By Breanne Massey
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The voices of Indigenous tourism operators in the Kootenays may be feeling a sense of solidarity thanks to the results of a recent provincial election for a new board.

On Nov. 25, Indigenous Tourism BC (ITBC) hosted its first-ever virtual Annual General Meeting (AGM) to celebrate the resilience and creativity of entrepreneurs with an emphasis on Pulling Together for Recovery as a theme for this year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the recent AGM, Ktunaxa member Jared Teneese landed a seat as the newest Kootenay Rockies Regional Representative on the ITBC’s Board of Directors.

“I was surprised to get in, if I’m speaking honestly,” he told the Pioneer in an exclusive interview, “but I’m happy to be in, (that’s) for sure.”

As a newly elected member of the ITBC Board of Directors, Teneese hopes to use the opportunity awarded by his new role to help to advocate for Kootenay-based Indigenous tourism operators. Teneese hopes to raise awareness among the communities that he serves to keep the doors of his peers businesses while making complex information more easily digestible for his network.

“The information is out there but it’s so fragmented that it’s hard to understand. We want to make sure smaller tourism operators know how to go about (getting help),” said Teneese. “A lot of businesses are shutting their doors right and left… A large percentage of First Nations’ stores are shutting down, and we want to focus on how we can stop that (from happening) because that’s the first thing people usually say – if only I had known my favourite (business) was in trouble, I would’ve shown my support. We want to get information about where they can go to get help so that doesn’t (continue to) happen.”

After living in Alberta, Ontario and B.C, Teneese remains a firm believer that home, the unceded territory in the East Kootenay, remains one of the most beautiful places to visit in Canada.

“I think there’s a lot of things within the East Kootenay (region) that needs to be promoted and talked about. We have a beautiful area… Nothing beats the Kootenays.”

He added, “It’s been a tough year in general for tourism, but this year in particular, during COVID-19, has been very difficult.”

However, Teneese believes there’s value in supporting local tourism operators from the region and hopes to find creative ways to mitigate the risk of unemployment for Indigenous tourism operators due to the harsh realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He explained that the Ktunaxa Nation Council (KNC) recently announced that Skinku¢ Treasures will be selling culturally distinctive gifts such as books, jewelry, purses, moccasins, giftware and beading supplies nearby in the Tamarack Centre location in Cranbrook.

“We can’t afford to lose any more businesses,” said Teneese. “That’s why for us, opening up Skinku¢ Treasures in the (Tamarack Mall) as a third location was such a big deal for us (this winter). Our KNC building shut down in March, so we had no business since the end of March – no sales, no tours, no culture, no nothing – so we wanted to focus on what we could do to support our people. It was a risk in the pandemic, but it’s been a success I think, for getting our people out to work with the community, and to get our crafts out there. (The economy) can be down, but we’ve got to find a way. There’s a lot at the end of the tunnel.”

Teneese remains optimistic about networking with ITBC members and viewing some of the business from the Kootenay region, as well as through B.C. when the COVID-19 pandemic will be controlled, and it will be safe to do so.

“Once things get back to semi-normal, I’d love to meet other members of the board and meet the people that we represent,” he explained, noting that the landscape for tourism may be changed forever after the global health care crisis.