As Nibiischii Corporation celebrates five years of management by the Cree community of Mistissini, it’s been recognized by two major tourism awards in Quebec and Canada.
Nibiischii oversees tourism activities on the Albanel-Mistassini-Waconichi Lakes (AMW) Wildlife Reserve. It was a top three finalist for the annual Indigenous Tourism Award given by the Tourism Industry Association of Canada. And in October, it was a top five finalist in the innovation and development category by the Alliance de l’industrie touristique du Québec.
“Being named as a finalist for these awards truly demonstrates the extraordinary tourism potential of our region and the talent and capabilities of the Cree communities,” stated Nibiischii executive director Mireille Gravel. “Local artists, tallymen, knowledge keepers, community leadership, staff members, and our ever-so-supportive partners have all contributed greatly to Nibiischii’s success.”
With biology training, Gravel arrived in Chibougamau in 2007 to work at the environmental/social economy non-profit FaunENord. When management of the wildlife reserve was transferred to Mistissini in 2017 (previously jointly administered with provincial park agency Sépaq), she was recruited to lead its natural environment preservation while gradually opening tourism access.
Nibiischii means “Land of Water, the place where the great natural waters of the North are born.” Its AMW reserve is the largest in Quebec, covering over 15,000 square kilometres. While its spectacular fishing in lakes and rivers attracts up to 7,000 visitors yearly, Nibiischii has evolved its mandate to emphasize eco-tourism amidst Cree culture.
“It’s always been a custom with the Cree to welcome visitors with open arms,” said Mistissini Deputy Chief Gerald Longchap, who had long pushed for Cree control of the reserve. “That was the hunting ground of my great-grandfather. As a child, on this lake, I had the chance to see the canoes made of bark and canvas.”
With the help of several financial and logistical partners, Nibiischii is renovating roads, maintenance buildings, cabins, plumbing and electricity. It’s an opportunity to integrate Cree culture through subtle architectural aspects, information panels and Cree animal names for lodging options.
“We want to make sure that everybody who comes to the wildlife reserve has a taste of the culture, to make sure everybody can feel it’s Cree territory,” Gravel told the Nation. “The infrastructure was quite old so one of the first things we did when we took over was upgrade everything to make sure the quality and security was top-notch.”
Nibiischii is working to expand year-round attractions in harmony with the spectacular natural environment. In addition to 11 log cottages built in the 1950s, two solar powered “Mwakw” floating cabins are now anchored in Cliff Bay, where guests can paddle board, kayak and swim.
“During the summer, we’re already booked a year in advance with fishermen,” Gravel explained. “Starting in 2023, we’ll be fully operational in the fall and winter with a more ecotourism approach. One of our goals is to lessen the pressure on the fish and lakes – I’m convinced that it will be a success.”
This summer, an astronomical observatory and a cinepark on the water will be inaugurated on the reserve. The cinepark is a particularly innovative attraction, enabling visitors to experience the beautiful surroundings while enjoying media presentations that contribute to mutual understanding, cultural awareness and reconciliation.
“One out of three projections will be a documentary, or something linked to Cree culture,” shared Gravel. “Let’s say we’re showing Cree trappers of Mistissini – we’ll have people rowing around in canoes offering bannock or tea so it’s a sight, sound and taste immersive experience.”
A key feature of Nibiischii’s strategy is partnering with Mistissini locals to offer workshops and activities. Nellie Wapachee Gray draws a mix of Crees and non-Natives to popular arts-and-crafts retreats while Willie T. Gunner offers storytelling workshops. Gravel hopes to accompany stargazing at the observatory with Cree storytelling.
As Waconichi is on the Mianscum trapline, family members may stop by to smoke fish, light the teepee fire and introduce themselves as the territory’s hosts. Nibiischii is in discussions with other families about the possibility of hosting more cabins and to offer the cultural expertise of more artists and entrepreneurs.
“Indigenous tourism is seriously popular right now and a lot of people are requesting it,” Gravel asserted. “Eco-tourism is low impact, having people live close to the land. People want to learn about the culture when they come here. We want to go slowly so it always remains authentic and in harmony with the families who occupy the territory.”
From their first interactions through the websites and welcoming office, visitors are given a taste of the Cree language, with a small library of Cree literature available on-site. Although many offerings are still in development, Nibiischii is working with the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Agency to provide virtual workshops, such as an iPad with a small beading kit.
“People are interested in coming but we haven’t done a big push yet,” said COTA executive director Robin McGinley. “It’s more trying to make sure the product on the ground is available and working well. There’s been such a shortage of human resources around the world. We’re exploring interpretive panels that could be self-guided.”
COTA was instrumental in preparing the applications for both of Nibiischii’s awards and continues to streamline online booking for Cree attractions. After a quiet period during the pandemic, anticipation is building for a big tourism summer.
“It’s already very popular for retreats and meetings and it’s not even fully operational yet,” said Gravel. “It’s something that was missing in the region, having gatherings with all the comfort, necessary infrastructure and activities offered. My secret wish is to offer more live cultural workshops – that’s what visitors are looking for when they come here.”