When I retired as an Edmonton Sun columnist last year, I gave myself an out.

If the spirit so moved, Hicksbiz thoughts and reporting just might show up on the hicksbiz.com blog.

The spirit has moved – with the re-opening, after three long years, of Fort Edmonton Park, and equally important, the brand-new Indigenous People’s Experience living museum, a new $40 million building and park within the Fort Edmonton Park compound.

The entirely re-built park (all the underground infrastructure had to be upgraded), plus new history-appropriate attractions, re-opens on Canada Day 2021 after three long years of being closed for renovations. 

Four years ago, after the announcement of the upgrades and construction of the Indigenous People’s Experience (in partnership with the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations and the Metis Nation of Alberta), some wishful thinking ensued.

If the Indigenous People’s Experience lived up to its billing, might it be the final piece to a long-standing Greater Edmonton tourism conundrum?

Like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, might this attraction be so unique, so interesting, so truthful as to be a major draw for out-of-province and international tourists … you know, people not just looking for something to do while visiting friends and/or relatives.

It may be premature – as COVID has taught us, you never know what challenges will leap up and bite you on the keister. But a quick pre-opening media tour through the Indigenous People’s Experience building left me filled with hope.

Those lofty expectations voiced in 2017 have indeed been met:  The story of the First Nations of this part of the world, as conceived and told by them, is a powerful narrative – especially when the capital and programming budgets are world-class. 

I see the Indigenous People’s Experience as a tipping point. I believe the city now has the critical mass of “attractions” to legitimately join the Vancouver-Banff-Jasper-Calgary tourist circuit. 

Depending on the weather and the time of the year, consider all the attractions that can be part of numerous tourist packages:  The buffalo strolling by your car at Elk Island National Park, the stunningly beautiful Aga Khan garden at the University of Alberta Devonian Garden, West Edmonton Mall’s  Waterpark and Galaxyland, The Art Gallery of Alberta, the Royal Alberta Museum, the TELUS World of Science, Ukrainian Village, The Muttart Conservatory when it too re-opens, the Alberta Aviation Museum, the Reynolds Museum, the the downtown Ice District as its components come together, Old Strathcona, river valley walks and mini-parks, the provincial legislature, canoeing/kayaking/rafting  on the river, festivals, sporting events …

We could very well be on the verge of an actual five-month serious tourism season – when restaurants (those that will have survived COVID) can depend on 10% to 20% of their warm-weather business coming from visitors, when hotels will jump from 50% summer occupancy to 65%. 

Edmonton is never going to attract tourists because of spectacular scenery – that’s a three-to-four-hour drive west of us.  Our river valley is beautiful, and we’ve done an excellent job at maintaining its urban wilderness, but thousands of tourists aren’t coming here to gaze admiringly at the North Saskatchewan’s usually-brown water from the High Level Bridge. 

But the Indigenous People’s Experience is a legitimate local/national/international draw. It is surrounded by Fort Edmonton Park and so many other interesting things to do come cold weather or hot, rain or shine, usually all on the same day. Over the next decade Edmonton could slowly grow a reputation as a worth-a-visit tourist stop for visitors from Europe or Asia or Medicine Hat.   

I like Fort Edmonton Park CEO Darren Dalgleish’s bold statement made at the park’s re-opening:  “Our goal is to the Fort Edmonton Park (including the Indigenous People’s Experience) the premiere cultural tourism attraction in Western Canada.” 

And at the same time, I’m so glad the Fort Edmonton Park Foundation – a not-for-profit group of volunteers that raise funds for specific park projects – has not forgotten the park’s bread ‘n’ butter.  Admission is not cheap – kids and seniors at $20.90, adults at $26.20, families at $95. But the foundation is funding a program to provide park-admission subsidies to lower-income families. The Indigenous People’s Experience is included in the admission price.

Good stuff.  Well done to the hundreds of individuals and organizations that have made this dream come true.