-goers BC venison and other delicacies.

The Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations are clearly onto something with their centre, which makes it all the more promising that Kwanlin Dun broke earth for its cultural centre on the Whitehorse waterfront last week.

And Kwanlin Dun is already off to an excellent start creating a centre with strong links to the community, judging by the enthusiastic presence of the 19 young First Nation carvers who created the canoe that was a highlight of the turf-turning ceremony.

Economically, things are a bit easier for the Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre since it is located in a world-famous resort visited by millions every year. But the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre has a great location on the Whitehorse waterfront and appealing tenants with high traffic such as the public library.

It will be exciting for Whitehorse – and its economy – as the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre and its programs take shape in the heart of the capital.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. His latest book Game On Yukon! was just launched.