In sports, as in life, “security” trumps peace. That’s what happened when the International Olympic Committee faced a choice between Pyeongchang, South Korea and Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games.
South Korea pitched itself as the peace candidate: With the world in turmoil, bring the Games to the very border of George Bush’s “axis of evil” as a gesture of reconciliation.
Vancouver, on the other hand, sold itself as the safety and security candidate: With the world in turmoil, hold the Games somewhere you can be almost certain that nothing will happen.
The Vancouver-Whistler Olympic bid presented British Columbia as a model of harmonious, sustainable living, a place where everyone gets along: native and non-native, rural and urban, rich and poor. But two weeks after the euphoric celebrations, the new-age sheen on Vancouver’s harmony sales pitch is already wearing off.
“I’m going to stop them,” Rosalin Sam of the Lil’wat Nation told me. “I’ll lay in the path of the machines if I have to. I have to protect our land.”
Ms. Sam is referring to the planned construction of the Cayoosh Ski Resort on Mount Currie, a 90-minute drive from Whistler, the heart of the Olympic competitions.
Mount Currie is pristine wilderness, a habitat for bears, deer and mountain goats. It is used as a traditional native hunting ground, as well as a source of teas, berries and medicines for the 11 native bands who claim it as their territory. “Some people go to church, we go to the mountain,” Ms. Sam says.
Her objection is not to the Olympic Games themselves, but to the role the Games are already playing in the transformation of B.C.’s economy. With resource industries such as fishing and logging in crisis, the Games are being positioned as a 17-day, globally televised commercial for B.C.’s new economy: winter tourism.
With some of the best skiing in the world, B.C. is already a major tourist destination. But the political and economic forces behind the Olympics want more: massively expanded ski hills, new resorts on undeveloped mountains, hotels, and roads connecting them all. We aren’t talking about “leave only footprints, take only pictures” eco-tourism here; these are industrial-scale vacation factories.
And that’s the trouble. Most of this expansion is reaching into land that is claimed by B.C.’s First Nations — claims that have never been ceded under any treaty and which were affirmed in the landmark Supreme Court of Canada Delgamuukw decision in 1997.
According to Taiaiake Alfred, director of the indigenous government program at the University of Victoria, “Tourism can be as disruptive as logging or mining.” Mountains are carved up for ski runs, wildlife is driven away, and towns are turned into parking lots. “The real money,” Mr. Alfred says, is in “speculative real estate.” In Whistler, local agents boast that real estate value has gone up by 15 per cent every year for the past 15 years.
For all these reasons, ski resorts have become one of the most explosive political issues in British Columbia. Three years ago, when the Lil’wat Nation held a referendum on whether or not its members approved of the Cayoosh Ski Resort, 85 per cent voted no. To block resort construction, they set up a protest camp supported by all 11 chiefs of the St’at’imc Territory.
A proposal to expand the Sun Peaks Ski Resort from 4,000 to 24,000 bed units has encountered even fiercer opposition. Police have clamped down on the Native Youth Movement’s road blockades and protest camps, jailing many of the leaders, and repeatedly demolishing dwellings and sweat lodges.
Now that Vancouver has won its Olympic bid, the snow fights will only escalate. Though Cayoosh and Sun Peaks are not part of the official Olympic facilities, they both stand to benefit directly from the tourist spillover. Former Olympic skier Nancy Greene Raine, a powerful board member on Vancouver’s Olympic Bid Committee, is also director of skiing at the Sun Peaks Resort. Her company, NGR Resort Consultants, is the developer behind the proposed Cayoosh Resort.
According to Arthur Manuel, former chairman of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council and former chief of the Neskonlith Indian Band, there is a deep split emerging in first nations communities. On one side are chiefs and entrepreneurs who see the Olympics as an opportunity — a new community centre in Squamish, some affordable housing, a chance to sell Haida art. On the other is a growing grassroots movement of people who still hunt and fish and see industrial-scale tourism as a threat to their very survival.
“Indian people are the poorest of the poor. Families get $165 a month,” Mr. Manuel says, referring to the high percentage of native people on social assistance. “They are the ones — not the chiefs — who are dependent on hunting. More tourism is going to take food off their tables and they are going to end up on Hastings [the heart of Vancouver drug district] because that’s what happens when you force Indian people off their land.”
These types of security issues seem to have been lost entirely on the IOC. Rather than consulting all the bands whose people will be affected by the Games, the bid committee handpicked a few development-friendly leaders to play along, ignoring the rest. Submissions to the IOC by native groups that opposed the Games received no response. “The IOC didn’t follow protocol, they should have called a meeting of all 11 chiefs so the chiefs could go the people. This structure has been there for hundreds of years,” Ms. Sam says.
Yesterday, Ms. Sam and Mr. Manuel, representing the opponents of the Cayoosh and Sun Peaks Resorts, took their fight to another level. Proclaiming that “whoever supports the 2010 Games in Vancouver-Whistler violates the internationally recognized rights of indigenous people,” they sent out a press release calling on “the international world, including athletes and tourists, not to infringe on our rights and title, and stay away from the 2010 Games.”
The Vancouver Olympic Bid Committee saw this coming, and warned in its internal documents of the need to get at least some first nations leaders on side. “If the first nations perceive that their rights are not being acknowledged and accommodated by British Columbia, they may go to the media, take direct action or initiate litigation. This would have a negative impact on the bid.”
No surprise, then, that the bid committee started its sales pitches with a traditional first nations blessing. Look forward to many more such displays of cultural sensitivity, culminating in the sound of drums and the smell of sweet grass at over-the-top Olympic opening and closing ceremonies (think Sydney and Salt Lake City). But don’t confuse these ceremonial blessings with genuine political consent.
These Games are far from blessed.