Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, North America

CANADA: Native Rights Concerns Cloud 2010 Games

Jon Elmer

VANCOUVER, Dec 1 2008 (IPS) - A coalition of indigenous elders, social justice activists and community organisers is voicing opposition to the upcoming Winter Olympics, promising to continue their protests up to and throughout the 2010 games.

Taking advantage of a three-day media briefing hosted by the official Olympic body in late November, the Vancouver Organising Committee (VANOC), activists and native representatives invited the local and visiting international media to an office in the heart of the what is commonly known as Canada's poorest neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside, to hear "the other side of the Olympic story".

Rallying under the banner of "No Olympics on stolen native land", speakers representing nine native and community groups outlined connections between native poverty, dislocation and homelessness and the staging of the games in Vancouver and Whistler, 120 kms north of Vancouver.

Arthur Manuel, a former chief in the Neskonlith Indian Band of the Secwepemc nation, accused the Canadian government of attempting to whitewash the structural violations of native sovereignty. "We are the poorest people in the country," Manuel said. "Not because this country is poor, but because [the government] continues to violate the human rights of the indigenous people, by not recognising our Aboriginal title and our treaty rights."

Nearly all of the province of British Columbia – including the land on which the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics will be staged – is not subject to any treaty and the land has not been otherwise ceded or surrendered by its indigenous inhabitants, as Canada's highest court has recognised.

Manuel cited Canada's refusal to sign on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as evidence that the government does not intend to follow the principles of international law in dealing with native sovereignty. In September 2007, the U.N. declaration was passed 143 to four, with the United States, Australia and New Zealand joining Canada in opposition.


James Louie, a member of the St'at'imc nation whose traditional lands encompass the rapidly expanding Whistler mountain and resort, said the expansion of infrastructure and development for the Olympics undermines the status of his people's case before the Organisation of American States treaty process.

"Because we have no treaty with Canada, the imposition and encroachment of Whistler – their hydro lines, their highways, their railroad, you name it, anything they do with our territory – is illegal," Louie said.

The Olympics have spurred a construction and development boom in Vancouver and Whistler in particular, and in British Columbia in general. Between July and September 2007, 843 major capital projects were planned or underway throughout British Columbia, valued at U.S. 108 billion dollars, according to the provincial government's ministry of economic development.

A VANOC budget report last year pegged the operating costs for the games at 1.32 billion dollars. The provincial and federal governments have provided an additional 468 million dollars, primarily for venue construction, including ski hill development in St'at'imc territory. The official Olympics budget does not include major infrastructural projects undertaken by the government in preparation for the February 2010 games, including the 484-million-dollar expansion of the Vancouver-to-Whistler highway.

Seislom, a Lil'wat elder who is also known as Glen Williams, addressed the legacy of the expansion around Whistler and its impact on the environment. "When my grandfather took me up Whistler mountain, the land was pure. Now it's polluted, it's desecrated. I ask myself the question: what will my grandchildren get from all of this?"

According to VANOC, 20.5 million dollars in venue construction and 95,163 dollars in non-venue contracts have been awarded to Aboriginal businesses through an incorporated native society called the Four Host First Nations Society (FHFN).

Several speakers challenged the role of FHFN in their communities.

Seislom said the FHFN "choose not to recognise traditional, hereditary chieftainships" and instead only "recognise their own chieftainships in terms of corporate development, in terms of the Department of Indian Affairs, in terms of anything to do with money and power."

Dustin Johnson, a Tsimshian activist and organiser, also questioned the legitimacy of the FHFN. "It is important to make a distinction between elected leaders under the Canadian Indian Act system and the traditional governments, the traditional leaders," he said.

Canada imposed the Indian reserve and band council system through Indian Act of 1876, nine years after the country was founded. It wasn't until 1953 that the Act was amended to allow natives to organise around a land claim, which had previously been illegal.

Johnson characterised the Four Host First Nation Society as a small group of "elite native capitalists who don't represent the majority of native people".

"They'll paint the picture that they are trying to create economic development and self sufficiency, but it's really twisting the logic of what our people stand for: a lot of our people stand for sustainable development and protecting what little we have left of our lands and resources," Johnson said.

Arthur Manuel criticised the government and the FHFN for spending millions showcasing native arts and culture while ignoring the structural causes of the poverty. "They are using that money for the purpose of disguising the violations of human rights of the indigenous people of this country."

The BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition last week issued a report that showed BC for the fifth-straight year has the highest rate of child poverty in Canada, at almost 22 percent. The rate for native children is 40 percent but, the report notes, "the number would be significantly higher if the data had included children living on reserve." Recent statistics from the Canadian government's Department of Indian and Northern Affairs put the number of natives in BC at 122,000; about half live on reserves.

In Vancouver, the largest urban centre to host a Winter Olympics, there is likely as many as 8,000 homeless people, according to researchers at Simon Fraser University's Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction, a disproportionate number of whom are native.

The rates of child poverty and homelessness continue to increase.

Laura Track, a lawyer with the Downtown Eastside's Pivot Legal Society, said that over 1,400 units of affordable housing have been lost since Vancouver was awarded the games in July 2003. Hundreds of tenants have been evicted from single-room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside, as the Olympic-borne real estate development boom has deepened the homelessness crisis.

Outgoing Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, who presided over a sharp increase in homelessness during his tenure, has called the crisis "a civic, and provincial and national shame."

Vancouver is anticipating as many as two million visitors during the XXI Winter Olympic Games to be held from Feb. 12-28, 2010. According to VANOC spokesperson Suzanne Walters, more than 10,000 members of the media are expected for the games, including 2,900 print and photo-journalists.

 
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