The Crees of Mistissini have always marvelled at the natural wonders surrounding their village on beautiful Lake Mistissini. Now, a growing number of Mistissini leaders want to show those wonders off to the world by getting into the booming business of “eco-tourism.”

Not only would eco-tourism create economic prosperity for Mistissini, say the industry’s boosters. Tourism could even be a blessing for the traditional lifestyle of Mistissini Crees and provide trappers with extra income.

The ambitious plan is the result of a year’s consultation and research by the Mistissini First Nation’s economic-development department. The plan would see the construction of a new restaurant-lodge and eventually Mistissini’s own airport, as well as the development of dozens of programs for tourists of every ilk, from the adventure hound to the fly-fisher, to the admirer of Cree culture. Tourists will be able to live and fish with a trapper, scuba-dive in some of the clearest waters in Quebec, go white-water rafting in the Rupert River or helicopter-skiing in the Otish Mountains and much, much more.

Tourists would be attracted by the virgin beauty of the Mistissini territory, two local wildlife reserves and the strong First Nations presence—a strong draw for the European markets, especially France and Germany. Mistissini officials are banking on the fad that travellers are quickly tiring of heavily commercialized tourist traps, and want something new and environmentally friendly. Many Europeans have heard about the Crees’ fight against hydro-development and are interested in finding out more about their way of life.

“For a long time, tourism was laughed at,” says Mike Prince, of Mistissini’s economic-development department. “All of a sudden, it’s one of the top five industries in the country. By the year 2000, it’s going to be the major industry in Quebec. All governments in the last 10 years have been throwing themselves into tourism. It’s growing every year.”

The economic-development department has just released an 84-page planning report that outlines in detail how Mistissini can get into the lucrative eco-tourism business while preserving the environment and community life. The plan envisions that most of the programs would be ready by October 1995.

Prince described tourism as one of the most effective strategies for economic development. “In almost every industry, there are major negative impacts,” he said. As an example, he cited large-scale clear-cutting forestry, which destroys a lot of land and brings a large influx of non-Cree workers, who must be given northern allowance and scarce housing.

Mistissini’s tourism plan, on the other hand, takes care to leave the environment unharmed and provide jobs mostly to Crees, Prince said. “If we do it well, we can mold it to our own needs. Trappers would probably benefit the most,” he added, saying that the tourism plan could lead to the creation of a tannery and sale of furs to tourists right in Mistissini, rather than export to Europe. “We wouldn’t have to worry about distribution of the furs any more. It would be more worthwhile to stay out in the bush.”

Prince emphasized that keeping strict controls on the tourism is an important priority. Regular meetings will occur every six months to evaluate the impact of the influx of tourists. “If we have 100 tourists clicking their cameras at 10 at night, maybe people won’t like that,” Prince said.

Discussions are currently underway with the Cree Trappers’ Association about tourism programs involving trappers. One issue that remains to be resolved is the question of whether trappers would have to pay taxes on the money they make from tourists. “The CTA really wants to make sure that trappers are informed and the consequences of the tourism are clear,” Prince said.

Don MacLeod, Mistissini’s coordinator of economic development, agreed that eco-tourism offers great potential for economic development that would be appropriate for the community. “You have to look at people and their skills,” he said. “You don’t have to bring in a lot of outsiders to show people how to put up a tent or make a fire. There are 48 trappers’ cabins in Mistissini territory and 60 to 80 cabins and tent camps that are only used in the winter and spring. That’s a massive infrastructure.”

MacLeod said Mistissini got world-wide recognition as a prime tourism spot when the Harricana skidoo race passed through for the first time in 1990. International media went bananas over the culture camp, and Mistissini was swamped with calls from travel agents and tourists wanting to come up.

Already, several parties of tourists have had successful stays in the culture camp. In early February, 12 people visited from France for three days. Four of them are planning to come back this summer. Several dozen skidoo racers and race organizers stayed overnight during the recent Raid des Braves skidoo race. Other groups from Europe are expected soon, as well as a group of CEGEP students who want to learn about racial issues, the Cree way of life and the wilderness.

MacLeod also said it’s important for the tourism program to be controlled by the community. He said he hopes the debate about tourism will start in the community right away. “We want Mistissini to start thinking about tourism. Is this what people want? I want more input from the community. I think it’s time for a serious discussion.”

So far, public discussion about the plan has mostly remained confined to a 26-member steering committee composed of representatives of all community entities, including the band, health board, Chamber of Commerce, CTA and Mistissini Lake Outfitting Camps. The committee met four times in the last year. Residents will be invited to public meetings to discuss the tourism plan this spring and summer.

Mistissini is also spearheading a regional conference about tourism strategy for all nine east-coast Cree communities. Last week, MacLeod spoke with Willy Iserhoff, director of traditional pursuits at the Cree Regional Authority, to work on details for the conference.

MacLeod is hoping that out of the meeting will finally emerge a Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association. Such an association is entitled to government funds under the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, but it’s taken nearly 20 years to get one underway. In the meantime, the Quebec Outfitters Association got grants that Crees could have used to fund their own tourism planning and marketing.

“We need our own association,” said MacLeod. “Let’s not keep waiting.”