Native resistance to the Olympics

Posted by admin on Mar 1st, 2008

by Maya Rolbin-Ghanie, March 1, 2008, The Dominion

“We are preparing to disrupt the Olympics any way that we can. We want to let the world know that our land is not for sale,” said Kanahus Pelkey, at a February 1 talk held at the Native Friendship Centre in Montreal. It was one of many stops on an extensive speaking tour of the Great Lakes and East Coast regions of Canada. The speakers included Pelkey, of the Secwepemc and Ktunaxa First Nations, and Dustin Johnson, of the Tsimshan First Nation — both members of the Native Youth Movement (NYM) in British Columbia. The packed room saw many people sitting on the floor and standing for several hours.

The aim of the tour was to raise awareness about Native resistance to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, while underlining the importance of restoring traditional Indigenous knowledge and arousing a sense of responsibility in First Nations youth to defend and maintain their people and territories.
“It’s all about land, and that’s what everyone has to understand here,” says Kanahus Pelkey of the Secwepemc and Ktunaxa First Nations. Photo: Maya Rolbin-Ghanie

The quickly-approaching mega-sporting event is acting as an unwelcome catalyst for many First Nations people living in BC, a number of whom have been embroiled in bitter land rights battles with the Canadian government for most of their lives. Vast areas of unceded land that Indigenous communities depend on for hunting, fishing and general survival are at risk. Rivers, mountains and old-growth forests are being replaced by tourist resorts and highway expansions spurred by the 2010 games. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to build new resorts and expand existing ones in order to attract and accommodate tourists, Olympic athletes and trainers.

Indigenous communities in the Interior and on the coast of BC, including the Secwepemc people of Skelkwek’welt and the St’at’imc people of Sutikalh, have long voiced their opposition to the establishment of Sun Peaks and Cayoosh ski resorts on their land. Strong and organized shows of resistance have been disregarded, ignored and covered-up by the BC government in attempts to capitalize on territory for which treaties were never signed. One of many examples of this occurred in 1990, when the province began an expansion of Highway 99, upgrading a logging road that cut through the Melvin Creek watershed. In order to complete this project, it was necessary to expropriate a portion of the Mt. Currie reserve. When the Lil’wat people of Mt. Currie blockaded the road, 63 arrests were made and highway construction continued. Not long after that, the government announced it was seeking proposals for a ski resort in the area — a project that would only be made possible with the expansion of the highway.

Plans for the Cayoosh Ski Resort on St’at’imc territory were begun in 1991 by Nancy-Greene-Raine Resort Consultants Inc. (Greene-Raine is an Olympic medalist and former board member on Vancouver’s Olympic Bid Committee.) What many refer to as a ‘camp’ was set up at Sutikalh in May 2000 to stop construction of the $530-million ski resort. Eight years later, Sutikalh is one of the only re-possessed Territories where people live 365 days a year, even in February, in five feet of snow. It is a village and not a camp, far from the government-sanctioned reserves.

One NYM member remarks: “It is a strong point of Indigenous resistance and serves as a great example to Native people that we can still survive on our land, free of the system.

“Sutikalh needs more attention. The resort is still planned for the area. Many times the word is not spread about the struggle on the land because all those involved are on the land where there is no form of electrical communication, so a network must be put in place to help give an international voice to those isolated places that need the most support and resources.” *

Sun Peaks Ski Resort, on the other hand, has forcibly pushed ahead with construction on Secwepemc territory, including the thorough clear-cutting of mountains to make way for ski runs, development on the drainage basin for commercial and residential real estate, and an 18-hole golf course. Invaluable mountain lakes, creeks, trap lines, hunting grounds, salmon stocks, animal habitats, sacred sites and important food and medicine harvesting areas have been destroyed.

“Right now they’re using recycled sewage waste to make man-made snow for their ski resorts,” says Pelkey.

There have been over 70 arrests in the fight against Sun Peaks. Most of these have been elders, women and youth from the NYM.

“The province bulldozed our home on International Human Rights Day. They hired Sun Peaks employees to tear down our sweat lodges. So you get an idea what happens when Native people stand up and fight for their freedom. We announced it to the media, and all the corporate media, they showed up at Sun Peaks, but the roads were deactivated. They [Sun Peaks] made big, huge ice blockades so no vehicles could get through. And Sun Peaks resort has many, many snowmobile businesses, but all the businesses were given orders by Sun Peaks not to rent any snowmobiles to any media, or anybody that day,” said Pelkey.

