Vancouver | Sharing the Olympic Blame

The 21st winter Olympiad is the first in history to be co-hosted by aboriginals. What do they get out of it?

Like many Olympics past, the Vancouver Games open with some staunch opposition. AP Images
01 February, 2010

In the predawn hours of 6 March 2007, three masked men crept across the lawn of Vancouver City Council and crouched beneath the Olympic flagpole. Five rings waved above them as they pried open the access panel and cut the cable inside. The flag plummeted to the ground and was quickly bundled off, only glimpsed again in a photo sent to media the following day. The culprits posed beside their prize like al Qaeda with a hostage. “No Olympics on stolen Native land!” read the accompanying press release, signed by a group calling themselves the Native Warrior Society.

It was a chastening moment for organisers of the 21st Winter Olympiad, which begins on 12 February. They prefer the media to focus on the cooperation they’ve secured from this country’s indigenous population. Known officially as First Nations in the Canadian lexicon - and, unofficially, as ‘natives,’ ‘Indians,’ ‘aboriginals,’ and a host of less flattering epithets - there are over 60 tribes in the Pacific coast province of British Columbia, societies whose presence here predates the European arrival by several thousand years. Four of them - Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh - lay claim to the land between Vancouver and the ski resort Whistler, where many Winter Olympic events are taking place. Yet those same tribes signed an agreement with the Vancouver Olympic Committee that makes them official ‘“co-hosts’” of the Games under the ‘“Four Host First Nations’” banner. The games even features the mascot Ilanaaq the Inunnguaq. Ilanaaq is the native word for friend.

The Four Host bills the Olympics as “the biggest potlatch the world has ever seen,” in reference to a traditional gift-giving ceremony among native chiefs. Canadian law banned potlatches until 1951 as part of an effort to assimilate aboriginals into mainstream Canadian society; the fact that these will be the first Olympics in history to recognize aboriginal authority is, to the Four Host, a sign of cultural resurgence and growing political strength. But as the flag-stealing episode revealed, many among their communities feel differently.

Native opposition to the Olympics doesn’t usually get a lot of press. With most of Canada’s media houses holding some kind of stake in the Olympics (BellGlobeMedia, owner of almost 100 newspapers, radio and TV stations, paid 200 million Canadian dollars to be an official sponsor), the sounds of celebration are overwhelming. But walk along Hastings Street at sundown and you’ll hear the voice of opposition. Here on downtown’s eastern edge, the sidewalk teems with a blood-chilling congregation of have-nots who form the most shocking community in Vancouver. This isn’t the neighbourhood that keeps earning Vancouver the United Nations’ ‘most liveable city on earth’ contest. It’s a place where you can buy crack pipes, ‘rocket powder,’ pills and people, all offered before you’ve covered half a block. No one knows precisely how many people inhabit the Downtown East Side, but the latest attempt at a census suggested there will be one homeless person for each of the 5,000 athletes who take up temporary shelter in the Olympic Village a few blocks away.

About a third of those souls are aboriginal; of them, 20 percent are HIV positive, the highest rate on the continent and roughly 2,000 times the national average. It’s an extreme microcosm of the Third World conditions prevailing on so many of the reserves where First Nations people live across the country, isolated ghettos into which a colonising government stuffed entire populations more than a century ago, and where half their descendants continue to live today. This is the dark side of Canada’s history, a living embodiment of the anti-Olympic movement’s rallying cry: “No Olympics on stolen land.”

You can find that slogan at Spartacus Books, an alternative bookstore on Hastings Street, where the Olympics Resistance Network met each Sunday in the run-up to the Games. Among the motley crew of activists, never more than a couple dozen strong, were cheerful Hastings residents, First Nations citizens dressed in army fatigues, hippies, doctors, political science PhD students, and the occasional Quebecer—from Canada’s French speaking province, where a loud minority of citizens advocate secession from Canada. The meetings always began with a reminder that Big Brother might be listening (invariably accompanied by sidelong glances at the journalist in the room). Many causes fit under their umbrella—environmentalism, anti-capitalism, and feminism—but the original sin of colonialism united them all.

The ‘stolen land’ premise is technically sound—unlike the rest of Canada’s provinces, British Columbia never signed treaties with its original inhabitants. Negotiations to do so finally began in 1990, two centuries after the British first sailed to shore, and so far they’ve yielded only one treaty a decade. With 60 tribes to go, everyone involved would like to see the pace quicken. Nobody wants to see life on the reservations stay the way it is. These are places where substance abuse, disease, joblessness and other hallmarks of poverty contribute to such an overwhelming sense of despair that suicide rates are five times the national average - only from a reserve could moving to a place like East Hastings Street actually seem like an improvement.

In the face of such living conditions, the fact that we spent some seven billion dollars on the 21st Winter Olympiad strikes more than a few people as an extreme example of misplaced priorities; that the aboriginal leadership itself would endorse and profit from the Games has led many to call them the ultimate sell-outs.

So when Phil Fontaine, then national chief of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations, came to Vancouver in 2008 to deliver a speech on the “unprecedented opportunities” the Olympics would bring, he was interrupted by two young women who dumped a bag of apples on the podium—red on the outside but white to the core. That was one of several creative stunts, including the theft of the Olympic flag a year before.  And as the Olympic torch began its journey across Canada in the final weeks before the Games, organisers scrambled for a new route home as one aboriginal tribe after another sealed off their territory.  Protesters dogged the runners’ every step, and managed to knock one off her feet in Ontario.

The torch hit the ground but it never burned out. Ultimately, the Olympic resisters are few, their resources scant, their victories fleeting—that, after all, is what they’re protesting. Far more attention flows to the other end of town, where the Four Host First Nations head office gleams at the waterfront beneath the soaring Lions Gate Bridge on some of this continent’s most expensive real estate. This is ground zero for an explicit re-branding campaign that aims to paint Canada’s First Nations as something other than victims.

“We’re business people, we’re entrepreneurs, we’re visual artists and we’re performing artists,” said Tewanee Joseph, head of the Four Host, in an interview. Aboriginal businesses have won 54 million dollars worth of construction contracts from the organising committee; a native cultural centre has been built in Whistler, along with an Aboriginal Pavilion in Vancouver. Over the course of this two-week entertainment spree, virtually every aboriginal singer, carver, poet, and painter in the province and beyond is guaranteed an outlet for their work.

There’s no question that this will be the most explicitly pro-aboriginal Games in history. But whether their participation allows their cultures to step off the reserve, and whether it does any good for the soup kitchens on East Hastings, may prove the hardest performance of all to judge at the Vancouver Olympics.