We proceeded west from Victoria through rainforests and scenic ocean vistas. The winding and twisting 2-hour drive along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway took us to the tiny village of Port Renfrew situated at the end of the road at the mouth of Port San Juan. I was a guest on one of Island Adventure Tour’s Aboriginal Culture Tours. I wanted to see some aboriginal culture but I was not prepared for reality.
As we drove through the Indian Reserve I was amazed at the beautiful setting this community of 200 people live in. The village is surrounded by tree covered mountains, two salmon-filled rivers, and bordered by a long sandy beach that faces out into the San Juan Harbor. This spectacular setting contrasts to the many dilapitated houses that stand withered and weathered by winter storms and years of neglect. I realized then that this was not an ordinary tour.
"We specialize in reality-based aboriginal culture not the Disney Land version" states Jeff Hunter-Smith the owner of Island Adventure Tours and our guide for the day. Island Adventure Tours specializes in taking groups to remote First Nation villages for a glimpse into traditional and modern day culture. There are no theme park tours of costumed natives that will sing and dance for renumeration here. This is a tour of the realities that face many aboriginal communities as they struggle with governments for the right to exercise their traditional practices and culture.
Our guide, Jeff Hunter-Smith, explained how the aboriginal land question remains un-anwsered in British Columbia. Of the 190 Indian Bands in British Columbia only 15 have signed Treaties with the governments of Canada and British Columbia. "It is no easy task to sit down for 5-10 years and negotiate all the complex issues that form a final treaty. Most Bands simply do not have the capacity to take on such a task. In the mean time their resources are depleting as logging companies step up operations and tourists snap up the prize tyee salmon" Smith adds.
15 years ago the Pacheedaht First Nation had the highest teenage suicide rate in British Columbia. Today they are still struggling but making some progress. They are looking to providing service to tour groups, such as ours, as an option for sustainable economic development. Island Adventure Tours rolled into their community with a busload of Danish Tourists that specifically asked for a tour of real aboriginal culture that focussed on traditional health care and healing. The impact on the community is very positive.
We strolled the tidal pools at Botanical Beach, a provincial park that boasts sealife filled tidal pools at low tide and huge breakers at high tide. We then hiked the 3 km. sandy beach at Port Renfrew that was dotted with a few tenters and camper vans. They pay the First Nation $10 a night for the privilege of camping on sand and having waves crash a few yards away. After these walks we had all worked up a grizzly sized appetite. "Don’t worry," said Jeff, "we are in for a feast". Apparently one of the things aboriginal people excel at is preparing lavish feasts and spreading their hospitality on thick. Stacey Jones, nephew of hereditary Chief Chuck Jones prepared a feast that included cedar stick roasted salmon, bannock bread, 4 kinds of salad and traditional vegetables baked by coals buried underground.
The warmth of these people radiated towards the group. They welcomed us with a song and a prayer and apologized that more of their people couldn’t come and share in the welcome. They really liked the fact that we came to visit them and that we had an interest in their culture. Most of the Danes found it so strange that a group of people could be surrounded by such abundance of the natural landscape and yet be so poor. It is only now that things are beginning to change. I started the day without any knowledge of the Pacheedaht people. I felt enriched by my new-found awareness of these wonderful people and their spectacular village site.