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Sault entrepreneurs immerse outdoor enthusiasts in First Nations culture

Launched in 2021, Thrive Tours brings Indigenous-led guided tourism experience to Northern Ontario
Brad Robinson and Amanda Cora (in rear of the canoes) launched award-winning Thrive Tours in July 2021. (Supplied)

It's been a whirlwind past few months for Amanda and Brad Robinson, the Sault Ste. Marie owners and operators of Thrive Tours.

The entrepreneurs were among the award finalists for the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) awards and recently garnered a local award from the Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce as being a Rising Star among the community's new businesses.

The startup tourism company provides a new offering in delivering an Indigenous eco-tourism experience for outdoor and adventure enthusiasts.

Their services include guided tours, culinary tourism, and cultural events, like how to pow wow, for small to large group tours. During the winter, Thrive Tours focuses on snowshoeing as their main activity. In the summer, tours include kayaking, hiking, and camping.

The two had dated briefly in college. On one of their dates, they had Chinese food and ended the meal with fortune cookies.

“My fortune cookie said, ‘You will build a thriving business,’” said Cora. “I tucked it away in my wallet and only found it recently. Here we are now, 14 years later, together in life and in business.”

Robinson added: “She found it after we’d named the business. It was meant to be.”

The two currently share most business responsibilities, but as they hire interns and staff, Cora sees herself focusing mostly on the business side, while Robinson will be hands on, leading the tours.

“We see our tours as a chance to connect to our surroundings and culture,” said Robinson. “We start with offering tobacco to the land and water before we go out kayaking, for example, to help people think about their relationship with the land and water and how to make that more impactful.”

They spend a significant amount of time marketing the business, networking with possible partners, travelling to shows, on social media, and submitting award and funding applications.

They hired local firm N1 Solutions to create their marketing plan. “Our Indigenous tourism business advisor at ITO, Jennifer King-Callon, also works at N1, and the team has been really good to us,” Robinson said. “It was important to us to use a local company, and with their work, we’re in a good position to be able to propel our business to the next level.”

After a FAM (familiarization) tour to the Sault, sponsored by the City of Sault Ste. Marie, which was looking to attract Indigenous tourism businesses, the couple decided to pick up roots from Sudbury and relocate. They moved to Sault Ste. Marie in January 2021 and started offering tours in July.

Thrive Tours received $5,000 from Millworks Centre for Entrepreneurship, and another $5,000 from the Skode program. “We were also a runner-up in the Pow Wow Pitch competition, and will try again next year,” said Robinson.

The couple said that Jonview Canada has added them to their program list of top Canadian tourism attractions. “They sell tourism internationally. It’s a really big deal,” said Cora. “At the end of May we’ll be taking appointments from around the world.”

Before coming to the Sault, Robinson was the cultural resource coordinator at N’Swakamok Native Friendship Centre in Sudbury. Cora had an outdoor tourism business in Sudbury after graduating from Cambrian College’s nature-based adventure tourism management program. Both are certified interpretive guides.

To decide what types of tours to offer, Cora and Robinson looked at what people were asking for. 

“Indigenous tourism is relatively new, but growing fast,” said Robinson. “While the land stewardship and Indigenous culture pieces are the same across tours, we try to meet the guests where they are at physically, so tours look different based on guests and abilities.”

As the mother of five, Cora finds inspiration in empowering other women to get their kids outdoors. She notes that it is easy for her, because she’s done it her whole life, including homeschooling her children; spending a significant time outdoors. Her children are Ojibwe.

Robinson said that his motivation is from his father who was a survivor of the Sixties Scoop and he had a hard time acknowledging his heritage at first.

“Now I can help families reconnect to the land and water and learn about Indigenous culture,” said Robinson.

“I’m a member of the Oneida First Nation, have a degree from Laurentian University in Native Studies, and am part of the Black Bull Moose Singers. I bring a drum and integrate songs in the tours; a lot of good comes out of song.”