VANOC draws on indigenous symbols but fails to support indigenous athletes


Comment by Laura Robinson
In this op ed, first published in the Ottawa Citizen, Laura Robinson comments on the lack of attention paid to the Canadian aboriginal athletes by the Vancouver Olympic Games organizer, VANOC, despite the extensive use of indigenous symbols in promoting the Vancouver Games.

Logo (c) of the 2010 Vancouver Games. The logo is named Ilanaaq the Inunnguaq, the Inuktitut word for friend. Use of the logo is believed to be permissible as 'fair use'.

In this op ed, first published in the Ottawa Citizen, Laura Robinson comments on the lack of attention paid to the Canadian aboriginal athletes by the Vancouver Olympic Games organizer, VANOC, despite the extensive use of indigenous symbols in promoting the Vancouver Games. Modern pentathlete, Monica Pinette, who is Metis, was the lone aboriginal person on a team of 331 athletes in Beijing. The 2006 Canadian census tells us 1,172,790 people identify as Aboriginal in a population of 32, 852, 849, which means there should have been at least eleven Aboriginal athletes on the team.

During the weeks I covered the Beijing Games, and the days since I returned to Canada, I have asked one question to the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympics: How will VANOC and the Canadian Olympic Committee ensure that aboriginal youth have real access to the facilities and programs that become the sport legacy of the Vancouver Games, and how are they working with national sport organizations, like Cross Country Canada, or Alpine Canada to ensure aboriginal youth are included in their future Olympic plans?

It should be an easy question to answer given the way in which VANOC went Native in their displays in Beijing— or at least symbolically with Inukshuks, glossy photos of totem poles, and a USB plug in the shape of a kayak, filled with all the VANOC info you could want, except what I asked for. VANOC sent me reams more, but they never did answer the questions.

Presently there are two successful programs but only in one of the twenty-one sports in the Winter Olympics: Chill, a snowboarding program brings inner-city youth, many of whom are First Nation, to Cypress Mountain to snowboard, and the First Nations Snowboarding Team, started by Aaron Marchant, of the Squamish First Nation. The FNST is also backed by Crazy Canuck, Steve Podborski, who urged Marchant to make his dream of seeing First Nation kids careening down hills a reality.

That’s it, and not only is there nothing in place to ensure that these kids continue to access facilities and programs once the five ring days are long over and are no longer needed on posters and websites, there are no plans in the works for any other programs of this magnitude in any other sport. There should be because the FNST has already put three athletes on the B.C. Snowboarding Team and has broadened its program to other communities in the province. Imagine a Canada, as former long-distance runner and Cree professor Janice Forsyth did at the North American Indigenous Games this year, where looking for the Indigenous athlete at the Olympics was no longer a guessing game because there were so many?

It’s possible. The FNST has received $550,000.00 over the past four years from the Aboriginal Youth Sport Legacies Fund, a $3 million dollar one-time fund that was established through Legacies Now, a B.C. government funded non-profit society established so British Columbians can benefit from Olympic “legacies.”

Marchant says he also receives support from area hills, equipment and clothing suppliers, top coaches, First Nation communities, the YWCA and plenty of others for whom First Nations youth matter. “For a lot of our communities it’s (elite sport) the furthest thing from their mind. The kids have chipped boards, no gloves, but we have several hundred kids accessing the hill.” 

And the word is getting out. “I received an email from a seven-year-old girl in Alberta. All she wanted to do was join our program, but it’s B.C. only. Alberta, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba—they need national support. They want this program. It’s unfortunate that youth have to move all the way here for a program like this.”

Marchant adds that trying to establish the FNST without the funds from the AYSLF “would have been like pushing water uphill.” 

Aboriginal leaders in sport have been calling for such programs for years, but they don’t believe hosting the Olympics should be a funding criteria, and $3 million once around isn’t going to do it, especially compared to the billions spent on the Games. If, before executing their very important mission in Beijing, the high-ranking VANOC brass stopped first in the Cowichan Valley for the North American Indigenous Games, they would have seen 5,000 aboriginal youth from above the Arctic Circle to the Mexican border. They would have seen what Marchant has seen and may have clued in that they must play a large part in that future.

One of the honoured elders at the Games was Cree chief Willie Littlechild. He helped found the games in 1990 in Edmonton, was the first aboriginal person in Canada to obtain a phys ed degree, and did his masters degree on long-distance runner Tom Longboat the same year he entered law school. Littlechild became a MP in the Mulroney government, and now represents Alberta at the Assembly of First Nations. He is also one of the authors of the Maskwachees Declaration.

The declaration, written eight years ago at the National Recreation Roundtable on Aboriginal/Indigenous Peoples, recognizes “that many social issues including poverty; health concerns such as type II diabetes, heart disease, and fetal alcohol syndrome; rates of incarceration, substance abuse; harassment and racism; and a sedentary lifestyle have contributed to poor health and a low quality of life for many aboriginal/indigenous people.”

It states “aboriginal youth are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population, that there is a lack of priority in allocation of adequate financial and human resources for recreation and sport, that sport’s infrastructure is complex, and that there is a need to enhance communication and accountability between aboriginal and non-aboriginal sport and recreation organizations and governments.”

Finally it asks for “all governments, non-governmental organizations, communities and individuals in Canada to endorse this declaration.”

Many of the signatories of the Maskwachees Declaration were recognized, with Littlechild, in a very old and sacred ceremony by the Cowichan Nation before the Indigenous Games commenced.

I watched as Sport Canada types and non-governmental sport reps simply packed their bags and left part-way through. Maybe they had a flight to Beijing to catch.

The cost of bringing the VANOC sales pitch to Beijing—one of thousands of junkets--could have paid for plenty of Aboriginal sport programmes. Canada’s sport decision-makers are happy to take the kayaks, Inukshuks and totem poles, but real respect for people and culture, and a deep understanding of the work we all have to do together so aboriginal youth have the same opportunities as others to fulfill their sporting dreams are still sadly lacking.
Laura Robinson has covered four Olympic Games and four North American Indigenous Games. She coaches the Anishinaabe Nordic Racers at Chippewa of Nawash First Nation

  • David Prytula, 13.05.2009 14:13:
    Finally an article that addresses a few of the real issues pertaining to First Nation's youth,the Olympics and lack of participation/representation in sports.As the parent of 2 First Nations youth it has been my experience that many First Nations youth drop out of sports because they are treated less fairly than others(to put it mildly) and are not given the opportunity to play even if they are capable of excelling in their chosen athletics....So their athleticism is suppressed and not nourished.
    The Olympics were supposed to help change that,but other than a lot of meetings and meals,the opportunities for First Nations in Olympic athletics (winter and summer) is NOT evolving in other than a couple of sports!!!!These youth need inclusion and opportunities and not just to be bystanders watching on the side!
    So thank you Laura for your insightful article.It has just touched on the tip of the story.

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