The CEO of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, denied allegations that he abused aboriginal children in Burns Lake more than 40 years ago, as the chief of the First Nation in question called for a complete police investigation.
“As you are aware I have been accused of physical abuse and apparently within the last hour, sexual abuse,” John Furlong said in a statement on September 28. “I want you to know I categorically deny absolutely any wrongdoing and I believe that the RCMP in looking into this matter will discredit the complaint entirely because it just did not happen.”
Furlong was responding to allegations raised in a September 27 article in the Georgia Straight pointing out that his autobiography, Patriot Hearts, does not mention a period in 1969 when he worked at Immaculata Elementary School in Burns Lake, B.C., teaching aboriginal students. There, the article alleges, he slapped, kicked and otherwise abused the students when they were perceived to misbehave or were too slow. The story quoted several former students who submitted sworn affidavits to the newspaper.
Furlong told reporters he omitted the information about his time in Burns Lake because it wasn’t relevant to his eventual emigration from Ireland to Canada, which the book highlights.
“My time in Burns Lake was fairly brief and fairly uneventful,” Furlong told reporters at a press conference in Vancouver. “I went back to Ireland and came to Canada years later as a landed immigrant.”
Flanked by his lawyer, Marvin Storrow, neither Furlong nor the attorney took questions, saying they could not comment further while the matter was under investigation. Furlong himself also called for an investigation, which he said would clear his name. The RCMP confirmed by e-mail that an investigation is under way.
The allegations were not new in the First Nation community about 600 miles north of Vancouver, where Furlong worked for the brief period in question before emigrating from Ireland in 1974.
"All throughout the Olympics, I kept hearing from former students, 'This is the guy who did this to me, and look at him, right up there,'" Chief Wilf Adam of the Babine Nation said to the Canadian Press.
Saying that the First Nation appreciated Furlong’s work on the 2010 Olympic Games—the first to prominently feature aboriginals as co-hosts—he said that there were definitely issues that need to be addressed from that era.
“An RCMP investigation must bring the truth of what happened in the past to the full light of day for all to see," Adam said in a statement quoted by the Canadian Press. "The necessary steps must be taken, so we can put this issue to rest."
Coming so soon after the January loss of two members in a sawmill explosion, "the serious allegations concerning John Furlong are coming into full public focus at a time when people already feel overwhelmed," Adam said in the statement.
Furlong's professional pedigree includes being named Canadian of the year in 2010; he has received several other honors as well, including the Order of B.C., the Order of Canada, the Olympic Order and the Paralympic Order. Since April he has been executive chair of the Vancouver Whitecaps professional soccer team. At the press conference he said he also holds two aboriginal names.
The article cites eight former students who, in sworn affidavits submitted to the Straight, claimed they were verbally and physically abused while students under Furlong. Babine Lake First Nation member Beverley Abraham remembers Furlong, whom she says was the school's phys-ed teacher and disciplinarian when she was 11 and 12.
“You good for nothin’ Indians—come on, come on. If you don’t do this, you’re going to be good for nothing,’ ” she said she remembered Furlong telling students, in her affidavit. She said Furlong tormented her and three friends. The group started drinking alcohol at a young age, she said, and three eventually committed suicide.
According to the Straight article, the school was one of 13 run by the Prince George Catholic Diocese, and housed students from eight Carrier First Nations. The school's operation was underwritten by the church and the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs. Staff were mostly Christian volunteers from Ireland.
The students said they tried to complain to school staff about Furlong's treatment but were punished for lying. Furlong described the allegations as “troubling to read,” “unfounded” and “completely without merit.” He fired volleys at reporter Laura Robinson and the Georgia Straight, accusing both of a “shocking” lack of research diligence.
“The Georgia Straight newspaper did not place a single call to me to validate any of the elements of this story,” Furlong said. “I feel that my character has been recklessly challenged and I have no choice now but to proceed with legal action.”
The Georgia Straight responded to Furlong's press conference remarks on its website, and Robinson told ICTMN that she tried to contact him through more than one avenue before publishing her story.
“The story was backed up with eight sworn affidavits. Marvin Storrow, Furlong's lawyer, did not make his client available to respond to questions from the journalist, Laura Robinson,” the Georgia Straight noted.