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.”