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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

New tourist attractions earn Mistissini’s Nibiischii awards recognition

BY Patrick Quinn Apr 16, 2024

After launching an outdoor cinema on the water, an astronomical observatory and unique cultural tourism packages last summer, Nibiischii Corporation was named as a top-three “business that launched a new experience” at this year’s Indigenous Tourism Awards.

Nibiischii manages tourism activities at the Albanel-Mistassini-Waconichi Lakes Wildlife Reserve, which was transferred from provincial park agency Sépaq to Mistissini in 2017. Under the leadership of executive director Mireille Gravel, Nibiischii has steadily evolved to emphasize a distinctly Cree vision of eco-tourism. 

“Being recognized for all the hard work we’ve been doing is like a tape sur l’épaule, a pat on the back,” Gravel told the Nation. “We’ve never been so popular in terms of tourism. People want to come for the fishing, Indigenous culture and eco-tourism. It’s amazing.”

Since opening their Mwakw floating cabins in 2022, they have added a multitude of complementary attractions that bring together Cree culture, nature and adventure. After some pilot projects over the winter, Nibiischii expects that with the new electricity connection almost installed it will be fully functional to open for year-round operations beginning May 31. 

“We’re planning on finally having regular full-year operation in Waconichi,” said Gravel. “Everything is upgraded, beautiful and ready to welcome at least 50 people per day. For the summer, we’re booked almost completely a year in advance. For the fall, we have a lot of reservations already for corporate retreats, mostly Cree entities, so that’s fantastic.”

Gravel said remaining spots at Waconichi Lake’s floating cabins and other sites at Albanel Lake and Pénicouane Bay are filling up quickly. There are also newly upgraded and built camping sites with “rustic cabins that are very nice and insulated,” responding to requests for greater comfort during those cold nights. 

Insulating for energy efficiency aligns with Nibiischii’s sustainability values, minimizing consumption of wood and generator fuel. While most of the inherited lodging and other infrastructure is little different than standard outfitting camps around the province, an objective this year is integrate Cree architectural aspects. 

As they prepare the sites and hire new staff ahead of launching summer programming, staying open year-round seems to be supporting recruitment efforts. An official calendar released before each season will detail the schedule of film projections and other cultural activities.

“What’s interesting with this programming is you don’t have to have lodging on the Waconichi site,” explained Gravel. “Youth from Mistissini or anybody who wants to see one of the movies can just come for the evening and pay for their ticket. We also get our site known this way – they can come back for fishing or lodging.”

In addition to the waterfront cinepark and stargazing observatory, Nibiischii is currently constructing a 4.5-kilometre Arial Trail to launch in fall 2024, which includes breathtaking cliffhanging sections, a suspended bridge and stunning views. Cultural interpretation will enrich the trail, blending panels, sculptures, and virtual reality to provide a fully immersive experience. 

“It’s an adrenaline project but very secure so you don’t need a guide or anything,” said Gravel. “You can get to the trail walking or by canoe – that’s way more fun! You get out of your canoe and click your phone to watch that clip and it’s like you were there while the family is doing their traditional activities.” 

While these short 360-degree clips are no substitute for authentic interactions with people on the land, it’s one more way to share with visitors the Cree way of life. The Cree language is prominent in signs and artwork, with explanations provided to convey the meanings behind names because “when you understand, you get more respect.”

Recognizing the wildlife sanctuary’s colonial history under the Quebec government, Gravel hopes that local Cree feel the pride of ownership and are soon rewarded with economic spin-offs. Visitors must likewise respect that they are guests on the land where Cree people continue to live and thrive.

Gravel hopes to expand the number of locals offering cultural activities like the popular guided mushroom and tea walk, perhaps eventually offering permanent jobs as cultural officers and official guides. As Waconichi is on the Mianscum trapline, family members sometimes show visitors the Cree way of smoking fish or light the teepee fire.

Besides occasional cooking workshops, hungry clients may purchase boil-in-a-bag meals containing locally sourced non-timber boreal forest products from a chef in Chibougamau. The meals have earned such rave reviews since being offered last summer that the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association (COTA) started promoting them in hotels and other enterprises.

COTA is working on a larger project to promote Cree cuisine and, like last year, was instrumental in preparing the application for this year’s Indigenous Tourism Awards. The gesture was rooted in positive personal experience following its team’s own staff retreat at the site.

“The floating studio and complex on the lake were a spectacular backdrop to our team-building exercises, with the added novelty of doing yoga on the water,” said COTA executive director Robin McGinley. “Our team bonded as we hiked the nature trails, learned bannock-making and traditional cooking, and stargazed at the open-roof observatory.”

McGinley encourages Cree entities to schedule meetings at Nibiischii, believing that many in the region don’t fully appreciate the wonders “in our own backyard.” COTA provides marketing, booking and promotion services for attractions like the Nibiischii Corporation and Wiinipaakw boat tours in Waskaganish.

While last summer’s fires destroyed the first Creetopia base camp, which Wiinipaakw Tours was going to operate, COTA is considering alternative accommodations where the Cree-style “glamping” sites could be established. Some communities may be interested in creating campgrounds with RV hookups, tent platforms and spaces for higher-end options like Creetopia. 

As COTA develops its next regional tourism plan for 2025-2030, it’s engaging in community consultations to motivate interest in tourism. Those who share ideas are eligible to win a trip for four to Nibiischii.

“We’re proud of them and will keep helping them,” asserted McGinley. “It’s incredible what they’ve done to diversify, renovate, add new creative things for the visitor experience. They’re definitely a flagship and a leader we can all learn from.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.