The first Aboriginal owned hotel on the North Island opened its doors to the public on Wednesday.
After a year-long renovation, the Kwa’lilas Hotel (formerly the Port Hardy Inn) held its grand opening, attracting hundreds of people from all over the local communities to come and celebrate through traditional blessings, dances, songs and food.
The Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw First Nations, who own and operate the hotel, also unveiled a beautiful piece of First Nations artwork, made entirely out of copper, that represents their legacy.
“This is an emotional day for our community, the realization of a vision we had to proudly share all of who we are and where we come from as a people. Kwa’lilas Hotel is inspired by our traditional Big House, the centre of our community. Our roof features a smoke hole that vents steam as a signal to visitors that they are welcome to stay, rest and rejuvenate, at any time,” said Paddy Walkus, Chief of the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw Nation in a press release. “The project has lit a fire of excitement amongst our community as we realize today what is possible when we stay true to our ways and celebrate our origins.”
Walkus said in an interview after the ceremony he feels the hotel is an “expression from the community that we will move ahead and be a part of the world in a way that’s progressive and positive, and hopefully we can work with our people around us to make Port Hardy a better place.”
He added the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw elders have always seen the hotel “as a statement to once again reinforce who we are… We were relocated in the early 1960’s and we have to bring back the identity of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw people. Hopefully, in a holistic way, we can bring it back and make life better, not just for ourselves, but all of our people.”
While Walkus was thrilled with how the grand opening ceremony turned out, he said he was most happy to see the First Nations’ youth celebrating their culture through traditional dances and songs.
“Seeing them do that brings joy to the heart — the youth will move ahead by embracing our culture and having a lot of respect for our traditional ways of learning.”
Kwa’lilas, which is a traditional First Nations’ word, means ‘a place to sleep’. The hotel was named by the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw elders, in hopes that travellers and guests would find peaceful rest in the hotel after a day of exploration in the north island.
Port Hardy Mayor Hank Bood gave a speech during the opening ceremony, saying the Kwa’lilas Hotel “was imaged, designed and rebuilt as a result of the forward thinking, combined efforts of the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw people… Chief Paddy Walkus and the community chose to show confidence in the future of the North Island by investing here and creating a destination experience, wholly locally owned and operated. This hotel is a catalyst — an aging hotel at the entrance to our community was transformed into a beautiful and vibrant landmark in Port Hardy. As the North Island continues to build credibility as a preferred tourist destination, Kwa’lilas Hotel will be the key driving force to reviving tourism by providing luxurious accommodations and creating meaningful and lasting aboriginal cultural experiences that will help draw visitors to our region. We are thrilled that the community has been able to realize such an amazing vision and dream, congratulations to all of you.”
The renovation project was led by the community-owned k’awat’si Construction company which allowed membership to work on the project from the beginning and be part of the renaissance of the North Island.
In addition, to successfully achieve the goal of fully immersing guests in an unforgettable aboriginal experience, a significant emphasis was placed on decorating the property with authentic local Aboriginal art created by local artists, under the direction of Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw elders and Shain Jackson of Spirit Works Ltd.
Interior décor and support was provided by Vancouver’s Inside Design to bring all of the elements together.
Conrad Browne, CEO of k’awat’si Economic Development Corporation (the economic catalyst of the Nations), said in a brief interview that the Kwa’lilas Hotel is “the beginning of a new life for the building itself and it’s also the beginning of the whole tourism concept we’ve been working on for the last two years – and it’s going to bring a lot of attention to the North Island.”
Browne added he wants the community to know that the standard the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw are achieving with this hotel “is a different standard than what anybody has been used to here for a long time.”
The Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw made sure to point out the hotel was funded by a loan through Bank of Montreal, and not by Canadian tax dollars.
The k’awat’si Economic Development General Partner Corporation LP (KEDC) was created in 2014 to capitalize on a strong desire by the community desire to grow opportunities. KEDC’s mandate is to investigate and realize revenue, prosperity, skills and development to the community.
As a distinct entity, reporting to Chief and Council, KEDC is tasked with creating, operating and supporting businesses that will be profitable, environmentally sustainable and culturally significant, while simultaneously respecting the unique cultural values of the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw Nation.