Last Friday, as the Olympic torch made its way to Vancouver, a cultural center dubbed the Aboriginal Pavilion opened its doors in what organizer Tewanee Joseph called “one of the biggest coming together of aboriginal people for the purpose of hosting the world.” Joseph, CEO of the Four Host First Nations, the International Olympic Committee-sponsored organization meant to represent the four aboriginal bands on whose territory the Olympics are being held, was in high spirits. “For so long, we’ve been in the shadows,” he announced, “but now we want the world to know that we are here.”
Approximately three years earlier, in February 2007, 73-year-old Pacheedat elder Harriet Nehanee was released from a fourteen day prison stay for her part in blockading the expansion of the Sea to Sky highway leading from Vancouver to the game’s second location in Whistler, British Columbia. Two weeks later, she died of pneumonia and complications surrounding lung cancer. In her wake, Nehanee left one of the strongest Olympics resistance movements ever seen.
Games and Pranks
While the athletes and competitions have received relatively little press coverage, local and international Olympic committees and a variety of activists are engaged in a heated media battle. On one side, committees, advertisers, and executives are charged with maintaining the perennial Olympic image—the purity and exceptionalism of the world’s best amateur athletes competing on equal footing for their respective nations. On the other, a collection of protestors and self-purported myth-busters are hoping to derail the behemoth they claim to be an excuse for various injustices: from imperial land appropriation and massive ecological transformation to Orwellian surveillance systems and forced relocations of the city’s low-income communities.
Members of the Olympics Resistance Network, the umbrella organization for Olympic opposition, have staged rallies and theatrical presentations, gaining a few spotlights and generally making things difficult for the games’ organizers. Resistance is largely focused around two distinct, though arguably interrelated, issues—the alleged criminalization and displacement of the poor, and appropriation of aboriginal land through environmentally destructive development.
Protest organizers argue that urban development is disproportionally affecting aboriginals in Vancouver’s low-income communities. According to the United Native Nations, 41 percent of BC’s aboriginal population is in danger of becoming homeless.
According to anti-poverty organizations such as the Pivot Legal Society and the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood Association, efforts to develop hotels for Olympics visitors caused large-scale displacement. A report released in March 2007 by Pivot states, “city police are systematically closing down hotels in the Downtown Eastside.… Hundreds of people every year are losing access to affordable housing as the Olympics approach, and the problem will only continue to get worse as the date gets closer and the Olympic tourism feeding frenzy gains momentum.”
For the past three years, activists organized a ‘Poverty Olympics,’ aiming to highlight an alleged 10,000 homeless residents of one of the UN-declared “world’s most livable cities.”
In the Grand River Territory, what the Canadian government refers to as Ontario, the Onkwehonwe (people) stood with other members of the Six Nations, preventing the torch from passing through their land.
In an interview with [email protected] Radio, Ojistari:yo (Melissa Elliot), a member of the Haudenosaunee Nation, stated of her community’s blocking the torch that, “We are not Canadian. We are not a conquered people… The torch and what it represents: the destruction of the mother earth out in BC, and the missing aboriginal women, the homelessness, all of these things that the torch represents…we are not allowing their flame, that foreign flame through the heart of our territory.”
Looking back, looking forward
Meanwhile, Olympic authorities and local government preempted much of the controversy. BC’s Housing Authority set up an information center on Vancouver’s downtown East Side, often referred to as ‘Canada’s poorest postal code,’ hoping to manage media reports on the area. The organization’s website states, “It is easy to see the negative aspects of the Downtown Eastside…simply step outside the door…The goal [of the center] is to demonstrate the initiatives by various groups along with government agencies to help improve the lives of people in the Downtown Eastside.”
A representative who wished to remain anonymous due to job restrictions said his organization is taking advantage of the games by coordinating job training and placement for people from the neighborhood.
Perhaps the most contentious of the competing spectacles revolves around the game’s image of aboriginal participation in the context of aboriginal land claims in the Whistler area.
Vancouver’s Bid corporation recognized early on the importance of marshalling as much indigenous support as possible for the games. Months before the International Olympic Committee chose Vancouver, the Canadian government offered multi-million dollar deals to the four band councils on whose land the games were to be held. In 2003, the Squamish and Lil’wat councils accepted $20 million in cash and land in return for participation and public support of the games. In May 2007, the BC government granted the Squamish and Mt. Curie bands eight parcels of land in the Whistler area, some of Canada’s most valuable real estate, leading Vancouver’s The Province to speculate as to the band’s status as the “wealthiest in the province.”
The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (VANOC), along with The Four Host First Nations committee distributed posters of aboriginal youth athletes competing in the games to elementary and secondary schools across Canada as a means of demonstrating the game’s democratic nature. In a press release from the Four Host First Nations, Canada’s Minister of State for Sport, Gary Lunn, declared, “These First Nations, Inuit, and Métis athletes are an inspiration to other Aboriginal young people and to all of us across Canada to embrace healthier lifestyles.”
These gestures toward inclusively, however, take on new context in the context of Canada’s troubled history of settler relations with aboriginal populations. According to the No 2010 Coalition, an information agency and protest organization, “most of the land in BC remains unceded indigenous territory.”
Per a 1763 Royal Proclamation, indigenous communities were to formally surrender territory before local or colonial authorities could sanction trade or settlement. Frustrated by aboriginal communities unwilling to surrender land through treaties, BC’s parliament passed a law that gave the local government dominion over all land in the province. Following a federal annulment of the law, BC’s threats of secession pressured Parliament to pass the Indian Act in 1876, granting Canada’s federal government exclusive rights to legislate the status of all land, regardless of its inhabitants.
Parliament amended the act repeatedly to grant state authorities greater power over aboriginal lands and practices. Legislation now allows government officials to rent ‘uncultivated’ land to non-indigenous farmers, prevent democratically elected aboriginal leaders from being reinstated after federal ousting, and prohibit a variety of ceremonies, dances, and festivals.
In spite of legislation, banning formal land claims organizing, aboriginal groups throughout the country continued to resist dispossession. Much of this resistance came to head as developers created and expanded ski resorts in places like Whistler. Following the legislation’s repeal in 1996, land claims in court caught up with the figures native leaders professed. According to the No 2010 coalition, Vancouver Island and a tract of land in the province’s northeast are the only territories indigenous communities have ceded in British Columbia.
Harriet Nehanee died fighting against the transformative force of the Olympic games throughout British Columbia. Her positions marked one side of the struggle between aboriginal individuals and organizations in favor of integration into Canada’s economic and political life, and those seeking a different path. In a communiqué published on the Solidarity with Six Nations website, she wrote, “We live in dictatorships run by federal government band-elected Band Chiefs, [and] Councilors…What I would like to see is people with [traditional] knowledge to teach the small, little people how to grow up with pride. My generation is lost—they’re assimilated. They don’t think like an Indian.”
A variety of aboriginal artists, band leaders, and other business-minded individuals are looking to the games as not only bringing economic opportunities, but also to, as chief Joseph puts it, “showcase aboriginal people to the world.” Critics, however, such as the No 2010 Coalition, have deemed the partnerships to be nothing less than “literally buying people off, to pacify and silence opposition.”
Vancouver’s opening ceremonies featured a number of aboriginal performers, along with sweaters Cowichan artisans had to wrestle a contract from Chinese manufactures to produce. It remains to be seen what will come of the ever-louder cries from beyond the stadium gates.