Kevin Eshkawkogan: ‘Giigidoh Ninii’ is transforming the lives of Indigenous People

Currently, there are around 476 million Indigenous Peoples globally, over 90 countries accounting for approx. 6% of the global population. Despite this, Indigenous People often lack formal recognition—even in 2020—there is a noticeable gap in inequality and exclusion. Raised among these environments is Kevin Eshkawkogan (President and CEO of Indigenous Tourism Ontario), who has closely witnessed the disparity and now is on a mission to improve the lives of Indigenous People and communities.

Kevin’s journey begin humbly on the grounds of a First Nation Community to working in dusty sawmills in Northern Ontario to becoming the voice of Canada’s largest Indigenous tourism Industry.

Giigidoh Ninii – The Man who speaks for the people

Kevin’s interesting voyage started in the year 2002. Since then, he has been a key player in the development of Indigenous cultural tourism in Ontario. In 2008, after Ontario’s two Regional Aboriginal Tourism Associations ceased operations, Kevin and a few trusted colleagues developed the framework for what would be the first grassroots-driven Ontario strategy to unite the Ontario Indigenous tourism industry.

Over the next decade, Aboriginal Tourism Ontario incubated within the Great Spirit Circle Trail, established a corporation, and eventually rebranded as Indigenous Tourism Ontario (ITO). ITO became recognized by Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments as Ontario’s first and only dedicated voice for the Ontario Indigenous tourism industry. Also, he was an integral part of a national group of grassroots tourism leaders who established the Aboriginal Tourism Marketing Circle which evolved into the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada and eventually rebranded as the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.

Kevin has been working tirelessly to unite Indigenous tourism providers, grow market reach, and bring meaningful employment opportunities to Ontario. Being a mentor and visionary, he works closely with the community to ensure sustainable and organic growth within the Indigenous tourism industry. For over 15 years, he has provided leadership and has imparted his guidance to countless individuals throughout Ontario, across Canada, and around the globe. In 2015, Kevin was named the Ontario Tourism Champion of the Year and in 2020, ITO and its partner Destination Northern Ontario, were awarded the Ontario Culinary Tourism Leadership award.

Outlining Triumph

In 2016, Kevin and ITO began their journey with a mission to improve the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous people through the tourism industry and provide a unified voice to Canada’s largest Indigenous tourism industry. “Our mission is to assist Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs with programs that build capacity to produce high-quality products and services,” adds Kevin. Today, the success of a company is highly regarded, only if it has created a positive impact on the people, the environment, and the economy and fortunately, ITO has been able to tick all three boxes.

Nevertheless, ITO believes that true success will be achieved by creating a vehicle for Indigenous people to tell their story on their terms within the tourism industry while also improving the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous people. This success will be achieved through mutually beneficial partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous tourism operators. Ultimately, making Ontario the most culturally and economically rich region in the world.

Empowering the Indigenous Tourism Industry

Statistically, Indigenous people own, occupy, or use a quarter of the world’s surface area, but they safeguard 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. They hold ancestral expertise and knowledge of the lands. Kevin adds, “As Indigenous people, no one knows these lands better. We are the original tour guides of these lands and have been doing international tourism for hundreds, if not thousands of years.” Indigenous people share their homelands with the world. Acknowledging these facts, the modern tourism era has learned to embrace the Indigenous tourism experience and this demand has been growing for decades.

In order to support the Indigenous tourism businesses, ITO’s offerings are contemplative of the needs of the Indigenous business owners. Initially, ITO focused on Cultural Authenticity, Marketing support, and collaborating on training opportunities. For years, ITO has fruitfully evolved these initial offerings and added Product Development to the portfolio. Alongside, it is also leveraging technology and promoting Indigenous Food Tourism to expand the portfolio further.

Trust and Credibility

Over the years, ITO has successfully prospered and Kevin credits the genuine relationships and partnerships of the journey. He affirms, “To navigate rough and unfamiliar waters, we need many strong paddlers.” Trust and Credibility are one of the important pillars of any successful venture. ITO too has paddled through unfamiliar waters with the support of trustworthy partners. Kevin has always stressed promoting and embracing the cultural ‘teachings’, and as an Indigenous organization, Kevin and his team have always instilled them in all their work. These core values have been one of the foundations for building such strong partnerships.

The grip on Cultural Teachings

“Others may not always agree with you but if they know you have integrity, they will respect you and will work with and sometimes even follow you,” asserts Kevin. His advice for the aspirants that wish to be an influential leader is they must always embrace their core values and stick to them. As a leader, one has to face several hurdles and work meticulously to establish themselves. Kevin till date encounters people that doubt the vision, notwithstanding this he keeps moving forward. “Believing in yourself and your ideas is the first step and ‘going to school’ on the experts and the leaders who came before you are things one must do,” he exclaims.

The advice for the entrepreneurs is to embrace the drive, be persistent, and to weather economic downturns. And most importantly always build an entrepreneurial network that one can rely on for profound advice. With time one has to constantly learn the new and unlearn the old. Kevin and his team have learned a tremendous amount from the people who led before them and currently are evolving their work further so that the next generation can grow on their work.

Continuing the Journey

Though the COVID-19 outbreak has shunted the growth of the tourism industry, Kevin and his team are discovering new ways to keep up with the new normal. As aforementioned, ITO has embraced technology and Indigenous Food Tourism as two key themes. Interestingly, ITO is the first region in the world to develop a regional Indigenous Food Tourism Strategy. Furthermore, ITO is also implementing their ‘Continuing our Journey – 2020-2025 Strategic & COVID-19 Recovery Plan’.

2020 has given the much-needed push towards digitalization. Keeping in line with the tech revolution, ITO is looking forward to developing Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Indigenous Tourism Experiences. This approach will help Indigenous tourism operators uniquely reach their visitors. Kevin also outlines the plans for 2021, stating, “We will embark on the implementation of the world’s first Indigenous Culinary Tourism strategy to grow Indigenous culinary experiences in Ontario.” The team will also focus on developing an innovative Traveller/Experience Provider matching model that will better embrace Indigenous philosophies (i.e. Environmental) and redefine how Indigenous operators will be involved in the current global tourism model.

“All of this will be strategically braided together to revolutionize how Indigenous people in our region will tell their story to the world,” concludes Kevin.

Quote : “When the messaging and intent is ‘right’, the key is to be persistent and you will be heard.”