Many visitors to British Columbia know they can experience Aboriginal culture in communities within the province’s thick forests and stunning coastlines. Yet, Vancouver provides the chance to immerse yourself in First Nations’ life unlike any other urban centre in North America.
With more than 23,000 residents who identify themselves as First Nations people—and another 15,000-plus who are Métis or Inuit—the Vancouver area has an Aboriginal population with fascinating history and culture that exists among the city’s high-rises, shopping centres, and entertainment facilities. In fact, travellers can book a cultural getaway package focused on Aboriginal experiences in Vancouver—including many of the ones listed here.
Where to Stay: Skwachàys Lodge (321 West Pender Street) is near the heart of Chinatown and steps from Gastown. The people of the Squamish First Nation named the 18-suite hotel after the traditional designation for this area at the head of False Creek that was once teeming with salmon and sturgeon. A stay at Skwachàys provides much more than a comfortable bed. You’ll be able to interact with artists-in-residence, dine with locals from the city’s Aboriginal community, view art of the Coast Salish people, and perhaps even participate in a smudge ceremony.
Where to Eat: Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro (1128 West Broadway #7) offers arguably the finest First Nations dining experience in Canada. The restaurant, co-owned by a member of the Nuxalk Nation, once listed among the annual TopRestaurantsInCanada.com rankings and serves authentic cuisine focused on the staples of the Aboriginal diet—salmon, prepared in a variety of ways, and flatbread called bannock.
A canoe from the Haida people of the northwest Pacific coast hangs from the ceiling while original First Nations art adds to the authentic atmosphere. Along with salmon, menu items include game sausage, boar meatballs, and bison back ribs. Bannock Tacos are made with organic greens, tomatoes, onions, cheese, and sour cream with options that include bison, boar, elk, game sausage, or vegetarian. Most dinner entrees cost less than $30.
What to See: When you arrive at the Vancouver International Airport, the art of Bill Reid greets you. The massive bronze sculpture called the Jade Canoe, depicting Haida ancestors sailing in their traditional vessel, is a favourite piece of travellers. It’s also an introduction to the work of one of Canada’s most important artists. Reid, whose mother was from the Haida Nation and father from the United States, produced more than 1,500 artworks during his career.
The Bill Reid Gallery (639 Hornby Street) celebrates his Haida-inspired creations and offers educational information on the importance of First Nations art. The gallery is also home to featured exhibitions, with the latest, Xi xanya dzam: Those who are amazing at making things, opening to the public on April 5th.
Another stop to learn about Aboriginal culture is the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (6393 Northwest Marine Drive). Its exhibits focus on understanding global cultures, including Aboriginal people throughout Canada.
Close to the Museum of Anthropology is the Musqueam Cultural Centre Gallery (4000 Musqueam Avenue). It includes interpretive kiosks and guided tours about the history and culture of the Musqueam First Nation.
You don’t need to step inside a facility to find First Nations culture in Vancouver. The Stanley Park Totem Poles are the most-visited attraction in British Columbia. The nine poles, completed in 2008, depict legends from Coast Salish mythology.
One of Vancouver’s most photographed landmarks is the large Inukshuk on English Bay. Created by artist Alvin Kanak, the Inukshuk is a traditional symbol of the Inuit people and was featured prominently during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Where to Shop: The Coastal Peoples Fine Art Galleries (312 Water Street) houses handcrafted paintings, sculptures, and crafts, as well as baskets, glassware, jewelry, and more. It’s one of the most distinctive shops in Vancouver.
On Granville Island, you’ll find two First Nations galleries—Spirits of the North and Eagle Spirit Gallery. Both offer high-quality original art for sale. On the North Shore, the Khot-la-cha Art Gallery and Gift Shop (270 Whonoak Road, West Vancouver) is on Squamish Nation territory and features native art from around the province.
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