Phil Fontaine Carries Olympic Torch

By Rick Littlechild

Phil Fontaine has worn many hats in his long career. The former chief of the AFN has seen Native history being made in the last thirty years, and he couldn’t be happier to be part of the 2010 Olympics being hosted for the first time ever on Native land. Phil is in Manitoba right now, visiting some of the Aboriginal communities where the Olympic torch has passed through. It moved him “to see the turn out, all the people lined up on the highway, people cheering in the cold just to see the torch.”

The Olympic torch began its trip in Newfoundland and kept going through the Maritimes provinces to Quebec and Ontario. Today it is traveling through Manitoba, and the torch has stopped at over 135 Native communities so far. First Nations are proud to be included in the festivities. There is a sense of enthusiasm and of pride that has been fueled by seeing the torch being carried by one of their own. Today, Phil Fontaine carries the Olympic flame, and in a few days Tyson Poulin, a 13-year-old Métis student will do the same in Regina. When it finally arrives in British Columbia, Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie will be one of the many torchbearers. The flame will continue traveling throughout the province to its final stop in Vancouver. “The opening ceremonies will be spectacular,” Phil said. The ceremony to welcome the world to Vancouver in February will also be a unique opportunity for sharing our songs, dances, and traditions. Phil noted that “the 2010 Olympics is not only a sporting event, it is also an opportunity to celebrate First Nations cultures.”

The Four Host Nations include four bands: the Musqueam, Squamish, the Lil’wat and Tsleil-Waututh. They have been part of planning many events that will feature Aboriginal dancers and musicians along with a showcase of Indian artists. “One of our greatest challenges is that Indigenous participation is relatively new to the Olympic movement,” Gary Youngman (consulting director for Aboriginal Participation) told the press. “There is no template we can follow, no clear indicators for how we measure our success.” One certain measure of that success will hopefully show in the smiling faces of Olympic fans.

There is little doubt that Native presence in the games will also help promote Aboriginal tourism since 500,000 people are expected to attend the games in Vancouver. Within the region, there are numerous cultural experiences to enjoy, from art galleries and museums to wildlife viewing and backcountry excursions. Phil has nothing but optimism. He knows how important the games are and believes in the sincerity of the VANOC administrators when they told the media that “inclusive Aboriginal participation makes us stronger, and in formalizing this relationship, we again show the importance that both parties attach to recognizing and respecting the role of Canada’s Aboriginal people in the planning, staging, and hosting of the 2010 Games.”

Since leaving the AFN, Phil has accepted a position with the Royal Bank of Canada as special advisor. He has said that he can help the Royal Bank “deepen its relationships with Aboriginal businesses in Canada.” Phil’s first responsibility for RBC was to promote the torch run for the Olympic Games, which is what he was doing in Manitoba today. He will be in Vancouver in February not only to attend the opening ceremonies and appreciate the abundance of Native art, but also to be a spectator at the games. “I bought my hockey tickets a long time ago,” Phil said.

Like all Canadian hockey fans, he wants Crosby and Team Canada to win gold. In the meantime, he can relish a moment of success and anticipation. First Nations in Canada have become partners for the Olympics being held in Vancouver and will take part a unique international showcase of Aboriginal art and culture. History is being made, and Phil Fontaine is there as usual, representing Aboriginal people once again.