John Furlong biography omits secret past in Burns Lake

“Welcome to Canada. Make us better.” It is a phrase that former Vanoc CEO John Furlong often repeats when he tells the story of the Edmonton airport customs agent who met him in 1974 after he immigrated to Canada. “A recruiter from a high school in Prince George, British Columbia, had come to Dublin in search of someone to set up an athletic program,” wrote Furlong in his 2011 book, Patriot Hearts. He decided to take the position, and his wife and he “bundled up our son and daughter and boarded a plane to Canada”.

“Welcome to Canada. Make us better,” said the agent who stamped his passport. The story leads many articles about Furlong, and the boss of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (Vanoc) tells it twice in his book.

But Furlong had actually come to B.C. years earlier, living in another town. And there are a lot of people from those days who think that he not only didn’t make his new country better—he made their lives considerably worse.

The fact that most of those people are Natives puts a cruel spin on the fact that the 2010 Winter Games are widely remembered as the first Games to include aboriginal peoples as official hosts.

Furlong has been feted nationally and internationally. The Globe and Mail named him Canadian of the year in 2010; he’s received the Order of B.C., the Order of Canada, the Olympic Order, and the Paralympic Order. He chairs the board of Own the Podium (now, post-Olympics, a stand-alone legal entity), chairs the board at Rocky Mountaineer, and is on the Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. board. In April, he became the “executive chair” of the Vancouver Whitecaps. UBC, UNBC, BCIT, the University of Calgary, and the B.C. Justice Institute have given him honorary degrees. He can command $25,000 per speaking gig, and he is worth every penny, according to those who hear him, because he speaks commandingly about teamwork and commitment, emphasizing the importance of values, honesty, and integrity.

Furlong has also been named one of Canada’s most transformative people. That may actually be the most accurate way of describing him.

John Furlong’s official Olympic CV and his book say that he arrived in Canada in the fall of 1974. He actually arrived years previously, in 1969, as an Oblate Frontier Apostle missionary. He went not to Prince George to direct a high-school athletic program but to Immaculata Elementary School in Burns Lake, B.C., to help save the souls of First Nations children. It was here that 18-year-old Furlong, fresh out of Dublin’s St. Vincent’s Christian Brothers Secondary School, with no formal training as a teacher and no university behind him, ran physical-education classes.

But if his goal was to persuade First Nations children of the virtues of Catholicism, he chose, say former students, a brutal way to do it.

One student, Beverley Abraham, from Babine Lake First Nation, had Furlong as a phys-ed teacher and school disciplinarian when she was 11 and 12. She said in a 2012 affidavit: “He worked us to the bone. His attitude was very bad. ‘You good for nothin’ Indians—come on, come on. If you don’t do this, you’re going to be good for nothing.’…He would stand over us. If we didn’t complete it, he would take his big foot and slam us down on the floor. It really hurt our chests.”

Abraham is one of eight former students of Furlong’s who have signed affidavits for the Georgia Straight alleging his physical and mental abuse. Many more told the Straight about the abuse Furlong meted out. Through emails from his Vancouver lawyer, Marvin Storrow, Furlong has denied physically abusing children. Storrow was on the Vancouver Olympic bid committee team and is thanked by Furlong in his book for lending him his office, where he wrote Patriot Hearts (along with Globe and Mail reporter Gary Mason). Although multiple emails were sent to Furlong through Storrow, no answer has been received from Furlong to questions about the five unexplained years, from 1969 to 1974, when he was a Frontier Apostle missionary, and why he was not honest about his arrival date and work in Canada.

After the two-minute point of this TEDx talk at SFU last year, John Furlong tells the story of his arrival in Canada and his encounter with a customs agent.

Abraham sits at a Burns Lake restaurant. It’s licensed, but she hasn’t touched alcohol in years. It’s part of her healing journey. Her food remains untouched; she says nausea swells up when she thinks about Furlong.

“Young girls started drinking. My friends and I started drinking at age 12. I do believe it was because of his abuse. If we didn’t do what he said, he’d grab us by the shoulders. ‘Do you understand me!’ Smack on the back of the head; smack in the front.”

