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As the Vancouver Olympics approach, the building of highways, condos, and resorts have accelerated on land that Indigenous activists say is unceded territory.Photo: Rick Lippold
The official website of the 2010 Olympics touts the "historic" and "unprecedented" participation of First Nations in the Vancouver games. According to the site, the collaboration between the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) and Aboriginals will include increased opportunities to "showcase art, language, traditions, history and culture" and "promote skills development and training related to the games."
This kind of “trinket and bead exchange” is beside the point, says Kanahus Pellkey of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation. "We're still fighting for our homeland."
"No Olympics on stolen Native land" has become the battle cry for Indigenous resistance to the Games -- resistance that has found allies in those angered by what they call the devastating social and environmental implications of the Olympics-- and has drawn its resonance from the fact that much of B.C. remains unceded Indigenous territory.
"Right now we're holding onto the very last of what we have," says Pellkey. The Secwepemc's traditional territory covers approximately 145,000 square kilometres in the southern interior of B.C. "Our land up there is mountains and water," says Pellkey, on the phone from Vancouver. "There's an abundance of wildlife and species. It's one of the last places in the world where there's still clean mountain water."
That land, along with an entire way of life is now under threat, says Pellkey. "By them choosing to have the Olympics here, it's going to open up our land, our sacred sites, our medicine grounds. All these big corporations are going to see the potential when they see our untouched land-base. We want investors to know our land is not for sale."
Pellkey is part of the Native Youth Movement, a group that's opposing the Olympics -- which is to take place on St'at'imc and Squamish territories -- and its inevitable ripple effects of increased tourism and development on the surrounding First Nation territories.
One of those ripple effects is the continued expansion of Sun Peaks Ski Resort. "Sun Peaks is pushing a $284 million expansion," says Pellkey. "They're [also] fighting for a road through the backcountry, to open it up to tourists from Calgary."
While tourists flock to British Columbia to experience its "untouched wilderness,” the Secwepemc still rely on the land to live. People depend on the moose, berries, roots and fresh water from underground aquifers, says Pellkey; aquifers that Sun Peaks is draining to make fake snow for skiers. "What Sun Peaks and other corporations and are doing to us is affecting our basic human right to live."
A similar situation is playing out in Vancouver, according to Angela Sterrit, a secretariat member of the International Indigenous Youth Network (IIYN) and member of the Gitxsan Nation. As the Olympics approach, property value is skyrocketing and low-income housing is disappearing. "There's construction everywhere. Everywhere you go, streets are being bulldozed," says Sterrit.
According to an IIYN press release, 512 low-income housing units were lost between June 2003 and June 2005 and almost 300 low-income housing units have been lost to rent increases in the same time period. "Homeless people are everywhere," says Sterrit. "I've lived in this city several years and I've never seen it this bad. You see them on every second corner. People don't have blankets. They don't have shelters to go to."
And as Kat Norris of the Indigenous Action Group points out, First Nations people make up 30 per cent of homeless people in the downtown eastside. The brutal history of residential schools coupled with present day racism and discrimination has meant that "a high percentage of our people rely on services in the downtown eastside of Vancouver," says Norris. Many of these services are facing funding cuts, she continues, "and we're wondering where the money is going to."
According to British Columbia's auditor general, the Games will cost Canadians $2.5 billion, as reported in the Globe and Mail last year, with $1.5 billion of that being picked up by British Columbians.
That's too high a price tag for an event that's "all about profit and collaborating with big business," says Norris. So, will resistance to the Olympics continue? "Without a doubt," she says. "There will be an escalation."
That's not good news for the VANOC. Already, opposition to the games has dogged Olympic organizers who now require visible security at every Olympic-related event along with security fencing separating dignitaries from the public. At a recent Olympic flag illumination ceremony, "The security nearly outnumbered the more than 100 protesters, who in turn outnumbered the spectators watching the ceremony," reported the Vancouver Sun on March 13. This event occurred only a week after the Olympic flag was stolen and the Native Warrior Society released a photo showing that they had it in their possession.
As reported in the same Vancouver Sun article, after an incident where the Olympic clock was defaced, John Furlong, chief executive of the VANOC, responded by saying: "It is not the Canadian way. When you do so [deface the clock], you give up the right to be listened to."
Indigenous People have a long history of “dialogue” with the Canadian government, says Pellkey, but it hasn't inspired confidence in Canada as a negotiating partner. "We have agreements and treaties that have never been upheld," she says. "They [government] go through with whatever they want to anyways."
Despite this history of disregard, in 2002, 76-year-old Secwepemc Elder Irene Billy and Ske7cis Manuel travelled to Switzerland to submit an official request to the International Olympic Committee. The submission described, "All the human rights abuses committed against Indigenous People in Canada," says Pellkey and asked that the committee not choose British Columbia for the Olympic bid. "This big organization never took into consideration what the grassroots people were saying," she says. "They chose to have the Olympics in our territory."
Today, the Indigenous resistance to the games is using other tactics to make sure their voices are heard. "We have found direct action is a way to stand up," says Pellkey. Although disrupting the Olympics and its build-up may not be Furlong's version of “the Canadian way,” according to Pellkey, it's better than letting the other “Canadian way” destroy her people's chance of survival.
"When you here about Indigenous resistance, remember that we're real people," says Pellkey. "We're mothers and aunts and wives and husbands. We have a heart and we care. That's what drives us to fight for what we have: our land, our food gathering grounds; because we care. We care about the land and our children, our great grandchildren and those yet to be born. We love them with all our heart. That's why we're doing this."
"We're not doing this to be a nuisance," says Pellkey, "but because we have love for our land and our territories and our ancestors."
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.