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Indigenous Canadians criticise Winter Olympics

Updated: Wednesday, 03 Feb 2010 14:57

The Olympics often faces political issues
The Olympics often faces political issues

Native Canadians are divided over the predicted financial and social windfall from the 12-28 February Winter Olympics.

More than six billion Canadian dollars has been spent on staging the Games, but many critics say that money could have been used for improved social housing or government programs.

David Dennis, the president of the United Native Nations, one of the four principle groups that represents British Columbia's native people (about 200,000 in population), said his people are victims of poverty and exclusion.

The Huu-ay-aht native from Vancouver Island's west coast admits VANOC, the Olympics organising committee, has ‘done a lot of reaching out’ to the Four Host First Nations - the Lil'wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, the four bands (about 7,000 people) which live on the land the Games are being staged on.

‘But (they have done) very little to make any change or gestures towards urban First Nations people,’ he claimed.

‘There's nothing I see from the Games that's genuinely there to encourage people to understand more about First Nations history and culture. The fact that British Columbia hasn't recognized or reconciled its land claims with Aboriginal people should be an indication of the status of the relationship.

‘Selling carvings or drums aren't what First Nations people are about.’

Robert Bonner, a Cree originally from Manitoba, works with the Carnegie Community Action Project, a social advocacy group in Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside.

In the country's poorest neighbourhood, where natives make up two percent of the city's population, yet 31 percent of its homeless, the 20-year Vancouver resident concedes some Natives are benefiting from the Games, but most are not.

The 59-year-old said: ‘There was a report with promises made by the city to get the Games, like the 3,200 units of social housing. That's disappeared. We were supposed to get 'x' number of units in the Olympic Village, but that disappeared because of their cost overrun.’

Having grown up in Vancouver, Tewanee Joseph knows all about Downtown Eastside's plight.

The 37-year-old is the high-profile chief executive of the Four Host First Nations. He rattles off a list of Games benefits, pointing to 176 initiatives.

They include about 57 million Canadian dollars going to contracting for more than 100 native businesses, art and cultural programs.

Joseph hopes the Olympics will prompt long-lasting changes.

‘We've come up with a model where you have First Nations, Inuit and Metis, the private sector and government, all working on the focus of hosting the world in our territories,’ said Joseph.

‘Why can't we use that model to address the treaty processes that we have here in British Columbia, or poverty issues that we face?’

‘We shouldn't leave the First Nations on its own to solve it, but it's time to stop going cap-in-hand to rely on governments to do stuff for us.’

Joseph has also been a vocal critic of non-Native protestors, who claim the Games are being staged on 'stolen' land.

‘What precisely do these naysayers have to teach Aboriginal people? How are smashed windows, military fatigues and balaclavas helping to address Canada's long-standing ‘Indian Problem?’ he has said.

‘Do these protesters really want us to remain forever the Dime Store Indian, the lone figure at the end of a gravel road, trapped in the isolation of an inner city nightmare?’

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