By Barret Dokis
LITTLE CURRENT – A joint venture by six First Nations to build the new Manitoulin Island Hotel and Conference Centre was praised by a First Nations chief with perhaps the highest economic-development profile in Canada.
“Six First Nation communities came together and made this happen?” Chief Clarence Louie of Osoyoos First Nation in British Columbia, asked in mock astonishment as he addressed participants at the Great Spirit Circle Trail’s (GSCT) 8th Annual Tourism Business Conference.
Chief Louie said that when the 58-room facility opened its doors May 17th , its shareholders became part of an exclusive group of First Nations operating in the hospitality industry across Canada. He was impressed that the hotel was not only 100% First Nation–owned, but that six First Nations were able to work together and overcome the logistical challenges presented in these types of partnerships.
A consortium of First Nation communities –Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, Sagamok Anishnawbek, Whitefish River, Sheshegwaning, M’Chigeeng, and Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nations – own the hotel, which is conveniently located in Little Current in order to welcome visitors to Manitoulin Island as they drive across the legendary swing bridge on Highway 6.
The Great Spirit Circle Trail (GCCT)– a company formed by Sagamok Anishnawbek and all seven Manitoulin Island First Nations — owns a share in the hotel and acted as the coordinating body during development of the hotel project. The hotel will promote the company’s First Nations experiential tour packages for guests.
Anishinabek Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee – whose home community of Aundeck Omni Kaning is one of the hotel partners — also had high praise for the new venture.
“This partnership to accomplish a major economic development project is just what the Anishinabek Nation Economic Blueprint recommends our First Nations do. More of our communities need to work together to create a regional economy. There is always strength in numbers.”
The planning process began three years ago, but the concept has been in consideration for over a decade. Construction of the $10.8-million waterfront facility commenced in 2011 and was originally scheduled to be completed in 2012, however was pushed back to 2013 as a result of the addition of geothermal technologies and financing delays.
Four of the 58 guest suites have a kitchenette, living area, and king-sized bed, and hotel amenities include wireless internet, an outdoor swimming pool, restaurant and patio, and business centre services. Motor coach tours can be accommodated, and GCCT Aboriginal-experience packages are available. Shopping and attractions are within walking distance in the scenic community of Little Current.
The new facility will provide a number of benefits for the entire Manitoulin Island economy. It can accommodate conferences of up to 300 participants – the Great Spirit Circle Trail conference had 80 participants May 27-30 – and will serve as the hub of activities when delegates from 134 First Nations attend the 39th annual All-Ontario Chiefs Conference hosted by Whitefish River First Nation June 25-27.
The event is expected to bring 500 visitors to Manitoulin.
Once fully operational, the hotel is expected to employ up to 60 people. Management was expecting that half of those jobs would be filled by First Nations people, but say that indications point to a staffing ratio closer to 80 or 90 per cent.
Kevin Eshkawkogan, Chief Executive Officer for the Great Spirit Circle Trail and President of the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre, says the hotel is booking up quickly for the summer season with inquiries coming in on a daily basis.
“Visitor expenditures in the Manitoulin region due to the marketing efforts of the Great Spirit Circle Trail exceeded $10 million in 2012,” he says. “Additional product development work and the new hotel are projected to double that figure.”
Eshkawkogan said pre-sales booked through the Great Spirit Circle Tour has given the new hotel an occupancy rate of 81 per cent for its first six months of operation.
“ With the tourism season now upon us, we still anticipate the balance of the rooms to be booked by walk-ins and last minute travelers,” he says.
The Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre is accepting bookings for rooms and events at its toll-free number: (877) 710-3211.
Barret Dokis is Economic Development Co-ordinator for the Union of Ontario Indians