Nestled in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Skwachays Lodge can easily be passed off as just another building on Pender Street. But if you walk into 29/31 Pender, you will find some of the most luxurious accommodations and fascinating aboriginal art in the city. While stressing style, Skwachays (pronounced skwatch-eyes) also values substance as a leader in social enterprise in the business community that is attracting socially-minded tourists from around the world. We sat down with general manager Maggie Edwards to chat about Skwachays Lodge and how tourism can support social enterprise.
What does Skwachays mean?
ME: Skwachays is the name that was given to our building by Chief Ian Campbell, the hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation. He told us that this area was actually known as Skwachays and that it refers to the area near False Creek that used to be salt marshes and islands. This was a place of great importance to his community, where members of the Squamish Nation used to hunt and fish. There were also fresh water springs here, which they saw as portals to the spirit realm and a place of spiritual transformation.
What do you offer that other hotels don’t?
ME: We’re a pretty unique product in that we showcase Aboriginal art. Every room in the hotel is unique as the style, colour and decor is different. Each of the 18 rooms reflect the artwork of six Aboriginal artists with each artist designing three rooms.
We still have to be a great 21st century hotel, so we provide all the amenities that you would expect. But both culturally and aesthetically we offer something that is far above that.
Why do you offer a fair trade gallery and gift shop in your hotel?
ME: The hotel and fair trade gallery are both social enterprises, in that all profits go to support a 24 unit artist in residence program in our building. What’s important about using a fair trade model is that most of the artists that come through the door are local, urban aboriginal artists. Our profit is not attached to what we pay the artist, but instead the artist gets to establish whatever price they feel their piece merits. What’s important about this is that it helps to increase the value of art in the aboriginal art market and gives the power back to the artist to generate financial independence through their work.
Most interesting/eccentric piece in the hotel or gallery?
ME: It is extremely interesting to have a 40 foot totem pole on top of the building, whose foot sits on the balconies of rooms 507 and 508. Those are the two most requested rooms and I think the fact that the totem pole rests on their balconies has a lot to do with that. But everything is interesting and quirky at this hotel! You can expect notable items on every floor and room.
What kind of unique aboriginal cultural experiences can a guest experience?
ME: We have a smudge room and a sweat lodge on an outside patio on the roof of the building. So our hotel guests can arrange to have smudge ceremonies and sweats if they like. We have a medicine man that can make those arrangements.
Has anyone booked a stay at Skwachays without knowing the story of the place? If so, what’s their reaction?
ME: Yes, we have had that happen a number of times. Guests have been pleasantly surprised and even delighted when they check in to realize that they are getting this additional experience when they’re booking a hotel room.
Skwachays is known as a hidden gem in Vancouver. What kind of feedback have you received from guests that have stayed? Why do you think they choose to stay here?
ME: A lot of people like the sustainable model or they want to make a make a difference with the money they spend. But for people that choose it because of location or price, I think the fact that it’s such a unique and beautiful facility enhances the value of the product and people are charmed by the amazing art in the building. Guests also get a very B.C. experience. People who are travelling through British Columbia, especially for the very first time, get a true feel of the historic culture of this area.
Most famous guest?
ME: We’ve had a lot of support from the new federal government, which is fantastic! Specifically, we’ve had Minister of Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development Carolyn Bennett, who has been spreading the word about Skwachays Lodge on Parliament hill. We’ve also had a number of famous performers within the Aboriginal community stay with us, such as singer Laura Grizzlypaws.
How does your business make an impact in your community?
ME: Skwachays makes an impact by providing 24 artists housing and work space, allowing these artists to further their business development.
Beyond that I think when you put a totem pole and a longhouse on top of your building it creates pride in the aboriginal community. Vancouver Native Housing Society, which owns and operates Skwachays Lodge, does that with all of their buildings and they believe in building a community through the transformative power of art.