Nicole Guertin believes experiences designed to bring together people of different cultures have never been more prescient.
A collection of new cultural experiences being developed in Timiskaming is aiming to boost tourism in the area, while bridging the gap between cultures that call the region home.
The concept for Cultural Crossroads: 101 Experiences, devised by the Haileybury entrepreneur, predates the Indigenous and Black Lives Matter movements currently coursing through Canada and the U.S.
“Now this project is so much needed, because we’re talking about racism,” she said of the current public discourse. “But there’s not too many projects out there, so what do we do to decrease the racism in our community?”
Considered micro-enterprises for their relatively low startup investment, cultural experiences can be offered by anyone with knowledge of a particular topic and the time and willingness to provide them.
It could be as simple as teaching a craft, foraging for wild foods, or leading a bicycle tour, pointing out notable architecture or sharing the history of the area, she noted.
In addition to running her Presidents’ Suites historical homes, Guertin herself regularly conducts walking tours of downtown Haileybury, recalling the story of the great fire of 1922 that wiped out most of the town, followed by its remarkable story of recovery.
“You don’t need to have capital, so it’s fairly accessible for everyone, compared to the (former) Shania Twain Centre or the Canadian Polar Bear Habitat, (major tourist attractions) which take a lot of money to keep going,” she said.
Through partnerships with local organizations and Indigenous communities, the goal is to develop 101 cultural experiences for the area, with Guertin hosting sessions to teach people how to develop their own experience.
She received $49,750 from the Office of Francophone Affairs in support of the project in 2019.
Part of the process includes what Guertin calls a “passion fair.”
Similar to a night of speed dating, each person spends three minutes with another person, speaking about their passion. After completing a half-dozen meetings in one evening, a person will have a better idea of whether or not developing a cultural experience is for them.
“Even if they stop after the passion fair, at least they’ve already met maybe 24 people in the community,” Guertin reasoned.
The experiences serve to melt away stereotypes and assumptions, paving the way to connect with others in the community, she added.
“If you’ve never been with a First Nation person, never had a discussion, if you go foraging for mushrooms for three hours, you get to connect with them, and then all of a sudden the colour disappears,” she said.
In addition to working with local Indigenous communities, Guertin has been reaching out to newcomers calling the North home, many of them students who have arrived here for their postsecondary studies.
In 2019, for example, Northern College in Timmins welcomed 500 Indian students to its campus, many of whom later formed their own cricket league.
Guertin believes it’s that kind of ingenuity that creates a great interaction: a student could teach others the rules of the game, people could go watch a match, and afterwards, participants could sit together for a conversation over tea and learn more about Indian culture.
“We think this is one way to help make our community more welcoming,” she said.
Though the arrival of COVID-19 has delayed things somewhat, Guertin said 10 experiences, available through Airbnb Experiences, have already been developed, and more are in the works.
She’s also looking to issue a corporate challenge, under which one employee from each participating business would sign up to take part in a cultural experience, bringing with them someone newly arrived in the community.
With large gatherings prohibited, travel restrictions in place, and tourists choosy about where they’re spending their money, Guertin believes the popularity of multi-million-dollar tourist attractions is waning in favour of smaller, more intimate experiences.
This is where the North can shine, she said, and how the region can rebuild its tourism industry post-COVID-19.
“People are looking for really small groups and they want to connect with locals,” she said.
“There is interest, and people are ready to pay for that authentic experience.”