American Indian activists gear up for the Vancouver Games
By Chris Giblin
As the running of the Beijing Olympic torch continues to provoke anti-China protests all over the world, coordinators of the Vancouver 2010 Games are watching vigilantly in hopes that they can prevent such demonstrations in response to their own games.
The demonstrations at the Olympic Torch Relay in Paris and London have succeeded in making the Vancouver Organizing Committee president nervous. “I was sick to my stomach,” President John Furlong said in Globe and Mail after watching the protests. He is afraid that comparable campaigns will tarnish the image of his own Olympics. In many ways, though, protesters have already been doing just that.
The Native Youth Movement, a youth organization that fights for the rights of American Indian people, is protesting the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics on the grounds that they will be held on stolen land. The basis for this stance has a long history beginning with the 1763 Royal Proclamation, which pronounced that sovereign indigenous territories were to be willingly surrendered to the Crown prior to any trade or settlement. Very little indigenous territory in British Columbia has ever been legally ceded to either the British or the Canadians.
However, the 1876 Indian Act forcibly dispossessed American Indians of their territory in order to open up land for settlement in British Columbia. Relations between the American Indians and the Canadian government have been bitter ever since, but recently, vocal protests have only been widespread since the prospect of Vancouver hosting the 2010 Games was exposed.
Organized nonviolent protests against the 2010 Vancouver Games went on tour exactly two years in advance throughout Canada and the northern fringes of the United States in January and February of this year, hitting Toronto, Boston and Ithaca among several other cities.
Members of the movement justify such protests on the grounds that the copious construction of infrastructure–hotels, ski resorts, and the Sea-To-Sky Highway–will have detrimental economic and ecological effects on native peoples. The Native Youth Movement has also expressed fears that the publicity of the 2010 Games will attract unwanted commercial encroachment upon the area around native British Columbia in the years after the event. They voiced these concerns in “Cancel the 2010 Winter Olympics,” a 2006 leaflet:
“The negative effects of these games will carry out onto other indigenous territories of the area, and the aftermath of this will create an invasion not seen since the gold rush.”
Protesters from the NYM and other organizations have also responded more militantly to new preparations for the 2010 Olympics. On Feb. 12, 2007, the ceremony introducing the three-year countdown to the Olympics clock outside the Royal Bank of Canada in Vancouver prompted a masked activist to run on stage and grab the microphone, screaming “F*** 2010! F*** your corporate circus!” This prompted scores of protesters to hurl eggs and paint bombs at police. The term “corporate circus” has since been used often by protesters to describe the 2010 Games.
More controversy surfaced later that month, when Harriet Nahanee, an elderly American Indian, died after serving a two-week jail term for participating in the blockade of the ecologically questionable Sea-To-Sky Highway in the summer of 2006. She is now heralded as a martyr to the movement against the 2010 Games.
Wild protests and acts of vandalism have already cost the Canadian government tens of thousands of dollars in police enforcement and clean up. However, with cumulative costs for Olympic infrastructure estimated to balloon over 6 billion taxpayer dollars, the damage done by dissenters to date has added a comparatively insignificant expense.
“The Olympics are about money,” said NYM spokesperson Kanahus Pellkey last January in the Canadian Press. “The corporate sponsors are about money. Everything is about money, but native people remain the most impoverished people in the land.”
Vancouver protesters from the NYM, as well as other groups such as the Anti-Poverty Committee, detest the fact that so much government money is being poured into the Olympics, turning the whole area into a capitalistic enterprise. As a result, several protesters have denounced the games on the grounds that Canada has more pressing internal problems to address. For example, during the celebration of the three-year countdown clock, some demonstrators simultaneously unveiled a clock of their own, which predicted an increase in Vancouver’s homelessness population up to 6,000.
As of 2000, the homeless population of Vancouver was 30 percent American Indian, although the overall Native population is only about two percent.
But not everyone in the American Indian community agrees with the sentiments of dissenting groups like the Native Youth Movement. The Four Host First Nations, a group of leaders from the indigenous territories that will be involved in the Olympics, stands on the opposite edge of the spectrum, embracing the arrival of the Olympics as a way to expose their culture to the world.
The Four Host First Nations has been working hand-in-hand with the Vancouver Organizing Committee to integrate native history into the games as much as possible. Chief Executive Officer of the FHFN, Tewanee Joseph, addressed and praised these efforts during the feature series In Their Words, on Feb. 25 in recognition of the two-year countdown to the games:
“Today, we work with the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games and our partners to ensure that the games are successful, that an unprecedented level of Aboriginal participation is achieved, and that a positive legacy is left for future generations.”
Indeed, several area American Indians are looking at the games as a way to prove themselves.
“We want to be able to tell the world we do exist,” said Bill Williams, chief of the Squamish First Nation, to CBC News on April 18. “We have a culture, we have a language, we have wonderful things to contribute to the world.”
The Canadian government has made efforts to fund and gain support from several factions of American Indians. For example, they allotted $20 million worth of money, land and facilities to the Squamish and Mt. Currie groups, while also funding a hip-hop concert for native youth in February of last year.
However, protesters at the head of the anti-2010 movement question the motives behind these government moves. They see such endowments as shameless propagandizing, just tactics used by the government to hide the harmful environmental effects of Olympic-related development. They refer to leaders like Williams and Joseph as sell-outs, as they do not want to sell their culture during the 2010 Games.
“[The Olympics] bastardizes indigenous cultures and mocks our people. That is evidence about how VANOC views indigenous peoples and cultures,” said Angela Sterrit of the International Indigenous Youth Network in The McGill Daily.
So what kind of interruption are we to expect during the Vancouver Olympics? To answer that, it may be helpful to cite the remarks of Phil Fontaine, who holds one of the highest levels of authority in the Canadian native community as Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He takes a stance in between protest groups like the NYM and cooperative groups like the FHFN.
“I would hope that [American Indians] won’t be forced to take disruptive measures,” he told CBC News on April 18. “I am confident and optimistic that won’t be necessary.”
Although the official position of the Assembly of First Nations is in support of the Vancouver Olympics, Fontaine is using the games to compel the Canadian government to address the problem of Aboriginal poverty. Fontaine has, in fact, scheduled May 29 as the AFN’s national day of protest against Aboriginal poverty. But if such efforts are ignored, Fontaine may begin supporting the causes of Olympic protest groups.
With nearly two years left until the Vancouver Olympics begin in February 2010, it is difficult to think that opposition will not escalate in the coming months. The Beijing Olympics will soon be over and Vancouver will ascend to prominence as the world’s next Olympic city. The whole world will have an eye on them, and protesters love to be noticed. No wonder VANOC president John Furlong feels sick to his stomach.
Chris Giblin is a freshman journalism major. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image by Jessica Guido