“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.”
Former students at Immaculata and at Prince George College (later called O’Grady Catholic High School), where Furlong worked later on, are part of a national class-action suit against churches and the federal government. Under the narrow definition of what the federal government, in its Indian Residential Schools Settlement, determined was a “residential student”, they did not qualify for so-called common-experience payments. Residential and day students, Native and some non-Native alike, attended these schools. Native day students frequently experienced abuse from the same teachers, priests, and nuns as the residential students who were later compensated.
The children, who were forced to attend from eight surrounding First Nations, often spoke only the Carrier language. Their families, if still on the land despite many attempts to “settle” them, lived traditionally, but with the building of Immaculata in Burns Lake in 1960, students were herded by the Prince George diocese into the new school.
Bishop John Fergus O’Grady, who oversaw the diocese, made sure, during lobbying trips to Ottawa and Victoria, that his 13 schools (he built nine in just four years) received government top-ups for every Native student registered. He and Father Gerard Clenaghan (who regularly flew to Dublin to recruit Frontier Apostles and priests) lived well. O’Grady loved to dress up in buckskin and moccasins and tell stories to big-city North American Christians about “half-breeds” and “little Indians” so he could leverage more money for his empire.
Added to donations were government payments to the diocese. The more First Nation kids O’Grady registered in Catholic schools, the more the government paid and the more he could feed his diocesan expansionist dreams—but he didn’t waste money on teachers’ salaries. O’Grady beat the cost of hiring trained teachers by inventing in 1956, along with Father John Brayley, the Frontier Apostolate: a labour force of Christian volunteers, often recruited from Ireland, whom he referred to as the “Catholic peace corps”.
The first FAs arrived in 1957; by the time the diocese shut down the program in 1992, more than 4,000 had volunteered from five continents. O’Grady paid them $25 per month plus room and board. Some were qualified teachers; most weren’t. One priest wrote that the Grade 2 class in his parish was taught by a Grade 10 dropout.
It was to this that Furlong, at age 18, arrived. He had just left St. Vincent’s Christian Brothers School in Dublin.
By June 1969, not only was Furlong a missionary but he worked part-time in the Burns Lake bakery. In May of the next year, he married Margaret Cook, a Frontier Apostle kindergarten teacher. In June 1970, Sandy and John Barth took over from the Furlongs at Immaculata and the Furlongs moved to Prince George College, where they are listed as “resident supervisors” in the 1971 yearbook. Furlong also coached a number of school teams. In 1972, Furlong continued to coach and supervise a residence, but he graduated to phys-ed teacher and then disappeared from the 1973-74 yearbook.
It appears that for some reason, Furlong either returned to or was sent back to Ireland. He states in Patriot Hearts that he was in Dublin in May and June 1974.
He reappeared at Prince George College in 1975-76, again as a resident supervisor and phys-ed teacher, while Margaret and their two children—who were born in Canada before he left Prince George—are listed as being from Dublin, Ireland.
Like at least four other former Immaculata students from those days, Paul Joseph’s cousin Richard committed suicide. Now, Joseph says, he is fighting for the truth, just as much for Richard as he is for himself. (Frontier Apostle records are tightly guarded by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Prince George; the Straight was told in April in Prince George that those records were closed.) He says he can move on from Richard’s suicide “as long as we bring out the truth so no other students will be so abused”.
Joseph says students were told by one nun that “we had to be quiet about the abuse. God would strike us down. I thought God did that to Richard, but later I realized God didn’t act that way.” Joseph says that ensuring Furlong is made to answer to those he allegedly abused is part of the healing process involved in truth-telling.
“After what he has done with us out here—for a long time I was looking for this guy—then I see him on the news with that Olympic thing. I wanted to break my TV. But it wasn’t my TV—it was him.”
Other students recall Furlong—who, at more than six feet in height, had been on the Irish school basketball and handball teams and played Gaelic football—using either a closed fist or a full-handed slap to their head or to their classmates’ heads. Even some of those Furlong left alone or favoured admitted to the Straight that he used harsh violence on others.
For some of his former students, seeing Furlong oversee the Olympics brought frightening memories as well as shock over how he kept his past secret—and even more surprise that Olympic authorities didn’t research who he really was. Several of them told the Straight that they attempted to or actually did contact Furlong prior to the Games. One bumped into him in a Prince George hotel elevator and confronted him about the abuse; he said Furlong refused to speak to him. Another said Furlong denied that he had abused her. Yet another said a voice-mail message was ignored.
When he met with one former student (who does not want to be named; the Straight has been informed of the name) before the start of the Games, he allegedly brought along Dan Doyle, the Vanoc executive vice president of construction and then-chair of B.C. Hydro. Doyle, when asked in an email about his presence at that meeting, responded only through a May 13 email, without denying that he was at the get-together in a private residence in Surrey. “I am not a spokesperson for Vanoc on any issues. You should continue to deal with Mr. Furlong and his lawyer.” (On September 24, 2012, B.C. premier Christy Clark announced Doyle’s appointment as her chief of staff.)
John Furlong's former students swore affidavits about their experiences.
