Destination Reconciliation: Melissa Arnott Runs Trails and Walks a Path Towards a New Future
“If I go back to the beginning, it all started with travel,” reminisces Melissa Arnott. She is Anishinaabe from the Ojibwe nation and her mom and grandmother are from Batchewana First Nation, on what's now known as Sioux Sainte Marie. Arnott was born and raised in Calgary and moved to British Columbia eleven years ago.
For the past fourteen years, Arnott has been working in travel and tourism. She is the senior program advisor for Indigenous and regional partnerships at Destination BC. When she’s not working, she volunteers with a not-for-profit organization called Indigenous Women Outdoors, leading programs for trail running and snowshoeing, and sitting on the board.
“A lot of what I'm currently focused on with my work is helping our organization put together an understanding of what reconciliation looks like from a tourism perspective, and how we can move in a good way with Indigenous communities, Indigenous businesses and partners to form meaningful relationships, and so that we can sustainably and respectfully grow Indigenous tourism within the province,” Arnott explains.
Healing and travel have always gone hand in hand for Arnott. “As the years went on and I started to travel more, I started to heal a lot. That was a big part of my journey and I wanted to share that with people. I wanted them to experience that freedom, the elation, the discovery of yourself that comes when you travel the world and you're exposed to different worldviews, different cultures, everything like that,” Arnott remembers.
The last seven years have been a time of discovery. “I started to really reconnect with myself as an Indigenous woman, and started to take a lot of pride in my cultural heritage. I wanted to take my education and skills and my lived experiences and put them towards something meaningful, which was to uplift Indigenous peoples. My desire to help advance reconciliation and effect change within our communities is what really urged me to seek out Indigenous Women Outdoors and led me to my current role with Destination BC,” she reflects.
Her journey to the classroom didn’t happen until her late twenties. After graduating from high school, she didn’t want to invest money into something she wasn’t sure of. She decided to move from being a travel agent to doing tourism marketing after living in Australia and she realized she would need a formal marketing education to do that. She went to BCIT for their marketing communications diploma, an intense but practical learning opportunity.
After completing the program, her advice to students considering leaving their communities to go to school is “look at schools that have nurturing Indigenous services… where they can be surrounded by community, and have cultural safety and protection in place that can help guide them through that transition.”
The Indigenous services at BCIT were “game-changing” and the experience left her feeling safe and welcome. “There was a place I could go in between my classes where we would make drums we would smudge we have sharing circles. We would cook food and share food together. It was just a beautiful experience and I felt so supported,” she recalls.
Arnott knows having support to overcome challenges is important after surviving a traumatic childhood. “I would attribute how I overcame these challenges to my inner strength and self-determination, from wanting to live the life that my sister was not able to. I also attribute a lot of this to the love and support that I received from my friends and my family, that they were always there for me no matter what,” Arnott recounts.
If she could say anything to her younger self it would be, “while you feel like you are alone and lost now, know that you will find your way back to community back to culture, that your ancestors are walking beside you. You may not know it now, but you will someday.”
To balance her mental health, Arnott loves to go trail running. “It's when I get the most clarity of thoughts. It's when I'm the most connected to myself. It's when I feel the most connected to Mother Earth and all our relations. It's unlike anything, and that's what I have to do if I need to heal or I need to regroup or I need a hot minute. It's being out and feeling the earth and being in the trees,” she shares.
“A big barrier for running is the mental barrier that we have, it's the perception of what running is and what a runner looks like.”
What she finds is many people think running has to be long distance and fast, you can’t stop, and your body has to look a certain way, trim and lean. The truth is a lot more liberating, according to Arnott. “Running is about connecting with yourself. It's about moving your body. You could run for a minute, walk for five. You could run for 10 minutes, a kilometre, 10 kilometres, whatever you're doing, you're honouring yourself. Running is not one certain way that the media has made it. I want people to recognize that,” she asserts.
When she’s running, Arnott loves the endorphins, the energy from the earth, the summer and rain smells and the pack energy that comes from running as a group. She knows that it’s great for her health also but she has other reasons to keep going.
“My children inspire me… to grow, to slow down, to really enjoy what's happening in front of me. They're the ones who are actually teaching me more than I am teaching them. They're leading the way…. and really a reminder of why I need to walk gently on this earth,” she beams. Apart from her children, Arnott is inspired by the women she’s met and their perseverance.
If she goes back to the beginning, Melissa Arnott knows it all started with travel, but she’s currently focussed on moving forward. Working alongside Indigenous communities, businesses and partners, she’s travelling a path of Reconciliation with Destination BC. She’s getting outside with Indigenous Women Outdoors and leading the way bother literally and figuratively on the trails and in the bush. She’s moving towards a new destination, inspired by women and her children. Arnott doesn’t just walk the walk, she runs, and teaches others to do the same.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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