Olympics seen as opportunity for protest and progress

by Lloyd Dolha

AFN leader Phil Fontaine said the Vancouver Olympics are a potential target for First Nations protest much like Beijing has been a flash point for Tibet supporters. Phil Fontaine says native leaders will use whatever chance they can, including the 2010 Winter Games, to focus governments on aboriginal poverty. Thousands of Canadians who’ve marched in support of a free Tibet should be “outraged” by abysmal native conditions in their own country, he said. “We’ll take whatever opportunity is presented to us to state our case, to set the record straight, to tell Canadians the true story about our situation. They have to stand up and demand immediate action on the part of their government to fix this.”

“We find the Tibetan situation compelling,” Fontaine said when asked if the 2010 Olympics could be disrupted by the sort of protest that has dogged Chinese planners. Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said he has heard such talk but finds it “a little odd.” From job prospects to sports arenas, special effort has been made to ensure that the four First Nations located on Olympic grounds in B.C. share related wealth, he said. “For the first time ever, indigenous people have a say in how the ceremonies are going to be conducted and how the benefits will be distributed. …It’s going to be an exciting Olympics for First Nations – not just from the area but from across Canada. My hope is that they’ll be respectful of that.” Ernie Campbell is chief of the Musqueam First Nation, whose traditional lands comprised much of what is now Vancouver. Negotiations for Olympic benefits are ongoing, he said, and he fully expects the Winter Games to draw demonstrators. “I think that’s a fact no matter where the Olympics are held. People are going to take that opportunity,” whether they’re native or non-native, he said.

The Assembly of First Nations has called for a peaceful, lawful day of national rallies and marches on May 29. Fontaine said it’s just the beginning of what will have to be a long, sustained campaign for change. He stressed that he hopes demonstrators will stay on the right side of the law. But some militant factions used a similar day of action last June to shut down highways and railroad lines. Fontaine said he understands the frustration: his attempts to negotiate have been largely ignored by the Conservative government. Strahl said he’s not against legal demonstration. It can help make more Canadians aware of the basic needs – including clean drinking water – that are still lacking on dozens of First Nations, he said. Still other First Nations leaders do not view the upcoming games as a chance to voice their displeasure over current issues.

Back in early March, at a meeting of Indigenous leaders and activists preparing for an upcoming United Nations conference voiced support for the Four Host First Nations continued work with the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Organizing Committee (VANOC) to achieve “unprecedented Aboriginal participation” in the 2010 Winter Games.

 Members of the North American Regional Indigenous Caucus were gathered in Vancouver, in the traditional territories of the Coast Salish Peoples, to prepare for the 7th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April 2008. 

 On February 23, day two of the event, some caucus members introduced a short text condemning the 2010 Winter Games, and linking the Games to the death of an elder from the Squamish nation.  Other members disagreed.  As the caucus operates through consensus, the co-chairs (Grand Chief Edward John and Kenneth Deer) asked to hear from Coast Salish leaders from the host First Nations.

 Hereditary Chief Campbell took the opportunity “to set the record straight” regarding the involvement of Coast Salish and Interior Salish Peoples in the 2010 Winter Games.

Chief Campbell said he is “working closely with Squamish Hereditary Chiefs Bill Williams and Gibby Jacob to bring life to the vision of the late (Squamish) Chief Joe Mathias, who insisted that the Coast Salish Peoples must be full partners” in the 2010 Games.  “We are not sitting idle.  We are not passive.  We are not assimilated peoples,” he said.

 Tewanee Joseph, the Executive Director of the Four Host First Nations Society, who attended the event with his two year-old son, added “our whole focus for the Games is for our children.  We are focusing on their future and opportunities for them.” 

 Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Regional Chief Wilton Littlechild shared his extensive experience with Olympic Games, and noted that the AFN has signed an MOU to support the work of the four host nations. 

 “Since the Games in Calgary in 1988, the IOC and governments have learned, and it is really quite incredible what is being done here,” said Regional Chief Littlechild.  “These 2010 Games have, by far, the largest Indigenous participation at every level.”