The opening ceremonies at the Vancouver Winter Olympiad were flush with aboriginal motifs: hundreds of costumed indigenous dancers, giant illuminated Salish house poles, and the broad smiles of representatives from the "Four Host First Nations."
It was a perfectly choreographed display of Canada's multicultural grace for an international audience. Ever sensitive about their reputation as a land of the fair minded, Canada's Olympic planners have gone to lengths to showcase the nation's respect for aboriginals. They made an Inuit design the official logo. They ran the torch-relay through scores of reservations. They bought the support and participation of local First Nations with a few million in bonds, business ventures and gleaming buildings. An absolute bargain, if this aboriginal gilding can blind Canadians and the world to the country's secret shame: the true state of its indigenous peoples.
The evidence is hard to dispute. Roads into most indigenous reservations, some close to the celebrated Olympic slopes, are dirt. Nearly a hundred communities are on boil-water alerts, their tap-water undrinkable -- this in the country with the world's most fresh water. There is no government strategy to deal with the toxic mold that creeps up walls of cheaply constructed houses; even by the government's own estimates, half require renovation.
Aboriginals comprise four per cent of the Canadian population, and 20 per cent of the inmates of the country's prisons. One of the acknowledged suicide capitals of the world is a small reservation in northern Ontario, where a group of girls once signed a collective suicide pact.
And as I write, I am recovering from a debilitating case of the mumps, a viral souvenir from a recent visit to a Quebec community seized by an outbreak. The mumps have been practically eradicated in developed countries. Not so in the third-world pockets that exist throughout Canada.
Canada's Minister of Indian Affairs Chuck Strahl regularly trumpets the amounts supposedly lavished on aboriginals. The myth that native peoples leech off the state serves to disguise the real scandal: that most money pays for a vast government bureaucracy which only perpetuates native's dependency and poverty. Billions have indeed been spent -- not on paving roads or developing infrastructure and healthcare in dilapidated and diseased communities, but on a legal war opposing aboriginal rights.
In one case alone that ended in 2009, federal departments poured upwards of $100 million into a court battle against the Samson and Ermineskin Cree, who were struggling to recover oil and gas royalties mismanaged by the government.
I have it from an indigenous friend that Canadian officials chuckle about their public relations campaigns in the halls of international diplomacy. In British Columbia, where most territory is legally unsurrendered, the government forces First Nations to sign away 95 per cent of their lands as a precondition for discussions.
Such agreements were once called land rights "extinguishment." Officials now coyly advertise it as "non-assertion." But aboriginals promising to not claim or "assert" land rights amounts to their being stripped of them.
It was to defend such dismal policies that Canada joined Australia, the U.S., and New Zealand in opposing the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Australia has since reversed its vote, and the U.S. and New Zealand are reconsidering. Only Canada stands stubbornly by its position.
The government has reined in any indigenous communities that dared act in the spirit of the U.N. Declaration. Since 2008, the leaders of three -- Big Trout Lake, Ardoch, and Barriere Lake -- have been imprisoned for several months. Their crimes? Peacefully protesting clear-cut logging and mining that would have ravaged their lands.
The government's sermonizing about such wild criminality is a cover for an undeclared agenda: one land grab after another, to satisfy Canadian companies and multinationals pining for the riches on indigenous lands.
"The Olympic embrace of aboriginals is a cruel deception," says Indigenous activist Arthur Manuel, who marched the last few days in Vancouver under the "No Olympics on Stolen Native land" banner. "Canada wants us impoverished to justify seizing our lands. They can hint, how could indigenous peoples possibly control their territories, when they are so uneducated and poor?"
The government feigns ignorance about the steps to eliminate such bleak conditions, but there have been no lack of commissions and inquests and scholarly reports. The exhaustive five-volume Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996 advocated major land restitution, aboriginal self-government on the level of the provinces and federal state, and swift compensation for many unfulfilled treaties. It has gathered dust on a bureaucrat's shelf.
Instead the government promotes indigenous voices who tell them what they'd prefer to hear. At industry conferences and in the media their message is praised: that natives need only pull themselves up by their bootstraps, like their entrepreneurial peers hawking traditional wares at the 21st Winter Olympiad.
The Olympic games may bring Canada the world's uncritical attention and adulation. It will last barely three weeks. The plight of indigenous peoples will persist for those who care to look, as a blemish on Canada's enlightened and proud self-conception.
Real self-respect will come when Canadians acknowledge Indigenous peoples' contributions to the country, recognize their land rights and give them a fair share of the resources of this abundant land. Not some business deals and a supporting role as cultural props during a short-lived sports party in the British Columbia mountains, but genuine justice. Only then will this society deserve the respect it seeks by other means.
Martin Lukacs is a writer and activist based in Montreal. This story first appears in U.S. political newsletter Counter Punch.