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VANCOUVER—It looked like the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Committee had everything sewn up tight: new venues built to order, ads from corporate sponsors, bylaws against ambush marketing, and smiling Indigenous people welcoming the world.
Now, the committee must be wondering whether it misjudged its First Nations "partners."
Hard on the heels of Indigenous protests during the Olympic Torch Relay, the Four Host First Nations (FHFN) surprised the province and its international partners with an announcement in January. Chief Bill Williams, chair of the FHFN, declared they will use the power of international media to shame the province into honouring its commitments to economic development.
Thomas Leonard, president of the BC First Nations Forestry Council, fired the first shot. In a letter to BC Forests Minister Pat Bell last December, he wrote, "The fact that your government and its federal partner are spending $3 billion to stage the Winter Olympics is merely exacerbating the frustration and anger felt by our communities as they continue to be told that there is no money in the pot to address their situations, which, as you are fully aware, are of a most desperate nature."
Williams explained the consequences for ignoring the FHFN's ultimatum. "There's going to be some 14,000 media people running around [at the Olympics]," he told the Globe and Mail. "Some of them are already contacting us. They want to know, ‘What's it like to be an Indian in today's world? How do you live?' We are going to start letting those reporters know the reality of the poverty we face."
The host nations—the Squamish, Musqueam, Tsleil Waututh, and Lil'Wat Nation bands—signed partnership agreements with VANOC years ago, and until now, they've submitted to the demands of the international committee on everything from cutting old-growth forests to wearing faux regalia. Some, like Kwakwaka'wakw activist Gord Hill, have accused the FHFN of selling out, and cheaply.
Raising the price at this late date doesn't make it right, and Hill calls the latest move an "attempted cash grab" by "native sell-outs."
"What is truly hypocritical is for Williams to now raise the issue of Native poverty, or to express concerns about the social conditions for Native people, after several years collaborating with VANOC and the 2010 Olympics," Hill told The Dominion.
Indeed, with the Olympic spectacle upon us, Indigenous leaders have upped the ante. Thomas said, "Our communities are tired of being told there is no new funding available—and that they might have to make do with even less than they already have—and at the same time being told they should be excited about the 2010 Winter Olympics."
Thomas asked the province for an urgent meeting to resolve the issue, and said if steps aren't taken, "The FNFC and its member first nations will reluctantly, but without hesitation, take advantage of the intense international media interest that will be focused on BC before and during the Winter Olympics."
Along with his position as chair of the FHFN, Williams is vice-president of the BC First Nations Forestry Council. He said the province is overdue in funding $6.2 million for developing aboriginal forestry businesses. According to a press statement, similar commitments from Ottawa for $135 million for mountain pine beetle salvage and recovery were pledged years ago but never materialized. A second letter to Federal International Trade Minister Stockwell Day requested a meeting to discuss the long-overdue funding from Ottawa.
Hundreds of reserves across Canada are mired in abject poverty, and thousands make do without safe drinking water, housing, health care, employment and education. Conditions for Indigenous people have only deteriorated since Vancouver and Whistler won the Olympic bid, Hill said. "During this period, hundreds of Natives have been made homeless in Vancouver, subject to police violence and harassment; yet where were Mr. Williams, the Four Host First Nations and their Olympic toad Tewanee Joseph? Kissing the ass of corporations, government and Olympic officials," he charged.
Investing in forestry is a delicate issue for the Squamish and other First Nations who have fought to preserve the forests of their traditional territory from industrial clearcutting. But in many parts of the coast, unprecedented liquidation of old-growth and second-growth forests is underway, and raw log exports are at an all-time high. Meanwhile, unsettled Indigenous land claims languish in limbo.
Growing nations are desperate for jobs and economic development, and this is the trade-off they face. The Olympics represent development, but at the expense of traditional lands, foods, and wildlife.
Today, neither the province nor the chiefs are speaking to the media—likely because they are attempting to negotiate a truce. The chiefs are certainly aware that when provincial and federal governments are confronted by intractable First Nations threatening action, they often give in to the demands. That's how Indigenous activists have won substantial concessions in the past.
In this case, the FHFN demands are dwarfed by the scale of the Olympic money-pit. The province's $6.2 million debt to First Nations forestry amounts to one-tenth of one per cent of Olympic spending. Ottawa's contribution to pine-beetle salvage in First Nations communities would be a little over two per cent of the budget for the Games. Clearly, the host nations have the position and the leverage to negotiate sweeping changes. But what they stand to win by what some have called "selling out" appears to only be crumbs from the master's table.
Zoe Blunt is a journalism school dropout on Vancouver Island.
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.