Abraham closes her eyes and fights tears. She says Furlong regularly made the same four girls—her and three friends—stay behind after phys-ed class, one at a time. The three friends were the ones who started drinking with Abraham. She says the three committed suicide in later years. “Every time I started phys-ed, I was honestly always afraid. He stood by the change-room door. [A nun] would say, ‘Okay, girls, come on.’ We were just afraid to go. He really degraded our name and our inner self. No wonder they call us drunks. Why did we drink so hard? Immaculata School.”

Ronnie Alec, a hereditary chief, also filed an affidavit about Furlong. The Olympic CEO’s image on television brought disturbing flashbacks for Alec. “When you’re not doing too good in basketball, all of a sudden you get kicked in the butt or slapped on the head,” he wrote in his affidavit. “It was a hard kick, and he backed up to make the slap, so it hit hard. He could stand in front of us and, unexpected, he would slap us on the head.…With his big eyes, I can picture him, and then, next thing: boom, a hard slap to the head.”

Alec says that after he saw Furlong on TV, he called his office to try to confront him before the Olympics began but he never heard back from him.

Alec’s voice is joined by Cathy Woodgate’s in her affidavit. “I was slow and weak. I got hit by a ball, whipped in the calves, yardstick thrown at me—all by John Furlong. I was very shy, very low in self-esteem. I grew up with low self-esteem and decided not to take part in any physical activities because of this nightmare of phys-ed class.”

Later, at age 29, Woodgate was diagnosed with a type of muscular dystrophy. She had it as a child, which was why she was always at the back of the pack while the children were being forced to run extraordinarily long distances—more than 30 laps of the school field or a run up and down Boer Mountain, a good eight kilometres—with no water. Furlong “saluted” Immaculata’s few white pupils who made it to the top but ignored their First Nation classmates, according to former students.

Students from 1969-70 say Furlong screamed “Lazy Indians!” at them and physically abused them in different ways because, in his mind, they had committed some offence that needed punishment. He did not, they say, see them as children who were afraid of a tall white man who communicated through beatings and screaming in English. He is remembered as a gratuitously violent bully who taunted children, beating them in front of the class if he felt they were too slow, fat, or inattentive.

Richard Perry, another hereditary chief, said in an affidavit that he is convinced he suffered brain damage because of Furlong’s repeated beatings, and he struggles to comprehend what he reads even today.

“I was hit on the head all the time. I was hit with a ruler: a metre stick in the legs. I remember one day talking to another Native person in my language. I said, ‘What are you learning in school?’ John Furlong hit me for that. Those days there was not too much learning. I remember John Furlong chased me home one day.”

First Nation families who went to school authorities about Furlong’s abuse say nothing changed. If students complained to the nuns, they were strapped for lying. When they tried to skip classes or stay out of school, the RCMP brought them back—to more punishment.

“Another time, he [Furlong] took me to a private room where the furnace was,” Perry declared in his affidavit. “It was really noisy so no one could hear.…I watched them take kids one by one to the basement and beat us [with the strap]. I got too much abuse, too many hits all the time.”

Other students talk about the furnace room—a much feared place. Furlong, they say, grabbed children by the hair and dragged them there for strappings, usually by a priest or nun.

Paul Joseph and his cousin Richard also went to Immaculata. “Richard was pretty much the same age as I am,” Joseph said in a phone interview from Burns Lake. “On the John Furlong side, he hit me so hard once when we played basketball, right on the back of the head with a full hand for no reason. Another time I didn’t hear him say [something] to me while I was playing basketball. He came from behind and grabbed my hair from the back—almost on top of my head. He punched me in the back of the head and I went flying. I was unconscious for 15 minutes. I remember then I was crying. Everyone was too afraid to help me.”

Joseph says the abuse was unrelenting. “I played lots of hockey. John Furlong hit me right at the back of my head with a hockey stick. After this, I didn’t want to go to school. I was too afraid of what he would do. If he doesn’t get his way, he will hit us really hard. My cousin Richard and I just walked around outside in the cold. We didn’t have anyone. My parents were dead and I was 13. If we went to the priest, he would say we were lying. He would put our hands on the desk and hit us so hard. It feels like our hands are broken.”

