After finagling meagre funding from the territorial government, the trade and culture jaunt to Japan was an overwhelming success, says Linda Bonnefoy.
“We proved this is a viable initiative and the Japanese are definitely interested in the product,” she said.
“It was really tight getting out of here, but we did it.”
Bonnefoy organized the trip to promote First Nations arts and crafts, and sell the Yukon as a travel destination to the Asian middle and upper class.
In March, while Bonnefoy was ferreting out money for the trip, she was bounced between two levels of government. She came up dry.
The Canada Council deemed the trip too commercial. The Yukon’s Economic Development officials ruled it wasn’t commercial enough.
Then at the 11th hour, a week before the group boarded the Orient-bound plane, Yukon’s minister of Economic Development Jim Kenyon ponied up $5,000.
“We were refused initially, then John Edzerza … went to bat for us and approached Kenyon,” said Bonnefoy.
“It’s never been done before, we couldn’t prove we were going to deliver what we said we we’re going to deliver, but we did that and even more and it was a huge undertaking,” said Bonnefoy.
On top of the $5,000 from Economic Development — and out-of-pocket donations from Bonnefoy — Carcross/Tagish First Nation, the Vuntut Gwitchin Development Corp., Whitehorse and other friends and supporters donated money or presents in support of the venture.
During the jam-packed, 10-day jaunt, the group hosted three Yukon First Nations film nights, an art opening and two shows promoting Yukon clothing designers — one in a funky fashion district in Tokyo and another in Fukuoka — that garnered standing ovations, said Bonnefoy.
“When we showed our work people were absolutely blown away by it,” she said.
“In both cities the fashion and the film nights were very well received, they’re just fascinated with Yukon First Nations culture, everybody wants more of it.”
Yukon craftspeople make unique, collectable products that are big in the land of the rising sun, added Bonnefoy.
That means bigger markets and larger profits for the local producers.
“This is an exclusive market where mass production is not an option, and because there are so few carvers in the Yukon, there are collectors who would pay a great deal of money for them.
“There is a money class in Asia who will pay a lot of money for products that other people can’t access.”
Three First Nations craftspeople, Ed Smarch, Alex Dickson and Keith Wolfe Smarch, accompanied Bonnefoy on the Asian trade mission.
“Originally, we wanted representatives from the different regions in the Yukon to come with us, but we didn’t get any money, so we just took the work with us,” said Bonnefoy.
She packed up carvings, paintings, hats, dresses, vests, drums, sewing and regalia from First Nations across the territory.
“We had so much, and our hotel rooms were so small in downtown Tokyo that I slept with two bags on my bed,” Bonnefoy said with a laugh.
Ed Smarch, who accompanied Bonnefoy on the Japanese trade mission is a craftsperson who makes knifes, hats, mitts and moccasins.
But, for 20 years, he’s dreamed of setting up culture camps focusing on traditional Tlingit teaching and healing.
Smarch will invite tourists to stay on land near Teslin for 15-day workshops to learn about traditional plants, hunting, arts and crafts.
Having First Nation-run culture camps around the territory, like the one he’s starting, will put the Yukon on the map as a cultural travel destination. It will also create jobs and income for First Nations communities around the Yukon, he said.
People in Asia are interested in the Canadian First Nations, especially the Yukon First Nations way of life, said Smarch.
“Tourists, that’s what they want to see is the grassroots people and how they live.”
“There is definitely a market for exclusive tours within First Nations communities in the Yukon,” said Bonnefoy.
“When you’re looking at capacity building in the communities and sustainable development we really think that eco-tourism is the key.”
Smarch has already spent a fair share of money on the excursion to Japan, and needs government funding to help him start up the Teslin camp.
He’s also hoping the idea will grow and other First Nations will start up culture camps in their communities.
“I hope all First Nations would put as much sponsorship into it as I have,” said Smarch.
“Because it’s not just the Tlingit (that) people come to see, it’s all First Nations, because all First Nations have different things to show them.”
Ideally, Smarch is looking for donations totaling $100,000 for buying boats, four-wheelers, equipment, groceries and looking after the camp.
But $50,000 will do, he said.
Meanwhile, Bonnefoy is looking to plan another mission to Asia.
Today she has an open invitation to return and share traditional knowledge with the Ainu in Japan.
And, undeterred, Bonnefoy is ready to fill out more funding applications — first for an elder story exchange program with the Ainu, and then for a group of women to travel to Japan and share traditional sewing techniques and stories about women’s work.