Canoe North Adventures has been awarded a licence to guide in Nahanni National Park Reserve, following the merger of two other Nahanni operators in the fall of 2018.
The new licence was given out under amended rules following a review of the way Parks Canada allows companies to operate in the national park.
“Parks Canada confirmed the granting of our licence on March 10 – just when Covid-19 really ramped up the lockdowns – so we have been sitting on this news and waiting for the right time to make a splash,” wrote Canoe North Adventures owner Al Pace by email. Pace owns the company with his wife, Lin Ward, and son Taylor Pace.
By phone, Al Pace described “a long journey” to get the licence, explaining the Parks Canada application had been daunting and comprehensive.
The Canoe North Adventures owners simultaneously received a licence to guide in Nááts’įhch’oh National Park Reserve.
“What’s unique about our world is that we can originate trips from our base in Norman Wells and we can end trips in Fort Simpson. By starting on the Broken Skull River we can paddle into the South Nahanni watershed and really maximize the beauty of both the Sahtu wilderness and the Dehcho,” said Pace. “Now our company can tell the complete story.”
The company has been operating for 30 years in the North – 20 of those in the Sahtu – and built a permanent base in Norman Wells in 2011. The Sahtu operation employs a team of around 24 seasonal and full-time staff.
“We’ve absolutely created a tourism industry in the Sahtu. We’ve put our life savings into that project in Norman Wells,” Pace said.
The company now plans to set up a satellite base in Fort Simpson.
‘We have to work harder’
Pace and his wife winter in Ontario. This year they are spending the summer there, too, as the Northwest Territories restricts visitors – including them. But Pace says he’s not sure they’ve ever worked harder.
“We’re using this time to be strategic,” he said. That includes planning work on the new Fort Simpson base, developing training programs for staff, and purchasing new equipment.
If they receive permission from the NWT’s chief public health officer, they hope to drive to Fort Simpson in the fall with equipment and begin setting up.
Licences issued in the Nahanni are limited to protect the land from commercial activities and “maintain the true wilderness character of the park,” in the words of Parks Canada.
In the past, NWT operator Dan Wong has criticized Parks Canada for a licensing policy that he feels benefits operators based outside the territory.
The other Nahanni operators – Black Feather and Nahanni Wild – also do business in other provinces and territories. Nahanni Wild recently bought Canadian River Expeditions, freeing up the third licence.
“Because we’re non-residents and we know that has been a controversial issue around licensing, we feel we have to work harder, we have to be more transparent,” Pace said.
Parks Canada has in the past stated that it does not preferentially treat applicants based on residency, though an exception exists whereby local Indigenous operators can apply for licences reserved on their behalf.
A large part of the application for a new licence involved explaining to Parks Canada how Canoe North Adventures would engage with Indigenous nations in the Dehcho, said Pace.
“It does take time to establish presence in a community, a respectful presence, to make friends and to understand where the community is at and where the needs of the community are at,” Pace told Adventures Cabin Radio.
In 2020, the company had planned to offer a six-day training program introducing Sahtu youth to the hospitality and outdoor adventure industries. The plan was to eventually help youth complete further education outside the NWT through scholarships so that, when they returned to the Sahtu, they could be employed by Canoe North Adventures.
“I think this is the biggest leap of faith we’ve made at trying to demonstrate to our community that we’re committed, we’re not going anywhere,” said Pace.
“We’re here for the long haul. And we can’t think of a better thing to do than expose clients to local youth, to local cultural conversations, and include local youth into our staff, getting them out on rivers.”
A similar program could be devised for the Dehcho, Pace said, though it depends on whether local communities feel it would be beneficial.
In 2021, Canoe North Adventures is planning five expeditions in Nahanni and two in Nááts’įhch’oh, along with 14 expeditions on Sahtu rivers like the Mountain and Keele.