Richard Pound on the s-word

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TORONTO – “The word civilization – when used to denigrate peoples classed as ‘savage’ by colonizers – has an explosive power,” author Charles Mann wrote in “1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.”

In fact, Mann admitted, there was nothing new about research showing “the great antiquity, size and sophistication of Indian societies” that he detailed in his 2005 best-seller.

Some discoveries date back 50 years, but the information is new to the public, Mann wrote, lamenting high school textbooks that continue to perpetuate colonial myths.

In “The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism and the Cant of Conquest,” which in 1975 was one of the first books to debunk those myths, historian Francis Jennings noted: “To call a man a savage is to warrant his death and leave him unknown and unmourned.”

Small wonder, then, that there was an outpouring of indignation when a leading member of Canada’s Olympic movement used the s-word.

Lawyer Richard Pound, best-known for his crusade against doping in sports, and a man once touted to succeed Juan Antonio Samaranch as president of the International Olympic Committee, found himself at the center of the firestorm.

LandInSights, a Montreal-based aboriginal advocacy group, complained to the IOCs ethics commission that Pound had perpetuated ancient prejudices and should be sanctioned for “racist and discriminatory words” that contravene the Olympic charter.

The comment came in an August interview in French with the newspaper La Presse in which Pound, an IOC member, defended the decision to hold the games in Beijing despite China’s violations of human rights.

“We must not forget that 400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages, with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants of European descent, while in China, we’re talking about a 5,000-year-old civilization,” said Pound, a director of VANOC, the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, and the chancellor of McGill University. “We must be prudent with our great experience of three or four centuries before telling the Chinese how to manage China.”

“Through his words, he is affirming that the Amerindians had no culture or civilization and that only the presence of ‘scarcely 10,000 people of European descent’ represents civilized life in the Canadian landscape,” LandInSights director Andre Dudemaine wrote to IOC ethics commission chair Youssoupha Ndiaye.

“He reaffirms these words by speaking of our experience ‘of three or four centuries,’ leaving the cultural and civilizing contributions of the Amerindian nations out of humanity’s heritage and Canadian history.”

Dudemaine added that over thousands of years, these nations developed “languages, cultures, social and political organizations, networks of trade exchanges, farming techniques, religions, artistic practices, sports (now Olympic Games events), diplomatic relations and environmentally-respectful models of development.”

Other voices were soon added to the chorus of disapproval, from Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, to Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, who called on Pound to resign from the McGill chancellorship and from the Vancouver organizing committee.

The university issued a statement disassociating itself from the comment but emphasized that Pound is a valued member of the McGill community.

Rallying to Pound’s defense, VANOC head John Furlong said “I’m quite sure this is not how he feels. He’s a very good advocate on our board for First Nations.”

Pound first said the controversy was “manufactured” and then, in an interview with the Canadian Press, apologized for “any unintentional harm.”

He said he had used a French expression in the historical sense, as it was used by the Jesuits in describing Canada.

“That is the term (pays de sauvage) that has been used in French which means something entirely different than savages in English for close to 400 years,” he told the wire service. “It’s fallen out of favor now and I probably should have been more alert to the change in vocabulary. It’s not derogatory.”

Phillip declared himself unimpressed by Pound’s apology. “There’s a vast difference between a self-serving qualified rationalization of his remarks as opposed to an apology.”

Meanwhile, IOC ethics commission secretary Paquerette Girard-Zappelli notified LandInSights there would be no investigation.

Dudemaine, an Innu, said he was not surprised. “We were not naïve. This is a club of powerful and rich gentlemen, they’re not changed that much since 1912 when they took Jim Thorpe’s medals away.”

Thorpe, an outstanding athlete whose mother was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma, was stripped of the gold medals he won in the Stockholm Olympics after a dubious challenge to his amateur status. He died in poverty in 1953; his medals were re-instated in 1983.

Reached by phone at his Montreal law office, Pound sounded a little shell-shocked by the reaction to a comment that went unnoticed for two months until LandInSights filed its complaint.

“I have done my best to apologize to anybody hurt or offended by it,” he said. “It was entirely unintentional but I can understand how it could happen and for that I’m truly sorry.”

Pound said he hadn’t intended to make any adverse comment on First Nations people or their cultural or political organizations 400 years ago. He said he was referring to the 10,000 Europeans as the progenitors of a civilization that’s now trying to impose a “made-in-America” human rights solution on the Chinese.

As the controversy appeared to be dying down, a newspaper columnist fanned the flames. Pound was right, wrote Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail.

Bolstering her argument with quotations from Frances Widdowson, an academic associated with Conservative Party policy adviser Tom Flanagan, Wente pronounced that indigenous knowledge is useless and aboriginal contributions to civilization are overstated.

Dudemaine said he welcomed the debate, including Wente’s contribution.

“All the letters to the editor are against her. I prefer to have that crap to be openly discussed because it will be taken care of. But when it is always in the background you can never denounce it.”