Lyle Donald wants all Indigenous people to feel welcome in Edmonton, because he didn’t always feel that way growing up.
The president of the Indigenous Edmonton Entertainment Group Association (IEEGA) is gearing up to put on the second annual Indigenous Experience exhibit at this year’s K-Days festival to showcase Cree, Métis, Inuit and all First Nation culture.
“I’ve lived here in the city all my life. I went through the racism,” Donald says, recounting his experience at Our Lady of Mount Carmel school in the Queen Alexandra neighbourhood. “When I started school, the residential schools were just closing down, so Canada put nuns from there [to teach] in the Catholic schools in the early ’60s. And the attitude never changed from the residential schools. As Indigenous kids, a lot of us were embarrassed and put down by a lot of the nuns.”
Donald, whose dad was Scottish Métis and mom was French Métis, has worked with various Indigenous community groups over the years, including serving as president of the Métis Nation of Alberta in the mid-1990s. He’s also a renowned dancer, having travelled and performed as a member of Edmonton Métis Traditional Dancers for nearly four decades.
Donald says the purpose of IEEGA is “to promote our culture and to help Indigenous people show their worth and our contribution to the urban setting here in Edmonton,” which is something last year’s Indigenous Exhibit did in a big way, drawing 15,000-20,000 visitors daily.
The pavilion in the Edmonton Expo Centre has a major educational component in addition to crafts and vendors, with storyboards on Truth and Reconciliation, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Treaty agreements, the Sixties Scoop and other topics.
“So a lot of things non-native people want to learn about and understand about Indigenous people are there, and also we have people that are at the booth to talk about it and people want to ask questions and that kind of stuff,” Donald says.
The pavilion will also include nightly performances by Indigenous entertainers, as well as Indigenous cuisine, arts and crafts, fashion shows, teepees and a career fair. On Indigenous Day, July 24, Explore Edmonton, which is partnering with IEEGA, will host mainstage acts at the Northlands racetrack. New at this year’s exhibit will be weekend talent shows, with a kids’ showcase on the first weekend and adult showcase the second weekend.
“We’re about the only event that’s in the Expo Centre that has a variety of different showcases and events going on at one time,” he says. “But the main thing for us is to educate people to learn about different things that happen in our communities.”
Launched in partnership with Explore Edmonton, the exhibit will also showcase other Indigenous-centred tourist attractions across Alberta, with booths to educate people about spots around Edmonton and in different regions of the province, “kind of like a museum or gallery with a lot of great attractions.” One nearby example is Métis Crossing in Smoky Lake, where visitors can take in a cultural heritage centre, a wildlife park with white bison, and a new boutique hotel with quilts made by elders in the community.
Shae Bird, CEO of Indigenous Tourism Alberta (ITA), says Indigenous tourism was the fastest-growing tourism sector before the COVID-19 pandemic, and is on the rebound now. He says Indigenous-centred attractions can contribute to revitalization of culture and language, and facilitate a more complete understanding of Alberta’s history.
ITA is targeting tourists across Canada but also in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Japan and Germany. In October, National Geographic named Alberta’s “Indigenous tourism outfitters” as one of its “25 breathtaking places and experiences for 2023,” the only Canadian destination on the list.
“In the past, the Indigenous story hasn’t necessarily been told through an Indigenous lens or an authentic narrative,” Bird says.
“We have very diverse groups of Indigenous peoples across the province, all with their own history, culture, protocols, those types of things. And we also see huge demand from those international markets for those authentic Indigenous experiences.”
IEEGA’s next major undertaking, slated for Family Day 2025, will be a three-day event called kiyânaw (a Cree word meaning “all of us”). Donald says it will be like an indoor Edmonton Heritage festival (formerly Heritage Days), encouraging all cultural groups to share traditions, music, food and crafts at community and church halls across Edmonton. Donald says he thinks attitudes towards Indigenous people have changed since his early years, but there are still negative stereotypes floating around that he hopes to challenge through his work with IEEGA.
“I still think we need events like this because we have a lot of new people that are moving to this country and there’s still [ideas] out there that we’re not educated, that we live off the system,” he says.
“What we want to do is change the attitude and promote our culture and how we play a role in this country here.”
K-Days will run from July 21-30 at the Expo Centre and Exhibition Grounds.
This article appears in the June 2023 issue of Edify