Page last updated at 01:08 GMT, Friday, 1 January 2010

Aboriginal Canadians divided over Vancouver Olympics

By Brandy Yanchyk

First Nation chiefs at the torch relay opening ceremony in October
The start of the torch relay involved traditional ceremonies. Photo: Tom Ryan

The Canadian city of Vancouver is gearing up to host nearly four weeks of Winter Olympic and Paralympic sporting action in February and March.

The Games, set to attract international attention, have a particular importance for Canada's aboriginal peoples, as many of the sporting events will take place on their ancestral land.

The peoples involved - the Lil'wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations - who live on and share the land, have joined forces.

Together with the Vancouver Olympic Committee (Vanoc), they will be hosting the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games in a partnership that is making Olympic history.

This is the first time that aboriginals have been official partners in the Olympics and have been involved in every aspect of the Games starting from the bidding process.

'Stolen land'

For some aboriginals, this partnership is seen as a unique opportunity for Canada's indigenous peoples to show their culture to the world.

For others, the Vancouver Olympics are a waste of money and resources that could be better spent on serious issues facing aboriginals in Canada.

Rose Henry
Many of our community members are paying with their lives with the inadequate housing and healthcare
Rose Henry
Olympic Resistance Network

Canada's indigenous peoples have suffered a long history of poverty, unemployment, and problems with addiction and high rates of suicide.

Tewanee Joseph, head of the umbrella group known as the Four Host First Nations, sees the Vancouver Winter Olympics as a great time for aboriginals to rebrand themselves in a positive way.

"What people will learn is that we're business people, we're entrepreneurs, we're visual artists and we're performing artists. You know our culture is really living and thriving today and it's been through challenges," says Mr Joseph.

"We no longer want to be seen as just Dime Store Indians, just beads and feathers. I think for us those stereotypes are very important for us to break."

Despite all the potential positive attention on their culture, many of British Columbia's aboriginals still feel that the decision to hold the Olympics in Vancouver (and the resort town of Whistler) was wrong.

"A lot of First Nations considered the land to be stolen," says Josh Anderson from the Lil'wat Nation.

"Our people were actually there to watch the construction of the facilities for the Olympics just in case the lands were desecrated or disrespected in any way."

A number of First Nations continue to be concerned about how the expansion of Whistler for the Olympics is affecting their land and the environment.

'No teepees'

Despite the opposition by some of his people, Mr Anderson welcomes the arrival of the Olympic Games and intends to use the exposure as an opportunity to educate the world about his culture.

He will be teaching Lil'wat history to visitors at the new Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, built with provincial and federal government funding.

Performing at the Squamish Lilwat cultural centre
There are aims to bring the aboriginal culture to a wider audience

"A lot of people think that we, the Lil'wat and the Squamish, are Eskimos and that we live in igloos and that we have teepees here. We don't have teepees and we are not Eskimos," Mr Anderson says.

"We do have cold winters and we used to live in underground dwellings in pit houses. We call them istkens."

For aboriginals like Rose Henry, of Sliammon heritage, and Jayson Fleury, who is Saulteaux-Cree, the idea that Vanoc is spending C$1.7bn ($1.6bn;£1bn) on the Games is upsetting. They both belong to the Olympic Resistance Network (ORN) whose motto is "No Olympics on Stolen Native Land."

They believe that some of that money should be spent on issues like homelessness and addiction.

"If you go to Vancouver's downtown eastside, you will see that most of the homeless are First Nations people and they are from this area," says Mr Fleury. "So their rights, their livelihood are not being honoured in any fashion."

"It is costing us a lot more than just the dollars," adds Ms Henry.

"Many of our community members are paying with their lives with the inadequate housing and healthcare and so the rippling effects go beyond the 17-day party that's going to be happening here that we can't afford."

Snowboarding success

The province of British Columbia, Vanoc, and the Four Host First Nations still believe that the Olympics will have a lasting positive impact on Canada's aboriginals and have set up economic, art and sporting legacy programmes.

One fund has helped to create the First Nations snowboard team which started with 10 members and now has 200 from 13 First Nations across British Columbia.


Canada's Aboriginal snowboard team prepare for the games

Olympic organisers have also given C$54m of contracts to more than 100 aboriginal businesses - roughly 10% of the construction contracts worth a total of C$580m.

In central Vancouver there will also be a C$3.5m Aboriginal Pavilion, a multi-media centre displaying aboriginal art, business, culture and sport to visitors throughout the Games.

"Every venue that you go to, you will be welcomed by an aboriginal figure. Every one of the venues you go to will have aboriginal art in it," says Dan Doyle, Vanoc's executive vice president.

An aboriginal artist was also chosen to design the Olympic and Paralympic medals: Corrine Hunt, of First Nations Komoyue and Tlingit heritage.

Vancouver 2010 medals
Vancouver Games: Will it mean gold for the aboriginal peoples?

"The fact that an aboriginal person was given the opportunity to make the Olympic and the Paralympic medals I think is really important," says Ms Hunt.

"It shows the recognition that we have as a people and that we continue to live on this land."

Chief Gibby Jacob from the Squamish Nation agrees that the recent recognition of native culture is an important milestone after years of suppression by the Canadian establishment.

He took part in the start of the torch relay, helping to bring the Olympic flame to the shores of Victoria in British Columbia by canoe and performing a traditional aboriginal welcoming ceremony.

"The significance of doing our ceremonies on the water in our canoes, that was important for us to have those things recognised," Chief Jacob says.

"In the history of this country there was legislation created by the governments wherein we couldn't practice our culture, our traditions. They thought it was not right."

For many aboriginals artists, businesses and athletes the real test of the Vancouver Olympics will be if the inclusion and celebration of their cultures continue long after the Games are over.

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