Kevin Eshkawkogan rose from the grounds of a First Nation community to the dusty sawmills of a small Northern Ontario town to become the president and CEO of Indigenous Tourism Ontario – the voice for Canada’s largest Indigenous tourism industry. He leads of group of trailblazers on a mission to improve the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous people and communities. This work is based on collaboration and ultimately is to the benefit of all – Indigenous and non-Indigenous. We sat down with Kevin to learn more about his story.
Your personal experiences growing up led you to a career in the Indigenous nonprofit sector and eventually leading the establishing of Indigenous Tourism Ontario. Tell us your story.
First off, I am husband, father, brother, son, nephew, uncle, friend, and ultimately, I am Anishnabek. I initially mainly grew up in two First Nation communities – the Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation and the M’Chigeeng First Nation – both reservations on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. With my mother from Aundeck Omni Kaning, my step-father from MChigeeng , and my father from Wiikwemikoong, my family is a large one that spans across and beyond Manitoulin Island. I grew up on there and we have always thought of Manitoulin as our home until in the eighties we moved. Typically, back then (and not much has changed since), a lot of First Nation communities had high unemployment rates. When I was 9, my family got tired of working seasonally while going on unemployment in the Winter. We moved away because my parents wanted year-round work and to create a better life for our family. We moved to Chapleau, Ontario, where the railroad, MNR, and sawmills dominated the economy. My family worked in the sawmills for 30 years, as did I for a short few years before I eventually went away to college and university.
While in Chapleau, we lost access to elements of our life such as a family network, language speakers, and culture. In Chapleau, I remember taking an Ojibwe class at our school before the school day started. It was great but it felt like we were in hiding practicing our language and cultural ways before any of the other children and teachers showed up for their day. We faced racism on many occasions and did our best not to let it bother us and stayed focused on improving ourselves and our life. But not all was bad, we had many very positive experiences in Chapleau and it is a place that still holds a special place in all of our hearts. We learned about what is expected of people in non-Indigenous communities in the workplace and the Francophone culture. We met numerous great people, played a lot of hockey, and were able to connect to the land, which there is plenty of. We found the positive.
In 2002, I started working with the Waubetek Business Development Corporation as a business development intern. Helping Business Development Officers help Indigenous entrepreneurs start or expand their businesses was gratifying. Although I planned to study law, I was so inspired by the work I was doing. While working at Waubetek, I volunteered to help with international marketing for a regional tourism Initiative – the Great Spirit Circle Trail. After a few years, I moved over full time, and eventually became the CEO for the for-profit and not-for-profit entities. Seventeen years later, I’m still doing this type of work to help the people. All of this has led me to fulfilling my life purpose of helping others. Through our ceremony known as ‘Fasting,' it was revealed to me that my role in life is to simply help as many others as possible. With whatever I have available to me, in all that I do, I am helping in both my personal and professional life.
Tell us a little bit more about your professional background.
Since I was 19 years old, I’ve helped establish, grow and govern almost 50 corporations in various sectors. My ‘expertise’ is in nonprofit corporations and helping Indigenous groups get involved in the economy – typically through tourism. In my work, I’ve been privileged to work alongside numerous partners from across Canada, together, we established a national organization now known as the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada - an organization that supports Indigenous tourism operators across Canada. Establishing a voice for the Indigenous tourism industry in Ontario (Indigenous Tourism Ontario) is another initiative I am very proud to have helped. It is rapidly growing and has incredible momentum right now.
What is Indigenous Tourism Ontario (ITO)?
To understand ITO, one needs to understand that Indigenous people are the original tour guides in these lands. There is no one who knows these lands better than the Indigenous people. These lands are our homelands, and we know them like the back of our hands. Incorporating the Indigenous story on Indigenous terms into tourism offerings enhances the visitor experience to Turtle Island (North America). Built to serve Ontario Indigenous tourism businesses, ITO helps operators build their businesses. Ontario is home to over 550 Indigenous tourism businesses that contribute over $622 million to the GDP, and create almost 13,000 jobs. This helps improve the socio-economic conditions for Indigenous people. With adequate help and support, we will survive and become stronger than ever. We are resilient, the tourism industry is resilient, by combining the two, you have a group with a relentless core.
Indigenous tourism businesses cover all sectors of the tourism industry. They sell Indigenous experiences including various cultural experiences, ATV tours, food experiences, teepee camping, hotels, lodges, casinos, cabin rentals, and everything in between. Indigenous culinary experiences are in high demand and our region is the first region in the world to develop an Indigenous food tourism strategy. We’re trailblazers and are at the forefront of this sector in the Indigenous tourism industry. Most people say it is due to me, but it is not, I could not do my work without support from my family, our various industry partners, the businesses, and our ITO team.
What does Indigenous Tourism Ontario have planned for the future?
We’re pivoting and the many voices of our industry have helped us curate a thoughtful five year Strategic and COVID-19 Recovery Plan which will Preserve our strong and resilient Indigenous tourism businesses, Renew our provincial Indigenous tourism industry on the heels of the pandemic’s retreat, and Rejuvenate the spirit of our people, visitors, and industry. ITO will continue to engage stakeholders and listen to our industry’s voices as we embark on implementing the plan. Through initiatives like our Indigenous culinary and virtual reality work, Indigenous tourism businesses will have Indigenous driven platforms to tell their stories on their terms.
President and CEO — Indigenous Tourism Ontario
Download the Top 100 Canadian Professionals magazine and check out Kevin's feature on page 32.