Garry Raven of Hollow Water First Nation has spent over seventeen years as a teacher and caretaker of the land. His responsibilities lie here, so naturally he needed to build a learning centre, and started – what may seem an unlikely classroom — his own outfitting company. People from around the world, including university students and teachers, are just some of the visitors that travel to see him to experience sweat lodges, study sacred medicinal plants, and to learn about northern Aboriginal culture and its connection to the lands and waters of the boreal forest.
As a member of the board of directors for Eastside Aboriginal Sustainable Tourism Incorporated (EAST Inc.), Raven finds himself in a suitable position. EAST Inc. is a not-for-profit economic development initiative aimed at supporting sustainable economic opportunities. Created and facilitated by people from the east side region, EAST Inc. has been established to support the development and expansion of new and existing Aboriginal eco and cultural tourism businesses in balance with respect for the land, its residents and culture, on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.
“EAST Inc. is meant to find out everything about tourist development in the area so that people are prepared. We want to make sure they are consulted.” Raven continues, “Consultation is key, and to me, that is the main priority.”
Emphasis on consultations with east side communities is important to Raven especially in the wake of the east side land use planning process called Wabanong Nakaygum Okimawin (WNO) or “East Side of the Lake Governance,” which many consider a failed attempt to advance First Nations interests and protect the boreal forest in the region. Many feel the lack of action taken by the government left many east side communities and their interests underrepresented or simply excluded in the planning process.
Though EAST Inc. was not formed in response to the WNO (the WNO deals in land-use studies while EAST Inc. is strictly based in tourist development), it does hope that by going directly to the communities, people will have the chance to develop economies that suit their interests. “We start with the communities. We go and visit these people because it’s really the people we’re after.”
Sustainable eco and cultural tourism ventures include, but are not limited to: green cottage development, park and protected area creation, interpretive centres, traditional medicine harvesting, indigenous arts and crafts, fishing, photography tours, and wilderness exploration.
The premise of sustainable economic development on the east side is one that is close to the hearts of many east side communities. First Nations people depend on the resources and many want to boost economic development without sacrificing the health and ecological integrity of the lands and waters.
“In our province of Manitoba, I think more people need to experience the land. Only in that way will people feel they have any responsibility for its protection.”
As development interests, such as mining and logging, encroach on the east side landscape, it becomes more important then ever for the people who will be affected to voice their interests. EAST Inc. aspires to be the resource that provides east side residents with the tools they need to navigate towards a healthy future by increasing the number of locally-owned Aboriginal businesses and providing new tourism-related employment for its residents. Adamantly, Raven affirms, “We don’t get many chances: we only have one chance to be part of the development before government, corporations, logging companies take over. Then we’re looking at them taking all the resources. We have to be there right now. There is no second chance here.”
Raven also expresses concern that the Manitoba government lacks long-term vision. “This is virgin territory. There are no long-term plans in place. We don’t have a 20-year plan, or a 10-year plan, or even a 5-year plan. 4 years – that’s as far into the future as we go.”
In a culture that attempts to uphold the seventh generation rule, where care is taken so as not to negatively affect the quality of life for people seven generations into the future, the short-sightedness of the government that Raven refers to sis considered by some as selfish and incomprehensible.
“In our province of Manitoba, I think more people need to experience the land,” Raven contends. “Only in that way will people feel they have any responsibility for its protection.”
Raven has working knowledge of one’s personal responsibility for the Earth and its care. Elders from the countries of Canada, Mexico, and Paraguay have given him the names “Morning Star,” “Good Thunder Voice,” and “Shine.” These names are important to those who give and receive them. Being given a “spirit” name bears upon you an obligation. For Raven, his commitment lies with the eagle clan – a visionary species. “Clans, those are our teachers. The best way to protect the Earth is by way of a clan system. Under a clan representation, not only do people and ancient spirits have a voice, but animals speak too.”
Raven embraces his visionary role and applies his outfitting company as an educational tool. He hopes that people around the world will come to learn about the importance of the boreal forest – his home and classroom – so they too realize their role in its future.