This year’s absence of tourists from outside the region hasn’t stopped the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association (COTA) from continuing to develop Eeyou Istchee’s tourism industry. COTA’s recent annual general meeting – virtual, of course – discussed the organization’s many initiatives despite the pandemic.
“In a regular year, we have a one-day assembly and two days of tourism conference,” explained Robin McGinley, COTA’s executive director. “That’s when we bring in speakers, and have workshops, games and activities. This year that was put aside and it was only half a day. Next fall, we’ll hopefully hold one face-to-face in Mistissini and celebrate the 20th anniversary of COTA.”
While COTA has been steadily expanding the region’s vast tourism potential since its incorporation in 2000, its vision was first established in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. McGinley said Covid-19 has altered its upcoming five-year strategy as it has permanently changed the way people travel.
“I’d like to point out the great job COTA has done adapting to the Covid situation,” asserted board member Ron Simard, who is also Ouje-Bougoumou’s tourism officer. “It affected us a lot – I miss having visitors. That’s the favourite part of my job, showing tourists how proud we are of our community. It’s a little slow but we’re taking advantage to get ahead on certain projects.”
COTA’s strategic plan includes developing winter and summer travel packages for three tourism hubs – inland, southern coastal and northern coastal – while positioning the region as a distinctive snowmobiling destination. Simard has recently been helping develop an innovative snowmobile circuit, which will link Mistissini, Ouje-Bougoumou and Waswanipi by a series of federated trails that will extend to a system connecting parts of southern Quebec.
“We’re trying to make a loop so everyone can benefit economically,” Simard told the Nation. “I was excited that Mistissini went ahead and bought a skidozer, a snowmobile trail groomer. Our leadership is very supportive, and they believe in tourism. I’m also developing hiking trails for self-guided tours with interpretational panels and some history.”
With Ouje’s location and architectural appeal, Simard believes his community could play a central role in attracting international tourists to the region. He grooms the mountain snowmobile trails every winter and has ideas about developing the surrounding area for hikers and nature lovers.
“There are so many things I want to do up there on that mountain – the potential is just crazy,” exclaimed Simard. “Developing more [attractions] is important to make it worthwhile to come here. There’s a lot here that the youth need to be proud of. The identity, how far we’ve came in our culture, and I really believe we need to reignite that in ourselves.”
COTA has actively encouraged interest in the industry’s opportunities through various initiatives, including a free tourism ambassador course available on the creetourism.ca website. With the support of Apatisiiwin Skills Development, it’s also enrolling team members in an Indigenous tourism microprogram at Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT) while launching a new diploma program at Cégep de Saint-Félicien in hotel and restaurant management.
“We’re taking the time to improve our skills so when the tourists do come back, we’re all on the same page of how we should develop tourism,” said McGinley. “We’re lining up to get the Cree market for next summer because we’re not sure the communities will be open for outsiders. We always travel, right? We should be having our meetings in our communities and supporting our businesses.”
While it remains uncertain when visitors will be allowed back in the territory, COTA is working with Tourism Quebec to simplify access to communities via the newly renamed Billy Diamond Highway. Besides adding blue signs to direct motorists to local accommodation and attractions, they hope to designate the highway as a “Nordic route”, similar to the province’s wine and whale routes.
To ensure the region remains visible during the current travel restrictions, COTA is promoting tourism offerings on its “Escape Like Never Before” website. The region also gained extensive visibility through this fall’s release of the Northern Flavours cookbook, a celebration of traditional Cree cooking created in partnership with Stéphane Modat, chef at Quebec City’s Château Frontenac.
This project embodies COTA’s guiding principles of sustainability and community involvement, which vaunts authentic experiences in protected natural environments. In collaboration with environmental consultants FaunENord, COTA has developed a sustainability toolkit and guidelines that prioritize low-impact travel and eco-friendly events.
Community input is integral to the creation of the Creetopia ready-to-camp tents, inspired by traditional Cree culture and architecture with space for cooking and storytelling. With the prototype launched at last year’s COTA conference, the tents should begin operating throughout the region next summer.
“Wiinipaakw Tours will have the first Creetopia site, probably in Waskaganish,” McGinley shared. “Crees can stay at the Creetopia site and take a boat tour with our Cree captains. There will probably be tours leaving out of Wemindji too because the co-op has two boats.”
To develop sustainable tourism in the coastal region, COTA is training marine captains for the Cree-owned solidarity cooperative. In Mistissini, COTA has contributed marketing expertise to the Nibiischii Corporation, which manages the community’s wildlife reserve, and developed plans for an écomusée that invites visitors to witness traditional techniques of moose-hide tanning.
“Tourists want to meet Cree people, interact with community members,” explained McGinley. “They want to learn something. We’re working with the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association to help artists or community members develop visitor experiences.”
Participating in local festivals or the creation of traditional crafts leaves visitors with a deeper appreciation for Cree culture. Grassroots initiatives like “My Mistissini Moments” use this concept by connecting visitors with fish frying or jewelry beading experiences through an interactive web platform.
“The part I love is when they feel who we are,” said Simard. “Every time I conduct tours, they feel the love here. Cree people are very giving and warm. When tourists tell me about their experience, it’s always a wow factor.”