A log cabin that the Secwepemc had built on the outskirts of Sun Peaks to fight encroachment on the untouched land from other directions “was burnt down to the ground,” she said.

The Secwepemc people, rendered homeless and faced with the threat of arrest if they continued living on their land, retreated. Many had endured previous arrests for similar involvements and did not want to risk imprisonment with no chance of bail.

When fresh ski trails were inaugurated shortly thereafter, the public did not hear about what had come to pass between the Secwepemc First Nation and the B.C. government. The provincial and federal governments have refused to accept Aboriginal title or even enter into negotiations to create co-jurisdiction, despite legally binding promises to do so.

The Secwepemc held a protest at the Sun Peaks Resort on this season’s opening day, November 17, 2007. As well as protesting the resort, they also called on the Austrian National Ski Team to boycott Sun Peaks because of the many human and Indigenous rights abuses the resort continues to perpetrate. The team had chosen Sun Peaks as a training facility leading up to the 2010 Games. Despite being confronted by Arthur Manuel of Indigenous Networks on Economies and Trade, who visited Austria in June of that year to expose the team to the abuses taking place on Secwepemc territory, Austria opened the 2007 ski season by formally inviting Felix Arnouse from the Little Shuswap Indian Band (representing few, according to an international statement issued by the Skwelkwek√ɬ≠welt Protection Centre) in a media stunt to conceal the opposition of the Secwepemc First Nation.

In what many First Peoples see as an additional display of public disrespect and mockery of their cultures, the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) created a trio of Olympic mascots that happen to be misappropriations of beings sacred to many Native people: a Sasquatch, a sea-bear and an animal guardian spirit.

“They know that’s the way that it’s going to make money. People want to come from all over the world, ‘Oh, Native American, oh, what are the Native Americans doing?’ But we want them to know that we’re protesting,” says Pelkey.

According to the 2005 Greater Vancouver Homeless Count, there are 300,000 (official) homeless in Greater Vancouver, 30 per cent of whom are First Nations people, despite the fact that they make up just two per cent of the city’s total population.

“The UN human rights index will show Canada [ranked] right near the top, but registered Status Indians will be in the 50s, near any third world country,” says Pelkey.

The number of homeless in Vancouver is predicted to triple by 2010 due to the large-scale closure of social housing and low-income hotels in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). Closures have been spurred on by the Olympics in an effort to create more space for tourists and corporate investors. Three hundred low-income housing units have been lost in the last two years alone due to rent increases. (The province of B.C. does not impose rent controls.) According to the 2001 Canada census, over 126,000 people in Greater Vancouver are at risk of homelessness.

Dustin Johnson traces the Olympic tradition back to ancient Greece in identifying the birth of current patterns of marginalization: “All the lower classes, slaves and women were prohibited from participating… You go back that far, you can trace exactly the kind of effects that imperialism has had on our people… The worst forms of colonial culture are being promoted by the 2010 Olympics. Crass materialism, selfishness, outright greed. It’s dangerous — [if] you maintain these cultures, you maintain a disconnection from our territories, from our land, from the spirit world and from our cultures.”

A June 2007 report by the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) found that two million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced in the last 20 years to clear space for the Olympic Games.

When deciding where to hold the 2010 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) faced a choice between Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Vancouver. While South Korea pitched itself as the ‘peace’ candidate, Vancouver sold itself as the ‘safety and security’ candidate, presenting the province of BC as a place where everybody gets along: rich and poor, rural and urban, Native and non-Native. Crafting just such an image, Mayor Sam Sullivan’s November 2006 innovation, “Project Civil City,” proposed to eliminate homelessness, the open drug market and the incidence of aggressive panhandling, with the goal of reducing all of these by 50 per cent by 2010. There have already been severe security crack-downs on the street; however, in an effort to accomplish this goal on time, over 10,000 police, military and security personnel will occupy Vancouver and Whistler during the Games, creating what many First Peoples have come to perceive as nothing short of a police state.

“You may think that Canada is a free country, but to us it is not. When you go out into the city, it’s no different than prison, because the police can come and arrest you at any time,” says Pelkey.

In 2003, Pelkey, forcibly separated from her baby boy, spent two and a half months in prison for her involvement with the Sun Peaks blockades. During her time there, she met many First Nations women who had been imprisoned for prostitution and drug abuse. Most of the women’s stories involved sexual molestation during childhood; many women had experienced these abuses in residential school environments, while others were the children of residential school survivors.