Rusty Goepel was chair of Vanoc’s hiring committee, and in November 2009, he became chair of Vanoc. He is also senior vice president of Raymond James Ltd. in Canada, one of North America’s largest investment firms. “John was a member of the board of the [Olympic] bid corporation from day one,” Goepel said by phone from his Vancouver office. “I knew him; I knew his background. We went through a hiring process with a professional: Tanton Mitchell. I’m quite shocked [to hear these accounts of abuse] after the efforts he made and the plaudits he received. John emerged as an absolute stellar performer and a stellar representative of this city.” Goepel added that he was skeptical of the allegations.
Besides being Vanoc CEO, Furlong was the president and COO of the Vancouver 2010 bid team. He was involved for more than a decade, but did Goepel ever actually have Furlong’s CV researched? Goepel admits he can’t remember if he ever saw Furlong’s CV. “But it wouldn’t be like I asked him.…There was nothing we did wrong in our hiring process. You’re describing a totally different, alien person than I know.”
The Canadian Olympic Committee was pivotal to Vancouver’s bid and the Games themselves, with COC members sitting on both Vanoc and the bid committee. The Straight emailed questions in April about whether or not the COC practised due diligence—did a background check, received a Furlong CV—prior to Furlong’s hiring. None have been answered.
The organization that oversees all things Canadian and Olympic—including the national team sent to London 2012—claimed, through its director of communications, Dimitri Soudas, in a June 28 email: “We simply cannot comment on matters that are out of our jurisdiction….concerning fundamental principles of ethics and morals, we always set and implement the highest standards.”
The City of Vancouver, through Mayor Gregor Robertson’s office, has also been asked to comment on its role in Vanoc and how it practised due diligence in terms of hiring. There has been, to date, no response.
As of June 27, 2012, the B.C. Registry office still listed the Vanoc board as “active”.
Along with the customs-agent story, Furlong often repeats the story of his cousin Siobhan Roice’s tragic death in Dublin in a terror bombing in May 1974 that killed 26 people. Siobhan, only 19, was walking to the Dublin train station on her way home to Wexford, 130 kilometres away, on a Friday after work.
In Patriot Hearts, Furlong writes about the anguish the Roices experienced when Siobhan did not arrive at the Wexford station. He says “that task [of identifying Siobhan’s body] was too much” for her parents, so his father, Jack, went to the temporary morgue. “Body parts were stuffed in bags. It was a ring on a finger that helped identify Siobhan.”
Furlong continues: “My cousin’s funeral was difficult to sit through.…My aunt and uncle were broken and almost unrecognizable in their grief. So was my father….He was never able to shake the feelings he was left with after having to see his niece’s body torn asunder….Less than a month later, on June 4, my father was felled by a heart attack.” Jack Furlong died the next day.
Furlong’s cousin Jim Roice tells the tragedy quite differently. When Siobhan did not arrive home, they were in despair. The next morning, her father, Ned, his son-in-law, and brother-in-law boarded the train to Dublin. “My father, distraught as he was—no one could have stopped him from getting on that train,” 60-year-old Jim Roice told the Georgia Straight by phone from Ireland. Roice learned the details of the bombing from his family when he returned home the week after it happened; he had been at sea, in the merchant marine. “Uncle Jack was a lovely man, but he did not identify my sister’s body.”
A 2003 feature in the Irish Independent quoted Ned Roice, Siobhan’s father: “When it came to my turn, I didn’t know what to expect. I said I wanted someone else to come in with me in case I made a mistake and identified the wrong person.” The newspaper continued: “He need not have worried about that. He spotted his daughter immediately, her body mercifully intact. ‘The minute I went in, I recognised her right away. It was as if she had called me,’ he says. ‘She was lying there perfect. It’s 29 years ago, but it’s the same as if it only happened yesterday.’ ”
“It was my father’s mother’s wedding ring on Siobhan’s finger, but she was perfect; there wasn’t a mark on her,” Jim Roice told the Straight. Records from an inquiry into the investigation of the bombing list Siobhan Roice as a victim. In the paperwork relating to it, Ned Roice is listed; Jack Furlong is not.
Furlong uses the story as the jumping-off point for why he came to Canada in 1974—ostensibly for the first time—saying, in his book and in interviews, that the death of his cousin and father had left him “feeling a little empty, and open to new adventures….I decided to take the [athletic director] position, thinking I would return to Ireland in a few years.”
Except it seems that, for whatever reason, he already had done that.
Furlong was actually going back to Prince George College (described in Patriot Hearts only as “a high school in Prince George”) and taking the position he’d already held. He disappeared from the school’s yearbooks after 1976, but he appeared in the Prince George phone book that year and again in ’77. In his book, he says that he became the director of Prince George’s parks and recreation department after “a couple of years”. The City of Prince George will not confirm his employment, directing the Straight to submit a freedom-of-information request.
By 1978, he’s gone from the phone book and “M. Furlong” appears. Some of his former students and friends of his children say he left his wife, Margaret, and their children. Furlong writes in Patriot Hearts that “shortly after” Prince George hosted the Northern B.C. Winter Games in 1978, he was asked to take on the job of regional director of Nanaimo parks and recreation and moved to Vancouver Island.
Inside his book’s inside dust jacket, Furlong is described as “a born storyteller”. And in his addresses as a motivational speaker, he likes to give “lessons” for life. He lists the following values as essential: respect, accountability and inclusion, trust, integrity, honesty, fairness, and compassion.
Some of his former students wish he would come back to Burns Lake. They want to discuss what these lessons really mean to him.