Friday February 12, marked the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The ceremonies were attended by the Four Chiefs who represent the Squamish, Musqueam, Tseil-Watuth (Burrard), and Lil’wat (Mt. Currie, part of St’at’imc) band councils, because the Olympics are occurring on Indigenous land. Despite their presence, many in the Indigenous community are still opposed to the Olympics:
“Because we have no treaty with Canada, the imposition and encroachment of Whistler – their hydro lines, their highways, their railroad, in fact all infrastructure development for the 2010Games – in our territory is illegal,”
says James Louie from the St’at’imc nation, Whistler.
First Nation dancers welcomed the athletes and the world to the Vancouver Olympics, and thus the lie that Canada not only recognizes Native rights, but is proud of our Indigenous citizens, was upheld.
The participation of The Four Chiefs was vital, because the tribes have never ceded control of their land to the crown. Carol Martin, speaking on behalf of the resistance movement and the tent city, challenges the right of these chiefs to act on behalf of the Native People:
“…Elected chiefs get a pay check, the best houses, they get to travel around; they are almost like token Indians to showcase a group of people who are more privileged than the people that live in the real world. They don’t bring our interests to the forefront; they are more like puppets on a string. They are supporting their own families. There is a lot of divide and conquer in this strategy by the government.”
Phil Fontaine, former head of the Assembly of First Nations, who now works as an adviser to Olympic sponsor Royal Bank, carried the torch. When asked about the protests by the indigenous community he responded:
“There are people who see this as an opportunity (for protest). I see this as a celebration,” he said at the Long Plain school following his torch run.
“It’s really a celebration of indigenous cultures … We represent a very positive presence in Canada. We’ve been significant contributors to Canada’s well-being. We will be important, as we’ve been in the past, to Canada’s future. The world should be aware of that.”
Native leaders like Fontaine have been very vocal about the opportunities that the Olympics offers First Nations citizens. However, there are many within the aboriginal community that raise the concern that the Olympics amount to further exploitation of Native peoples.
“The Four Host Nations is a corporate body made up primarily of government-funded Indian Act band council chiefs, not hereditary chieftainships,” says Seislom, a Lil’wat Elder. “An overwhelming number of Indigenous people in these territories and in the interior are opposed to the Olympics because of the long-term impact including destruction of the land, commodification of Native art and culture, and the creation of long-term poverty once the few token jobs are gone.”
According to the Olympic resistance network, during the Olympic Torch relay, protesters in over thirty cities, towns, and Indigenous communities successfully disrupted the Torch Relay, forcing delays and route cancellations, with at least thirteen arrests. Much of the Canadian coverage regarding the protests does not seek to discuss why the protesters are attempting to disrupt the games. The protesters are seen as rabble rousers who are destroying our chance to showcase Canadian wonders.
Even as the torch was carried along the Highway of Tears (a stretch of highway 12 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, B.C., where numerous women who are largely Indigenous have gone missing) many Canadians are unaware of their government’s failure to bring a halt to the violence. It is unimaginable that disappearances of White women would have been met with such apathy.
Native participation is only welcomed when it coincides with the Canadian colonial agenda. Carol Martin believes that it is important to protest the Olympics to garner
“International recognition that Canada is one of four countries that have denied our Indigenous rights three times. Our laws are not honoured and the system is designed for my people to fail”.
First Nations people are very much marginalized within the Canadian system. They are over represented in the penal system and due to a loss of traditional ways, their communities are rife with alcoholism and violence.
There is a long history of abuse due to residential schools and though the government of Canada has apologized and offered reparations, those receiving benefits must qualify under a points system. A country that is dedicated to advancing Indigenous rights would not have spent nearly two decades fighting The U.N. Declarations of the Rights of Indigenous People.
Tony Penikett, the author of a book on British Columbia land claims and a former premier of the Yukon, told IPS,
“One of the problems for Canada in the past was trying to say with a straight face that they supported aboriginal advancement and were standard bearers for other countries. It is more accurate to say that Canada was bad, but was better than others.”
Even as the games are supposedly showcasing First Nations culture, they are creating environmental damage that is irreparable. According to the Olympics Resistance Network, this includes: massive deforestation in the Callaghan Valley to build the Whistler Olympic Center; clear cuts of Cypress Mountain, which is a designated 2010 venue location; massive sand and gravel mining operations to build construction materials; and the destruction of Eagleridge Bluffs due to the Sea-to-Sky Highway construction.
This is especially troubling when we consider that this is all occurring on First Nations Land. Only a country bent upon imperialistic pursuits would believe that it had the right to exploit the resources of another nation.
Each day that the Olympic flame is lit in Vancouver, Canadians are hoping that the world will focus on the pageantry and the competition, because a brief look at the history of the violation of First Nations rights would reveal that there is very little to celebrate. The Olympics is part of a Western tradition and each day of competition represents a blatant disregard of First Nations rights. Would the world still celebrate if it was clearly understood that instead of a peaceful gathering of nations, this year the games represent colonialism and imperialism?