Cultural ambassadors trapped in bureaucratic limbo

While Yukon politicians prep Asia to buy raw minerals, others want to sell the Orient on the territory’s culture.

While Yukon politicians prep Asia to buy raw minerals, others want to sell the Orient on the territory’s culture.

The Yukon’s First Nation culture and crafts are unique, and it’s time to sell them to the world, said Linda Bonnefoy, who heads a Whitehorse-based consulting company.

Next month, Bonnefoy and three traditional carvers will spend 10 days in Japan promoting Yukon crafts and tourism.

It’s a great opportunity for the Yukon, but federal and territorial officials won’t back the project, said Bonnefoy.

Why?

Well, that’s where things get interesting.

The Canada Council deemed the trip too commercial. The Yukon’s Economic Development officials ruled it wasn’t commercial enough.

Put simply, Bonnefoy is caught in bureaucratic limbo.

“We’re at the 11th hour and we have no money,” she said.

But she’s soldiering on.

During the 10-day trip, Bonnefoy will host a Yukon First Nations film night, music night, art exhibitions and workshops.

These are designed to unite Yukon and Japanese carvers.

And she’ll host two shows to promote Yukon clothing designers — one in a funky fashion district in Tokyo and another in Fukuoka.

“We’re representing all First Nations,” said Keith Wolfe Smarch, a Teslin carver who will accompany Bonnefoy to Japan.

Wolfe Smarch has been sharing skills with Japanese carvers since 1988.

Japan is the perfect market to launch such an effort because some Japanese are enthralled with First Nations’ culture and spirituality, he said.

And Yukon craftspeople make unique, collectable products that will go over big in the land of the rising sun, added Bonnefoy.

That means bigger markets and bigger profits for the local producers.

“The idea is to take slippers I can access from Old Crow or a hat that June Bruton made and quadruple the price for the craftspeople here,” she said, holding up a fur hat embellished with a pink beaded flower.

“I don’t think that’s unrealistic when you consider that we’re dealing with millions of people in Tokyo and many of them can’t afford to buy homes so they spend their money on luxury items.”

Bonnefoy’s trip will also encourage Japanese tourists to come to the Yukon by promoting First Nations culture abroad. That hasn’t been done effectively in the past, she said.

“I think they have a product that is absolutely amazing, but I don’t see it being marketed as an option.”

Bonnefoy grew up in the Yukon and has spent time in fish camps and hunting camps around the territory — now she wants to sell that experience to the East.

Yukon tour operations will reap the rewards two years down the road with packed buses, she said.

If all goes well, she plans a trial run of educational tours next summer and to work toward offering cultural camps featuring different activities appropriate to the seasons.

The project has potential to boost the territory’s economy in every sector, she said.

“We never thought we’d be scrambling for funding at the last minute.”

A year ago, Bonnefoy began applying for funding.

She asked the Canada Council for the Arts for a $37,000 grant to cover plane tickets, lodging and other travel expenses.

She never expected to be turned down.

“We just assumed that money would be forthcoming,” said Bonnefoy.

But, according to a letter from the council, the project was deemed ineligible because it was economically and commercially driven, and therefore beyond the Canada Council’s mandate.

It was refused by a panel in Ottawa.

She also applied for money through Yukon’s Economic Development department.

In writing, she was refused again. This time, because of the project’s “perceived non-commercial focus.”

Economic Development asked Bonnefoy to rejig her proposal to include a business plan and feasibility study — something she has no time to complete within the next month.

“We have wrung the towel dry about what we can have donated to us in Japan. This is really a shoestring budget that we’re going on,” said Bonnefoy.

“It’s grassroots; this is the cheapest budget you’ll ever see for this kind of initiative.”

Whether funding comes through or not, Bonnefoy and three carvers — Wolfe Smarch, Ed Smarch and Alex Dickson — will fly off to Japan on April 18th.