Sharing About The Road To Greatness: Willie Lewis’ Indigenous Tourism Journey
“We've had a hard time before but we're resilient. We're awesome. We have so many amazing gifts to share, teach and pass on,” says Indigenous tourism expert Willie Lewis. He’s seen how the world is starting to pay attention and listen to the wisdom of Indigenous people who have been here for millennia. “That glow-up is awesome to see and it's amazing just to be a small part of it,” he continues.
Willie Lewis is proud of his First Nations heritage, and he is also of African American ancestry. He lives on the Capilano Reserve in Squamish Nation territory and was born at Lion’s Gate Hospital in North Vancouver. He moved to Seattle when he was three, where his dad served in the military while he went through school.
At the age of 19, Lewis started working as a valet at hotels in downtown Seattle. He loved the work because meeting new people and talking to them kept him engaged. He worked his way up into sales and marketing, learning the hospitality industry as he moved up the corporate ladder.
While he learned a lot on the job by listening to people, he moved back to Canada to pursue his education. He graduated from the First Nations Tourism Management program from Capilano University. One of his mentors who got him into the industry recommended upgrading his education to give him more options in his path forward. He was told, “If you want to do business, you can obviously do it and you can go into other parts of the tourism industry. But if you kind of want to do frontline facing or corporate services, you're probably going to need some tourism training.”
Lewis didn’t find the program difficult but it did take some dedication, especially since tourism is a 24/7 industry. Setting aside the time to do the work and focusing on his goals and what he hoped to achieve was key. “Dive in with both feet, and be ready to hit the ground running, as they say,” he advises.
He returned to Seattle for a while but felt called back home to his territory in Squamish. “There is no greater feeling than having that connection and family and being so connected to the community,” he remarks. He works with Indigenous Tourism BC and with Destination BC as the Indigenous tourism specialist for the Vancouver coastal mountain regions. Previously, he worked with the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, helping them open, doing frontline management and then working in sales and marketing.
On a regular workday these days, Lewis heads to the office to check and respond to any emails. Given he’s on destination management councils, he has hours of meetings a day not just to attend but also to prepare. He travels to First Nations communities in his region in areas like the Sunshine Coast, Hope and Boston Bar. He connects with communities and helps them find any tools or resources they need to achieve their tourism goals. While he has a lot on his plate, no day is the same as the last. Doing different tasks every day keeps his work new and fresh.
As far as work goes, Lewis says it’s a fun job. “It's amazing. I get to go out to all the different communities, some places I've never seen before, places I didn’t know existed. You get out there and see the natural beauty of everybody's territory. It's not really considered work when you get to do this,” he laughs.
His inspiration on a daily basis is the opportunity to share knowledge and contribute to economic development in First Nations communities. “Being able to go out there and reach those communities who don't really know about tourism, or they're not 100% sure they want to engage in tourism, and opening their eyes and showing them that it's not all frontline. There's a whole bunch of different pathways and careers you can have in tourism. It inspires me to know that part of my job is helping First Nations find funds,” he explains. Lewis loves when communities realize that he’s there to help.
When he’s off the clock, Lewis likes to play video games with friends online, watch football and play watch. He has two sons under the age of ten who he loves taking on outings to places like the aquarium, the beach or the seawall. Even though he’s a family man now, he’s still young at heart and he loves living in Squamish territory.
His sons are learning the language, attending school in the community, and learning to drum. “It's filling up that cup and just having them be a part of that community so they know the rich heritage that they have,” he relays. Lewis wants his children to have all the things he didn’t have growing up. His own parents worked hard and provided well but he wants to do more for his kids, to make sure they’re happy, respectful, on the right path and have everything they need.
“For all Indigenous youth, I want them to know that there are positive role models out there. You may see some of the negative ones, but there are a ton of positive role models within and outside your community,” he muses. He sees role models as the people who are always willing to help, step up, and answer questions. “We're here and we want to see our youth do better, because you're the next generation. They're going to continue that good work that you're starting,” he elaborates.
Willie Lewis knows his people have had a hard time before but he also knows his people are resilient and awesome, with many amazing gifts to share, teach and pass on. Working in tourism, introducing travellers to First Nations territories and Indigenous cultural experiences, he’s a part of that change. He’s proud to be part of the glow up that’s bringing even more economic development and opportunity as the world pays more attention to the wisdom of Indigenous people. Through tourism, the door’s been open for him to travel the world, but he found his heart in his home community.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article
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