Four ways to get an indigenous culture lesson while having fun in Alberta

Zoey Duncan

Travel Alberta

Mar 18, 2019 - 4 minute read

There was a time when rivers were the highways and canoes the preferred road-tripping vehicle in Alberta. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, voyageurs travelled this way, adopting the transportation methods that had been used by indigenous people for centuries for a specific purpose: to transport beaver pelts out of Alberta to Europe, where felt hats were the fashion trend of the day. That trade was a key development in the history of Canada (hence, the humble beaver as a national symbol) and wouldn’t have happened without Alberta’s indigenous people, who knew all of the best places for fur trapping, and the Metis people, who helped bridge European and indigenous cultures.

The Metis are a distinct group who today can trace their ancestry back to the early Europeans who started families with indigenous women. As the fur trade expanded to northeast Alberta, many Metis made permanent homes near the same rivers they’d travelled. Now, that same area is ready share a piece of that history.

Canoeing on Smoky Lake

Metis Crossing

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The Victoria Trail Voyageur Experience

Think you can paddle 40 strokes per minute in a canoe like the voyageurs did on the North Saskatchewan River? Here’s a chance to test yourself, by time travelling to two historical sites in Alberta, with a canoe between them. 

First up, it’s Metis Crossing, where you’ll get schooled in Metis culture circa the 1880s. Get ready to learn to dance a Red River jig, set a beaver trap, tour a trapper’s tent, try dried bison and add your mark to a Metis infinity sash under the watchful eye of your costumed interpreters. 

Then, your Haskin Canoe guide takes over on the river (but you should probably pitch in on the paddling), where you might spot a beaver—or at least its home—and maybe learn a French voyageur song. 

Your destination is Victoria Settlement, where you’ll exit your canoe and find out what it was like for Europeans and Metis to work for, live next to, or trade with, the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Victoria in the 1890s. Here, you’ll meet your guides, dressed in handmade fashions straight from the pages of a 19th century Eaton’s department-store catalogue. They’ll teach you how Metis and European voyageurs carried 90-pound loads of furs with a strap secured around their forehead and tour you through original buildings, including the 1864 Clerk’s Quarters and 1906 Methodist church. You might learn a few things, like that fur trading companies preferred to hire voyageurs who couldn’t swim—they were less likely to take risks on the rivers that could lead to damaged goods. Or the tales of the only two voyageurs to ever carry five of those 90-pound packs at once.

Smoky Lake

Smoky Lake

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Metis Crossing

Metis Crossing is built on the site of historical river lots that Metis people settled in the 1880s. The narrow river lots were designed to give each family access to the river, space for a garden and home, some grazing and farmland, plus forested areas for firewood and building supplies. 

Booking the Victoria Trail Voyageur Experience isn’t the only way to check out Metis Crossing. You can drop by to explore a refurbished original 1885 home, sample tea made with locally foraged ingredients, try weaving on a loom, and hear stories of the people who lived here. Or stay for a night or two by the river in a fur trapper’s tent, a reconstruction of the mobile homes fur trappers used, complete with comfy beds.

Smoky Lake

Lac La Biche Canadian Native Friendship Centre

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Cultural Comfort Camping

How about some island hopping? Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park is an island you can camp on. One of those camping options is a comfortable tipi, with wooden floors, real beds, and a nearby private kitchen and bathroom. You can even rent iconic Hudson’s Bay blankets for those beds if you like, to get that fur trade-era feeling. The comfort camping tipis were built in partnership between Alberta Parks and the Lac La Biche Canadian Native Friendship Centre

There’s regular cultural programming at the provincial park’s amphitheatre thanks to the friendship centre, including guided crafts like beaded jewelry, storytelling, Metis jigging lessons, and an introduction to medicinal plants. Plus, learn how to cook bannock bread over the fire. Bannock is an indigenous adaptation of a baking soda biscuit bread that can be traced back to Scottish recipes. Some of these cultural programs can also be booked right to your tipi site by contacting the friendship centre.

Smoky Lake

Buckingham House & Fort George Interpretive Centre

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Fort George and Buckingham House

Type Fort George and Buckingham House into your GPS to find your way to the actual spot where competing trading posts—the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company—opened six months apart in 1792. 

The museum itself is packed with recreated artifacts to illustrate the effect of these forts and the fur trade in general on the Cree and other indigenous people in the area, plus audio and visual storytelling. Check out what the two companies traded with the indigenous people of the area, including animal pelts, pots and pans, blankets, fire-starting kits and more. And, if you’re in the midst of a road trip, stretch your legs out in nature on the interpretive trail. It’s about a kilometer-long walk through a forest of birch trees and leads to the former sites of the forts.

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