The Olympic tradition of catering to the elite as a means of social control can be described as a policy of “sex, screens and sports,” a phrase coined in reference to the 1988 Seoul Games, according to Johnson. A massive influx of prostitution, coupled with the pseudo-legalization of the sex industry for the benefit of businessmen and elite athletes, has always been an Olympic tradition, the Seoul Games and the 2004 Games in Athens being prime examples.

Among those who continue to be brutally criminalized by the police and simultaneously marginalized and taken advantage of by society in general are the city’s sex workers, a community in which First Nations women are vastly overrepresented.

There are currently 500 (documented) First Nations women missing across Canada, 76 of whom are from BC.

“They’re not all completely dysfunctional and degraded human beings,” said Johnson. “Some of them are from good families, who’ve just been kidnapped outrightly by the most depraved, colonized peoples.

“You actually see, at some of the elementary schools in Vancouver, sexual predators, just waiting around to try to kidnap young Native kids. Some of these kids end up in the sex-slave industry, they get shipped all over the world. This is the kind of industry that VANOC and the people that are organizing the Olympics in Vancouver are trying to continue; they’re trying to increase that just for the purposes of the 2010 Olympics. This is something that needs to be not only exposed, but stopped.”

Meanwhile, the BC Coalition of Experiential Communities (BCCEC), the first sex worker cooperative in Canada, has been attempting to pressure the government to create legal brothels for the upcoming Winter Olympics in 2010. The move had the support both of Mayor Sullivan and VANOC, but has been refused by Canadian Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. Despite the decriminalization of sex workers being one of the BCCEC’s primary motives, the issue is controversial both among Canada’s political elite and among sex workers themselves.

Pelkey and Johnson stressed that their concerns are about much more than the 2010 Olympics and its effects. They acknowledged that “the Olympics will come and go,” choosing instead to emphasize the fact that this globalized event can be used as a powerful tool for mobilization. Drawing attention to First Nations resistance, dating back to the 15th century and very much alive today, is among their top priorities. According to Johnson, Native resistance to the 2010 Games grew significantly following the death of Aboriginal Rights activist and respected Elder Harriet Nahanee in February 2007. The 73-year-old Pacheedaht woman died a week after serving a prison term for her protest of the Olympic-driven Sea-to-Sky Highway expansion, causing an uproar among youth in Canada’s Native activist community.

Indeed, some of the effects of the powerful, growing Native opposition to the Games can be observed in the increasingly restricted access to Olympic events leading up to 2010. Due to the consistent disruption of VANOC/ IOC-organized celebrations by protests and demonstrations, many high-end hotels are now reserved exclusively for corporate sponsors like Visa and Coca Cola, and are entirely closed to the public.

In one of Vancouver’s better-known anti-Olympics rallies held in February 2007, VANOC and the Vancouver Board of Trade were celebrating the unveiling of a “three-year countdown clock” in the downtown business district. Native people from all over B.C. participated in an anti-Olympics rally at the event, together with non-Native members from the Anti-Poverty Committee (APC). In a move garnering much sought-after media attention, a masked protester jumped on stage and grabbed the microphone from a VANOC official, shouting “Fuck 2010! Fuck Your Corporate Circus!” before being cut off and arrested.

Non-Native shows of solidarity with the First Nations anti-Olympic movement continue to grow, evident by the emergence of demonstrations such as the first annual Poverty Olympics, held on February 3 in Vancouver’s DTES, with staged events like the ‘poverty-line high jump,’ ‘the welfare hurdles,’ and ‘the broad jump over bedbug-infested mattresses,’ to name a few. The objective was to embarrass the province into taking action against increasing poverty rates. Among other events being organized for the purpose of strengthening essential connections between Canada’s First Nations and outside communities is the Massive Convergence scheduled for February 2010. Thousands are expected to arrive in Vancouver, many coming all the way from Mexico, for the purpose of banding together to counteract Canada’s racist policies, to come up with solutions, and to commit to action.

Pelkey remarks that many non-Native people she has encountered on the tour have expressed bewilderment at what the best way to show their support might be.

“It’s all about land and that’s what everyone has to understand here,” she replies. “It’s about land and freedom. Non-Indigenous people should support that. Not always just the physically being there in the communities, sometimes that might be intrusive… understand the Nations that you’re in, know what Nation you are occupying… and respect that.”

“Building a collective, open movement from the ground up,” adds Johnson. “That’s what really needs to happen, in a lot of people’s opinions and their beliefs, and it’s really helping because it’s promoting the culture of the human.”

Comments are closed.