Kevin Eshkawkogan knows the importance of this issue, as it’s one close to his own heart. A member of the M’Chigeeng First Nation with ties to Wiikwemkoong Unceded Indian Reserve and Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, all of Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Kevin is the President and CEO of Indigenous Tourism Ontario. He was a key proponent of establishing the Great Spirit Circle Trail, and since 2003, has been working tirelessly to develop Indigenous Cultural Tourism.
Kevin is also a key proponent of the people behind ITO getting involved in this year’s Celebration of Indigenous Cultures, and was kind enough to speak with me over the phone as he drove to North Bay, Ontario.
“We’re (Ontario) the largest Indigenous tourism economy in the country, we contribute over $622 million and over 12,000 jobs to the economy” said Eshkawkogan, but in listening to him, I could tell that those numbers were not his sole priority.
“We’re basically helpers, and what we’re trying to do is help grow the economy by growing Indigenous tourism. We try to help grow the marketing and branding of the businesses that are ready for us to do that with them. I say ‘with them’ because we don’t do it for them, we work in partnership, rather than just giving them a handout”.
A man whose passion for helping the Indigenous community was palpable over the phone, it is fitting that Kevin’s Spirit Name translates to “Man Who Speaks For the People”. With this in mind, it was an obvious choice for him to leap at the opportunity to be a part of this event.
“Dustin Peltier contacted us. He’s Anishnabek from Wiikwemkoong. We’ve crossed paths, he used to work in the tourism industry, and now he’s working in Ottawa for the Senators”, Kevin explained, “Simply enough, he’s aware of some of the work we do on a provincial level, and he’s a driving force for a large component of the planning of this Indigenous celebration”.
With Peltier connecting them, Eshkawkogan and Indigenous Tourism Ontario agreed to be the event’s largest sponsor, in order to help bring awareness to other Indigenous cultural events throughout the province.
“We’re having a Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival in Northern Ontario and we are supporting the growth of Summer Solstice Ottawa as the premier Southern Ontario event. So this opportunity with the Senators came up in a timely fashion, because we’re beginning our campaign on promoting those two events”, said Kevin. “It’s all about celebrating Indigenous cultures, all Indigenous cultures, including First Nations, Inuit, and Metis.”
Encouragingly, Kevin stressed how pleasant the Senators had been to work with. The relationship between the two parties was previously existing, as when Kevin was coaching minor hockey with the Manitoulin Panthers, the Senators would host them for exhibition games.
“There’s a lot of positivity around our experiences with the Senators. It seemed to be a very open and accommodating environment. We jumped at the opportunity that Dustin provided for us, we’re very excited about being involved”.
But of course, it’s still all about giving back.
“We were given some tickets as a part of our sponsorship package”, Eshkawkogan said, “we received 100 tickets, and we’ve donated 50 to a minor sports association on the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Indian Reserve, and 50 to the Manitoulin Region through the United Chief and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising. Both entities are renting a bus each, and are bringing down community members from 7 First Nations to check out the game this weekend.”
For Indigenous people in these types of rural communities, the opportunity to experience NHL hockey is a rare one. So, to not only get the chance, but also see their culture celebrated on a national broadcast, means the world to Eshawkogan.
“Indigenous people going to see this game are going to feel so much pride. Our people, and myself included, will get to see the Indigenous culture put to the forefront in a very positive manner, in front of the best hockey league in the world”.
For Kevin, events like these are a long time coming. Tributes like this are part of a provincial tourism strategy he was instrumental in developing over a decade ago, in order to raise awareness of Indigenous cultures through the tourism industry. In time, it has also aligned with truth, reconciliation, and understanding philosophies that are more common today.
On a personal level, it means something truly special to him.
“Growing up, I never saw Indigenous people pushed to the forefront in a positive manner”, he said, “and now to see celebrations like this, with an Indigenous sponsor like ITO, you could never have imagined that. You can’t even describe it, it’s very uplifting in a lot of different ways, for a lot of different people.”
With the ultimate goal being understanding, I asked Kevin how events such as this could help hockey’s current issues within its own culture.
“Hockey culture and Indigenous culture, with the various traumas that have happened over the decades, there’s a lot of similarities there.” said Kevin, taking care not to minimize the suffering of his people. “When it comes to racial, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, we can really relate to those things going on in hockey culture right now, because we’ve gone through them as well.”
Because of this, Kevin sees events likes this as a way to help move the sport forward.
“We need to shed light on what’s happened, and try to find positive solutions. We need to find a way to heal, and help each other.”
On the flip side, Eshkawkogan also believes that hockey can help Canada’s struggling Indigenous communities as well, by providing even just a little bit of positivity.
“For a lot of Indigenous kids”, he says “hockey is sometimes their only escape. That one hour at practice is, in some cases, and I’m not being dramatic here, keeping kids alive.”
While he has been encouraged by the response to such events, Eshkawkogan also believes there is more work to be done.
“It would be fantastic to see more of these events done, led by major professional sports teams”, he said. “Not because it’s the trendy thing to do, but because it’s the right thing to do. There’s a lot of exciting things happening on this front with the Senators.”
Kevin believes that even simple things, like land acknowledgements before games, would go a long way towards building positive relationships in Canada, and help educate Canadian hockey fans on an important piece of Canadian history. Of course, though, they must be followed up with action.
Listening to the way that he spoke about hockey being as an escape from trauma, I found myself moved. The trauma that the hockey community has seen over the last little while obviously doesn’t compare to that faced by Canada’s Indigenous peoples, but it’s clear that the way forward for both sides is by embracing each other, and seeking understanding.
“The one thing that I would like the average Canadian hockey fan to take away from this celebration, is that hockey can bring us together, and we’re ultimately in this together. The beautiful Indigenous cultures in Canada tell an amazing story and the time is now to have Indigenous people tell their stories on their terms”, Kevin told me. “We need to find that common ground, whether it’s playing the game together or enjoying the game together, whatever it is, let’s simply be good neighbours to each other. Let’s focus on our commonalities, rather than our differences.”
It’s events like Ottawa’s Celebration of Indigenous Cultures, that will help lead the way to a brighter future for not just Indigenous people, but all Canadians.