Mixed support for Vancouver 2010

COLUMN: Paul Gains on why support for Vancouver 2010 is mixed among the country’s indigenous population

Date: 12/11/2008

NOVEMBER 12 - VANCOUVER 2010 is supposed to help bring Canadians together but the country’s First Nation population are unhappy many of the venues have been built on land they claim belongs to them, as PAUL GAINS discovered

AS THE VANCOUVER 2010 Winter Olympics quickly approach Canada’s indigenous people are seizing the opportunity to advance their position on human and territorial rights.

They claim that most of the land in the province of British Columbia, including the land on which the Olympic venues are situated, is theirs. Land claims have been addressed at a funereal pace over several decades and the issue has polarised various First Nations tribes.

Says a spokeperson for the B.C. Treaty Commission the independent facilitator for land claims negotiations in that province, “This idea that British Columbia is all First Nation land is a myth.”

“Well he should tell that to the Supreme Court of Canada,” responds Art Manuel, past Chairman of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council.

“He’s talking about undermining one of the senior aspects of Canadian government, the judicial system.

“None of the provincially created interests like forestry permits or mineral permits ever extinguish aboriginal title.

"When I hear stuff like that it just shows that some of these guys are off in their own world.”

While Manuel advocates non-violent protests not all indigenous peoples feel the same way.

Brandishing such slogans as “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land” they are using the build-up to the Olympic Games as an opportunity to draw attention to their cause.

The issues of homelessness, poverty, lack of education and health problems such as a high incidence of diabetes, are also hot topics amongst First Nation leaders and their supporters.

No doubt visitors to the 2010 Winter Games will get an earful.

Vandalism targets Olympic sponsors

A series of random acts of vandalism across Canada, usually targeting Olympic sponsors, have been implemented.

Earlier this year 13 cars on the lot of a Toronto GM car dealership were torched, a Royal Bank of Canada bank was painted with slogans, and a CP Railroad yard north of Toronto was vandalised so as to disrupt the passage of the Vancouver Olympics “Spirit Train.”

The celebration around the unveiling of the Omega Olympic Countdown Clock was also interrupted by protesters.

“Regardless of the role of indigenous people in the Vancouver Olympics as soon as Canada accepted responsibility for the Olympic Games they put their human rights record on the table,” Manuel continues.

“It’s automatic.

"It doesn’t matter whether you are China, the US, Japan, France, India wherever you are when you decide to put your name forward [to host the Olympics] as a country and your name forward as a province or your village forward, you put your entire self forward.

“We have the right, as an indigenous people, to wave the human rights violation that Canada is engaged in with regard to indigenous people.

"When I was in Montreal recently I saw video of the Surite du Quebec (Quebec Provincial Police) beating the hell out of some Indian people up near Barriere Lake.”

Selling out

While most indigenous tribes have outstanding land claims some are supportive of Vancouver 2010 if only to advance their cause through other means.

These are the so-called Four Host First Nations - Musqueam, Squamish, Lil’wat and Tsleil-Waututh - on whose traditional territories the 2010 Winter Olympic Games venues are situated.

Tewanee Joseph is a spokesperson for the group.

He dispels the attitude in some quarters that they have sold out to the corporate world.

“Each of the nations have negotiated legacy agreements with the government which include a cultural centre in Whistler as well as some cash, as well as some other benefits,” he acknowledges.

“If it was going to be Canada’s games we wanted to make sure that First Nations, Inuit and Metis from across the country were able to participate.

“I definitely think its an opportunity to highlight the many challenges but also some of the best talent we have.

"Many people around the world view Indian people as all the same.

"Yet we have 50 different languages across this country.

"We are Inuit, Metis and First nations I think that’s part of what we’re trying to do around the Games but also educate people around the world and across this country.”

Violating human rights

But Art Manuel is critical of this position.

He points to the Canadian Government’s vote against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in September 2007.

Canada along with the United States, Australia and New Zealand opposed the Declaration while 143 other members heartily endorsed it.

“You can’t buy yourself a good human rights record and that is what Canada is trying to do,” he states.

“They are giving [the Four Host First Nations] a little bit of a place to play in the Olympic Games.

"They are giving them a cultural centre, they are giving them the right to dance in the opening ceremonies.

"That’s fine.

"Go ahead and do that but that doesn’t negate the fact that Canada is violating their human rights plus everybody else’s indigenous rights by not going along with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and by not reversing their decision.”

With a little over a year remaining before the Games begin there is every reason to believe some of the activists will become increasingly agitated.

A torch relay is planned across Canada and activists admit they are eyeing this.

Vancouver 2010 organisers are insistent they support the right to peaceful protest.

Their stance may well be put to the test.

Paul Gains is a Canadian-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Time, the New York Times, Toronto Star, GQ and many other publications around the world. He covered the recent Beijing Olympics for CBC Television and was the athletics news editor for the 2004 Athens Olympic News Service.