Tucked cozily away in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood sits a building that is hard to miss. With ornate aboriginal designs and a majestic totem pole on its roof, this cultural oasis is different from anything else in the city — or even the country, for that matter.
The Skwachays Aboriginal Hotel & Gallery opened its doors in August, showcasing aboriginal culture to the city — and the rest of the world.
"There are so many different layers for how this positively affects the aboriginal community, but I think for the greater community at large, they get to have a great experience and exposure to aboriginal art," Maggie Edwards, Skwachays' general manager, told The Huffington Post B.C. in an interview.
"It's such a beautiful place to stay in the hotel; we are getting tremendous exposure to the greater, wider community of Vancouver and travellers in general. I think it's just a win-win on so many levels."
Skwachays is more than a good-looking boutique hotel; it has two additional functions. First, 24 units are saved for low-cost aboriginal artist housing; the lower level is being renovated into a workshop. Artists live at Skwachays on a three-year contract, during which they produce pieces that are sold in the hotel's lobby gallery. Skwachays' goal is to help the artists become financially independent by the end of their contract.
Second, the remaining 18 rooms are designated as the hotel, each uniquely designed by one of six aboriginal artists. These rooms, as well as the gallery sales, fund the artist housing, resulting in a self-sustaining social enterprise.
Aside from the sheer beauty of its design, hotel guests can immerse themselves in aboriginal culture by participating in a traditional sweat lodge and smudge ceremonies. All food is produced by a local aboriginal catering company, with wine and beer focusing on local offerings as well.
Owned and operated by the Vancouver Native Housing Society, Skwachays works to become part of the fabric of the controversial Downtown Eastside. Rather than "fix" the neighbourhood, the organization aims to enhance it.
"There's been so much talk in the past about cleaning up, for lack of a better term, the Downtown Eastside area from members of the homeless community and drug addicts who tend to frequent this area," said Edwards.
"But one of the things that we would like to see happen is rather than the gentrification of the neighbourhood, bring small, successful businesses together that support the existing community .... There are some wonderful coffee shops and restaurants that are working with the homeless and working with social services in the area to be a part of the community as opposed to the alternative, and it's a very positive way of approaching and improving everything in the neighbourhood."
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The lodge originally started in 2012 as an affordable healing space for aboriginal people travelling to Vancouver for medical reasons, Edwards explained, but the project wasn't as successful as hoped.
Then in 2013, Jon Zwickel, president of InnVentures Hospitality Corp., visited the gallery and had the idea to turn the healing lodge rooms into a hotel suites (but some rooms will still be available for aboriginal patients, according to The Vancouver Sun).
Since then, dozens of people have donated time, services, and goods to get it off the ground, and the reception to Skwachays' launch has been "phenomenal," Edwards said.
"The quality of the rooms and the fact that they reflect amazing Canadian aboriginal art is just getting a terrific response. People just really love it."