In southern Alberta, the bison no longer roam free.
When the landmark First Nations Cultural Centre on Buffalo Glacier was built in 2003, the buffalo were everywhere. This hot, steamy destination was the place to be for all things buffalo, the land where you could attend the park’s bison drawing and spend an evening relaxing while watching the steaming beasts take their delectable morsels of meat from the ribs.
Around the edges of the lake, Canadian and Métis culture flourished. The Métis Flag displayed at the tourist attraction bore an image of a buffalo in native clothing with its back to a world that seems to hold nothing but its own pure, placid world. Nearby were restaurants, tours and shops that served buffalo burgers and bison rillette.
Local merchants boasted that their products were “Made in Alberta” or “Métis-owned.”
For me, my husband Mike and our two young boys, this was too much buffalo for one weekend. Last December, we rounded out our stay by exploring the Park of the Sacred Pines Lodge, nestled in the thick of the buffalo landscape. From our lofty perch above the river, we could see the Highwood from both sides and appreciate the landscape with a straight face.
Most visitors choose the buffalo grounds because it’s easy to get there, by air or on foot. Sure, that may sound appealing when you’re a tourist, but bear in mind that this is a hot, steamy spot at the end of a summer weekend. Plus, Western Canadians tend to take things a bit more seriously than some in other parts of the world. If that sounds tame compared to what’s offered at other cultural centers like India’s Taj Mahal, just think about how I felt when I drove through Quebec, driving the same highway every summer but seeing highway signs for barbecues or golf instead of buffalo.
That’s why we had the whole Arctic Circle; not to top out on the Yellowstone Trail but to ride the a-jamming former Canadian Broadcasting Company digital program over and back—to Calgary, in case you were wondering. This year, the New York Times travel editorial director panned the buffalo grounds on social media after a recent column where the author writes about balancing her feelings about travelling with her fears of venturing far into the wild.
Here’s where she got one of her feelings: “We’d made a drive-in, we were jacking up on a four-lane mountain road we knew like the back of our hands. Was I looking down our potential? I was cringing. A clomping herd would pass through our windshield. There was a giant cow and a 14-year-old bison on the table and the lone bison had long since been tagged and marked and made identifiable by a little red dot. This was not welcome.”
The page was deleted soon after. It’s too bad that the original intent of the column, to bring the local population into tourism ventures, is doomed to failure because of an overly critical opinion about the outdoor experience. What’s more concerning, perhaps, is the fact that tourism projects mean losing jobs in areas they’re meant to help and in the places where tourism jobs are based, people with a different culture and understanding become more marginalized.
I would argue that focusing on building a more inclusive tourism industry is the only sustainable way to grow this part of the economy. What’s the alternative? Letting Western culture lead the way? That also happened to me. I’m not sure I’d want to go back to some place where I felt that way, but the inherent beauty of the place I grew up is still there. Bison have returned, quite literally and figuratively, and I remain willing to try new things.
My friends love roaming with their family, camping in the forest, going to the zoo, concerts and last year’s Calgary Stampede. Bison may not have wandered through our Calgary backyards on a regular basis, but whether or not the herd moves in now that I’m a grown woman is up to them.