Manitoulin Conference Centre becoming a destination

By Elaine Anselmi, Assistant Editor

LITTLE CURRENT, ON—At the end of June, the newly opened Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre hosted the wedding of a woman born on Manitoulin Island (a Haweater as they refer to themselves) and her Turkish fiancé. The couple live in London, England and returned to the island for the first time in ten years for their wedding, now that there’s a place to hold it.

Handmade quilts in double room.

Handmade quilts in double room.

“We’re becoming a destination, now that we can offer conference-based catering,” Sheila Bellefeuille, general manager of the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre (MHCC), told CLN. The 5,600-square-foot, $10.8 million project is a joint venture between six First Nations bands and the Great Spirit Circle Trail (GSCT), the aboriginal tourism organization representing the group. 

“This is definitely a case study for First Nations, in terms of business development,” Kevin Eshkawkogan, CEO of the GSCT and president of the MHCC told CLN. The facility will have two major market focuses, he said: the group tourism industry and large meetings, in particular First Nations meetings.

Two-dozen weddings plus

Several meetings and more than two-dozen weddings are already booked for the hotel and the in-house operated restaurant opened for business in early July. The 70-seat space sits just off the main lobby and offers a patio that looks over the North Channel.

“It’s an independent restaurant that will cater to meetings, conferences and special events,” said Bellefeuille. 

The fine-dining menu has an aboriginal infusion, said Eshkawkogan, and a variety of unique dishes. 

“The thing that people need to know about aboriginal cuisine is it’s not necessarily about what you’re eating,” he said.

“Our diets historically were based on availability.”

The menu has consistent year-round items but will also have strong variation in seasonal dishes. Eshkawkogan said game meats such as woodland buffalo, that were historically abundant on the island but have since disappeared, will be brought back through farmed sources.

Beyond the ingredients, Eshkawkogan said the dining experience is about eating communally and gathering together. “We want to provide people with an opportunity to experience something they’ve never done before and eat some foods they can’t get in too many places,” he said.

The restaurant will work with local farms and Bellefeuille said they are working with the organization Farm to Fork, which will pick up vegetable ends, peels and other food-scraps to bring back to the farm and turn into compost. 

“The mandate of the hotel is to be environmentally responsible,” said Bellefeuille. “We understand this is an extra cost, but it’s important to the island and the community.”

Walking through the 58-room hotel, its cultural foundations are illustrated through structure, tapestry and art—which will be on sale from local artisans in a shop off of the lobby. 

Teepee-shaped lobby

From the outside, the teepee-shaped lobby draws the eye from across the harbour; inside the wall is lined with the crests of its founders.

The smaller of two conference rooms sits under the main lobby in a space called the Seven Grandfathers Meeting Room—named for the Anishinaabe teachings of human conduct, also known as the Seven Teachings. The room encircles a large, local tree trunk and looks out through a glass front, beyond a pool to the impressive stretch of Lake Huron. 

“An underlying theme from the beginning was cultural authenticity and we’re not compromising on that,” said Eshkawkogan. “The hotel gives [guests] a venue to sleep at, a restaurant to cater to all their needs, and keeps them here long enough to experience aboriginal culture in a really great way.”

The need for such business on the island is not a new concept, said Eshkawkogan. A hotel was proposed for Little Current about a decade ago, and the land now taken by the MHCC was commercially zoned in the 1970s to attract this sort of business.

The idea, said Eshkawkogan, is to bolster the local economy and job market by bringing more people to the island and retaining their business.

Of the staff at the MHCC, Bellefeuille noted 90 per cent are aboriginal and a number of them went through the Ontario Tourism Education Corporation (OTEC)’s food and beverage program (as discussed in CLN’s June feature Training For Keeps).

Employment challenges are familiar to Eshkawkogan who was born on Manitoulin Island and lived in M’Chigeeng until the second grade when his mother and stepfather relocated to Chapleau, ON for more job opportunities.

 “Home to them and home to us has always been Manitoulin,” said Eshkawkogan. “We left because there were no jobs here, but now I’m on the other side of the table, able to work on Manitoulin and create jobs.

“The hotel is bringing additional business, not just to us, but to everybody on the island,” said Eshkawkogan. “That’s what the model was meant to do and it’s doing that perfectly.”