What is it? Skwachàys (pronounced skwatch-eyes) Lodge is a First Nations-themed social enterprise hotel in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. Its urban setting is convenient for the popular tourist areas of Gastown and Chinatown. Skwachàys is the traditional name for the area in which the property stands.
Wait, what’s a social enterprise? A business model that uses commercial strategies to improve the financial and social well-being of an underprivileged group. In this case, the 18-room hotel subsidises living and studio space for 24 First Nations artists, some of whose work can be purchased in the ground-floor gallery.
Tell me about the First Nations. These are the people who were here before the French, British, Chinese and others arrived in Canada. The Canadian constitution distinguishes three aboriginal groups: First Nations, Métis and Inuit. The early Métis, or people of mixed blood, were the children of fur traders and indigenous women. The Inuits are the original residents of Arctic Canada.
The other aboriginals are all lumped together under the First Nations umbrella – and it’s a big umbrella. There are 617 First Nations communities in Canada, 198 of them in British Columbia. Like aboriginal people around the world, they struggle to hold on to their culture in a meaningful way in the 21st century.
So are the rooms nice or is this just a place for do gooders? The rooms are lovely, and distinctive. A First Nations artist teamed up with a designer to plan each room around a natural theme. Artist Corrine Hunt’s understated Air Suite features a large raven on the headboard. Clifton Fred’s Poem Suite is busier, with words and pencil drawings covering the walls. The Salmon Suite is done out in bold red, with a large painting of spawning salmon as its focus.
A binder in each room contains information explaining the symbolism behind the relevant theme. Expect the usual mod cons as well as hypo-allergenic duvets.
What else makes it special? Few hotels offer private sweat-lodge ceremonies, or have a 12-metre totem pole on the roof. The Skwachàys has an official sweat-lodge keeper, who conducts the ritual inside a domed structure (symbolising Mother Nature’s womb) in the roof garden. Smudge ceremonies involve burning sage, cedar and sweet grass for physical and spiritual purification. The aboriginal art gallery stocks everything from inexpensive cards to beautiful carved wooden boxes priced at several thousand Canadian dollars. Guests can still visit after the gallery’s closed to the public.
How do I know this work is really done by aboriginals? The Skwachàys’ gallery participates in Aboriginal Tourism BC’s Authentic Indigenous programme, which certifies that the work was done by a fairly compensated artist. If you see the sticker, it’s legit.
What kind of people stay here? Expect guests to be friendlier and more politically progressive than you’d encounter at your average hotel. They’re seeking out a different experience, and probably have some interest in First Nations culture, social enterprise and/or art. According to general manager Maggie Edwards, Germans have a particular interest in Skwachàys and the aboriginal art.
What’s the neighbourhood like? As you might expect from a hotel that’s subsidising low-income artists, this is not Vancouver’s priciest real estate. The Downtown Eastside is slowly undergoing revitalisation, but can be a bit dodgy. It’s best to be alert when walking around at night. As well as Gastown, up-and-coming Railtown is nearby. Chinatown – one of North America’s biggest – starts just across the street. By 1890, the area known as Shanghai Alley had more than 1,000 Chinese residents. It’s still an active community, with plenty of restaurants, bars and shops.
What if I want other First Nations experiences? Take Talaysay Tours’ Talking Trees Walk in Stanley Park to learn about indigenous medicinal plants. Try native dishes at Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro or soft drinks made from nettles and juniper berries at the Capilano Tea House and Botanical Soda Company. Visit the Aboriginal Tourism BC website for more ideas.
What’s the bottom line? Rooms start at C$149 (HK$860) per night. For more details, go to skwachays.com.