2010 Winter Games and Native people

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The 2010 Winter Olympics are taking a bold step. The Vancouver Olympic Committee is committed to “unprecedented” aboriginal participation in the planning and hosting of the games.

The goal is to encourage aboriginal people across Canada including First Nations, Inuit and Metis to participate in as many areas of the 2010 Winter Games as possible, be it as athletes, volunteers, employees, entrepreneurs, artists and performers, spectators or cultural ambassadors.

But do these promises have substance, or are they hollow political words that will be forgotten once the Olympic flame is extinguished?

“One of our greatest challenges is that indigenous participation is relatively new to the Olympic movement – there is no template we can follow,” said Gary Youngman, a VANOC official. “Past games have focused primarily on ceremonies and cultural programs. We plan to set the bar higher with the hope that future organizing committees can be inspired and learn from our experience.”

Hopes are high in the Native community. Vancouver will host “the biggest potlatch the world has ever seen,” proclaimed Squamish Chief Bill Williams.

“The 2010 Winter Games represent a turning point,” said National Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations. “For the first time in Olympic history, indigenous peoples are full partners in hosting these games and we will work. ... to ensure there are lasting legacies for our people.”

The Aboriginal Pavilion, with a gleaming 20-meter sphere atop a contemporary version of a West Coast long house, will be the centerpiece of Native involvement during the games. Located in the heart of Vancouver’s cultural district, the sphere will dazzle at night with a giant high-tech screen projecting aboriginal art and themes. The images can be viewed from inside and outside.

The games offer a superb opportunity to showcase Native culture and arts to the world. But other than the Aboriginal Pavilion what is being done? Will there be lasting legacies?

In 2005, VANOC made Olympic history by signing a protocol with the four First Nations (Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh) whose traditional territories encompass the games’ sites of Vancouver and Whistler. These First Nations, in turn, established the Four Host First Nations Society to coordinate Native involvement in the games.

Tewanee Joseph, FHFNS executive director is of Squamish and Maori blood, said the organization has three main roles: To look for opportunities for the four host first nations; to be a direct partner in the games; and to be the main contact point for other aboriginal peoples in Canada.

“We are definitely partners,” Joseph said. “And we have been right from the beginning.” He explained how prior to the selection of the 2010 games host, the International Olympic Committee asked the chiefs of the four host nations whether their involvement was “just window dressing.” “No,” they responded, “it is a full partnership.” According to Jack Poole, the chairman of the Vancouver Bid Committee, the Native support played a key role in Vancouver’s win.

Native people have a direct say in the games’ planning but definitely not as full partners. Of the 10 senior executive positions and 20 directors of VANOC there is only one indigenous person. Gibby Jacob, a hereditary Squamish chief, represents First Nations on the board; and Joseph attends VANOC board meetings as well as the working partner meetings.

Dan Doyle, the VANOC executive vice president responsible for aboriginal participation, described some actions that have been taken on the economic front. “To ensure aboriginal firms benefit financially from Olympic-related construction activity, $53.8 million in venue construction contracts and $1.2 million in non-venue contracts were awarded directly to aboriginal businesses, without them going through an open tendering process. And the quality of work produced has been very high.” Doyle said a special aboriginal hiring program has been established and about three percent of VANOC staff are indigenous peoples.

Recently, Joseph visited the Olympic store at Vancouver Airport and was emotionally moved by aboriginal merchandise that bore a special indigenous art logo. “This has never happened before at any Olympic Games, and will really help showcase aboriginal art. We expect excellent sales and one-third of the royalties from aboriginal products are going into an aboriginal youth fund. This will leave a legacy for our young people.”

Joseph is enthusiastic about two legacies he sees emerging from these games. First, the cooperation between Natives and local, provincial and federal governments is working well and will be a good model for making future partnerships successful. Second is skills development.

“Native people have traditionally been seen as lazy and unreliable. We will break that stereotype. We will do quality work and make excellent products.” He feels the games will mark the largest rebranding in Canadian history.