Comments (221) Add New Comment
Nick Collier
Not to condone this, but Furlong may well have been a product of his own schooling. At school in the UK we were regularly caned, threatened, punched, hit with rulers, and had chalk and board erasers thrown at us. I once had my head bashed into another boy's by a teacher. Mind you at Kits High, I was strapped, and George Puil once shoved me into the wall in the hallway.
Rating: +114
Steve Newton
back in grade 5 at McCammon School in Chilliwack me and Alan Nichols got the strap for hopping between desks-without slippers on. Thick leather belt-like thing with metal zipper-type edges. The teacher wound up like he was pitching a baseball. Stung like a bugger. Thanks a bunch, Mr. Burke.
Rating: 0
Seriously? My phys ed teacher was also brutal but that's the way it was back then. The incidents describes above are consistent with my treatment and both he and I are white. I'm sure growing up in Burns Lake was tough but to claim that the experience with Furlong caused the alcohol abuse and suicide reflects the ingrained victim perception of some (natives, whites, asians, fat people, short people, etc.).
Rating: -7
N. H.
This article highlights why The Georgia Straight will never be a legitimate news source. Money, attention; I wonder what was dangled to secure these "affidavits". Suspect they are coming forth now after 15 years of Furlong as the face of the Olympics project. Have you been trying that long to create a story like this? Yeah, it's a strange choice if he did decide not to mention these missionary years but failing to do so makes him a racist abuser? And your subtext tries desperately to make him the reason people committed suicide? Vile. If he was this racist or full of rage, don't you think one story would have emerged from the vanoc people or other source? Another embarrassing article from a "newspaper" always hell bent on serving its own anti-Olympic, anti-Vancouver rhetoric. Google journalism maybe.
Rating: -516
Pat Crowe
My father had similar training as John albeit it in Calgary in the early fifties.
He "thought" he wanted to be a priest in his early teens. He never talked about it. I don't wonder why too much? Why chase that bag of snakes.
I do remember him saying though, once, that it was ordinary business for a Brother to stand a grade 5 kid up at his desk for talking. Then beat the living shit out of him.
Sounds a lot tamer in the 1974 version. But still miserable.

Rating: +12
That John Furlong learned his abusive behavior from others is undeniable. That he learned to hide his abusive behavior from other abusers is also undeniable.

Bullying is systemic in our society and understanding it is the key to stopping it. Mr. Furlong has missed the biggest opportunity of his life by denying his past. Yet, its never too late to tell the truth!
Rating: +16
I won't comment on allegations that haven't been challenged or tested (and probably will be), but the echoes of such treatment of native people are still being heard today.

Lazy Indians. Stupid Indians. Worthless Indians. I see and hear variations on these themes almost every day, in conversation, letters to the editor, internet forum comments, etc. The contemptuous, dismissive attitude has been passed down from generation to generation, child to parent, for more than a century.

There are even hints of it here, on the website of the province's leading left-wing, bleeding heart liberal newspaper. :)

If Furlong confesses to perpetuating this contempt, as a young and possibly ignorant man, I hope he takes the opportunity to correct his wrongs. He certainly has the power and influence to do that now.

Perhaps he took the first steps when he raised the profile of native people during the 2010 games. I hope so. Or was it "just marketing"?
Rating: +4
Mr. Burke.
And Newton you deserved it you little bastard.
Running around without slippers on, indeed!
Rating: +4
out at night
Furlong omitted a whole chapter of his life in Canada from his autobiography and from the "official story" of his background. No doubt he was a product of his schooling, and yes corporal punishment was still practised in the late 60s and early 70s.

What emerges from this story though is that he wasn't a nice guy, and he had his reasons for wanting this ugly chapter to not see the light of day. People like him would like us all to believe that they are sweethearts, full of good sentiments and largesse. The truth about John Furlong is that he is a bit of a cruel SOB, and I'm glad this story is revealing that about him.
Rating: +59
Straight Up
All I can say is WOW! I love it when good journalism uncovers the scum that walk amongst us. Thank you, GS!
The article holds enough sources and names if anyone chose to refute its legitimacy. And who cares if it was the 'order of the day" back then? I had my share of chalk and blackboard brushes chucked at me, along with the slaps to the back of the head.. still doesn't make it right..
I truly hope Furlong is made accountable..
Rating: +18
john reimer
iam 63 years old a white person with a german name in my school in the prairies we got the strap for any infraction no matter how small .the principle handed out that task iam remember some of the teachers would whack us with a yardstick and pelt us with erasers and the english kids would play soccer and football against us the germans against the english i guess i grew up in a different era all this abuse didnt lead me to drinking
Rating: +520
2nd Nation
Classic GS article. Lionize the left, demonize the center/right. At least you're consistent.

