Traditional performer Roxy Lewis recognized the value of the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre's cultural ambassador program long before the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) awarded it a special designation this month.
The program sees local First Nations youth share their unique culture and history with museum guests on interactive guided tours, and was named as one of 27 Canadian Signature Experiences by the CTC.
The honour means the museum will now be added to the CTC's major market development program, raising the international profile of the 30,000-square-foot facility that has already earned a slew of industry hardware.
Lewis, a Squamish Nation traditional performer, has been an ambassador for nearly 10 years, and has seen the impact the program has had on herself and other aboriginal youth firsthand.
"It definitely establishes a lot more confidence and pride. I joined back in 2004 and before that I was terribly terrified of public speaking and working with the general public. I could do my traditional introduction but after that I would just break down and cry, so I've definitely grown since then," she said. "It's come to the point where it's now my turn to teach and work with the youth to help them break out of their shells."
Lewis attributed the success of the ambassador tours to the diversity of her coworkers, the majority of whom are from the Squamish or Lil'wat First Nations and bring with them their own distinct cultural knowledge of traditional aboriginal practices, like dance, song, weaving and carving, for example.
The ambassador program provides experiential-based learning to aboriginal youth between the ages of 17 and 30 through industry-recognized training, exposure to a post-secondary educational environment and useful work experience at the museum.
The more than 400 graduates of the program have become accomplished cultural interpreters after researching their own background and receiving guidance from elders and community leaders. Lewis said she's always surprised to see how eager new ambassadors are to learn about their own First Nations heritage and traditions.
"Even on their first day they have so many questions about their own culture, and this is just a great step to start learning and opens so many doors for the teachers we bring in," she said.
The SLCC's executive director Casey Vanden Heuvel said the goal at the museum since opening day in 2008 has been to give guests an experience that's "more than a building and a collection of wonderful art." He sees the CTC's designation as helping to enhance Canada and Whistler's attractiveness as a global destination for visitors.
"The global exposure of the Signature Experiences program really helps boost Canada's profile because the CTC has selected these experiences to make Canada stand out from the competition," he said. "What I really want to impress is the fact that Canada is selecting the SLCC to help the country stand out from the competition, that certainly speaks well of Whistler's opportunity to allow us to stand out from the competition.
"That's what we're able to offer; that authentic, rare and valuable experience to visitors."
More than 100,000 visitors have taken the tour, which begins with traditional drumming and singing by the ambassadors, followed by a short film and a guided tour through the exhibits, canoes and carvings that fill the SLCC's Great Hall.
The CTC's most recent honour is another in a long list of accolades the museum has received. It was named as the Cultural Centre of the Year by the Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C. for two year running, as well as a National Cultural Tourism Award at the 2010 Tourism Industry Association of Canada National Awards for Tourism Excellence.
Vanden Heuvel also hopes to create a "Cultural Connector" in the village with a bridge over Fitzsimmons Creek linking the SLCC to the incoming Audain Art Museum. The $5-million bridge would extend from Olympic Plaza to the SLCC, and would include Millennium Place, the Whistler Public Library and the Whistler Museum, as proposed. So far, around 10 per cent of project funding has been secured from partners, with up to half of the total cost coming from provincial and federal sources like Aboriginal Affairs Canada.