ps - while attending STMC in Burnaby UN the 80s I received the following from teachers: punch in the face (because i didn't take a shower after gym class one day
Rating: -9
Ivan IIyich
Few people now recall, but in order to acquire the bit for the Olympics, around $34,000,000 was spent by Furlong and the COO over a five year period. Five years is equal to 1826 days so spending was equal to approximately $18,620 per day for each day for five years. In the overwhelming joy and euphoria of the publc after the bid was successful it was decided that this money didn't need to be accounted for and the whole thing was tosed down the memory hole. This was despite the fact that scandals had been rocking the Olympics committees around the world for years. How convenient.

I am the only one who feels that taxpayers were tossed in the dirt by Furlong COO team bid/ Vancon gravy train?

And by the way, not that it really matters at this point, but Furlong's spoken French is totally abominable and completely embarrassing. It makes you really wonder how he could ever get that job with so many people in this country who are much more qualified than this person. Connections perhaps?
Rating: +28
It's still abuse and he's clearly ashamed of his past if he's hiding it.
Rating: +9
From Wikipedia page on Bullying -
Effects of bullying on those who are targeted:

Mona O’Moore of the Anti-Bullying Centre at Trinity College in Dublin, has written, "There is a growing body of research which indicates that individuals, whether child or adult, who are persistently subjected to abusive behavior are at risk of stress related illness which can sometimes lead to suicide."[25] Those who have been the targets of bullying can suffer from long term emotional and behavioral problems. Bullying can cause loneliness, depression, anxiety, lead to low self-esteem and increased susceptibility to illness.[26] In the long term it can lead to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and an inability to form relationships - even leading to celibacy.
Rating: +24
This type of teacher behavior was typical of that time. I remember in my school, my favorite PE teacher used one (white) kid as a tackling dummy to show how to tackle. He hit him hard. Colour didn't matter. His father talked to the principal and that stopped for good. One coach cuffed me in a rage over his (mistaken) belief that we were causing trouble. Tom Brown's School days, a popular boys book in 1800s UK, talked about how kids were flogged in school. Flogged!! Friends who were in Vancouver College tell stories how the fathers would beat up and abuse students. This was in the 1970s. When that really stopped for good, who knows?

So one could forgive Furlong for doing what had been done to him and copying the teaching he had learned. Far more disquieting is his coverup of his initial arrival and why he would do that. The coverup is always worse than the original mistake.

What hits me, though, is that, if true, why did he have such arrogance to think that he could actually cover up five years of his life. That natives who confronted him would not be believed? That is the arrogance and is telling of all of how the natives were treated in the residential schools in general.

One final note. When Furlong took the Olympics job (and did a fantastic job by the way) he had an 8 year old daughter. I thought right then, well I guess she gives up her father for the next 8 years. Not that she had any choice because it was always more about Furlong's career.

Summing up, Furlough comes from an era where children were beaten, ignored, emotionally and physically abused and generally treated like property by their parents. And it was considered okay! Today, even though it likely still occurs, that kind of abuse is not okay.

PS, if you want to read how bad it was for children not even that long ago, google Lloyd DeMause's authoritative History of Childhood book. Every chapter is online and after reading just a few chapters you will immediately go hug your children.
Rating: +1
he was MR Nation Builder 2010...he is a saint and nothing less, an absolute Canadian hero
Rating: -7
Deplorable comments from some of you. Glad you're not my friend.

Looking forward to what he says at 2:30.
Rating: -7
Sorry but not sure this is a huge story as Corporal Punishment was legal in BC at this time. It was not banned until 1973.
Rating: -2
Kevin statham
The horrific treatment of first nations in residential schools has been well documented. Just because Furlong may have been a 'product of his own schooling' doesn't change the events that happened. I think he should answer for his revisionist history. The facts should be easy enough to confirm. Why would he lie about when he first came to Canada? It's nice to see the Straight publish this story. I don't think you would see this story being broken in any corporate media outlet.
Rating: +2


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