A controversial American scholar was given a hostile reception by B.C.'s Native community on October 28. Speaking at an anti-Olympic event put on by the Anti-Poverty Committee at Vancouver's Ukrainian Hall, Ward Churchill was confronted immediately after taking the stage.
Chusia Graham, daughter of John Graham, an East Vancouver Native man who is facing extradition to the U.S. for the alleged murder of a woman in 1976, confronted Churchill over his lack of support for her father. Churchill, who claims he is a member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, took Graham's questions but was visibly frustrated by the delay.
"This isn't fair," one member of the audience shouted. But the crowd of about 100 seemed split on whether to intervene or allow the questions to continue. Churchill protested in jest, "Welcome to Vancouver," his arms held high.
The confrontation underscored a broader divide within B.C.'s Native community over the 2010 Winter Olympics. Some B.C. Native leaders argue that the Games should be regarded as an opportunity to advance Native rights. However, others view the high-profile event as a threat to dwindling resources and the beginning of the end for their traditional way of life.
Gord Hill, a member of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation who says he has been fighting for Native rights since 1990, sat beside Churchill at the APC event. In an interview with the Georgia Straight at UBC the following morning, prior to another lecture, Hill argued that the Olympics will bring "an accelerated pace of destruction" to Native territories in B.C.
"All this resource exploitation, it prohibits Native people from going out on the land and gaining the sustenance from the land in traditional ways," he said.
Hill claimed that Olympic development would prevent Native people from maintaining their traditional ways of life. They would find it increasingly difficult to sustain themselves in their territories, he continued, and be forced into urban areas where few opportunities exist for them.
But such concerns don't seem to be troubling some B.C. Native leaders. Bill Williams, hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation, is a member of the chief executive board of the Four Host First Nations Society, a group of chiefs and council members from the four First Nations groups on whose land Olympic events are scheduled to be held. He argued that there was no reason any Native Canadian, or even Native American, should be excluded from the opportunities provided by the 2010 Olympics.
The Olympics will require a staff of 75,000 people, while the entire Squamish Nation is only 3,500 people, Williams pointed out. "So what we've done, as the Four Host First Nations, is ask other organizations”¦to step forward and be involved."
Williams told the Straight that FHFN and the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) have been working together. The result, he said, has been that Native people are involved in "all aspects" of the construction of Olympic facilities. He cited examples of a Lil'wat company making cross-country trails outside of Whistler and members of the Squamish Nation working on a lodge in the Callahan Valley and helping with the Sea-to-Sky Highway project.
Williams dismissed activists' concerns over land on which Olympic venues are being built. "At every venue site, the land has already been decimated completely," he said. "There's nothing to destroy."
According to an October 29, 2007, VANOC "briefing note", $45,976,000 in venue-construction contracts and $118,000 in "non-venue" contracts were awarded to Native businesses between September 2003 and July 2007.
VANOC's public-funding budget for Olympic venue construction is $580 million, meaning the amount given to Native businesses accounts for almost eight percent of the total.
For urban Natives like Hill, the issue is neither jobs nor money. VANOC's main instrument for creating a perception of Native support for the Olympics, Hill argued, is through band councils and chiefs who are working with VANOC and the provincial government.
"You could ask them what they see as the benefits of this, and they are probably going to say that it's all of the money and jobs," Hill said. "But how long is that going to last? What's going to be left for future generations when the territories are destroyed and their means of traditional livelihood are destroyed?"
Angela Sterritt of the Gitxsan Nation and a First Nations activist for youth and indigenous rights, expressed concern about the effects an event the size of the Olympics can have on Natives' land, waters, sacred sites, and homes.
The Olympics will impact Natives' personal identities, she argued: "VANOC aspires to use our 'culture' to hide facts about history and present a lie that we are a vibrant, content, and 'happy people'. In this way, they want to silence and pacify our indigenous and not-so-content masses."
On October 30, VANOC signed an agreement with the United Nations where it pledged to minimize the environmental footprint of major events related to the Games. Sterritt called the move "insulting”¦considering the massive acceleration of the destruction of the land the [Olympics] is promoting and undertaking".
But Williams argued that the Olympics could provide a platform on which B.C.'s First Nations could show the world who they are. "VANOC is looking at creating something unique, that is real Canadian," he said. "What could be more real Canadian than the indigenous people of the land?"
Leah Wilson-George, chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, told the Straight that the partnership between VANOC and FHFN was "setting the bar" for future world-class events.
"The next Olympics must have indigenous participation, and it has to be to this level," she said. "We have First Nations on the VANOC committee, the organizing committee itself. And I don't believe that's ever been done before."
Ward Churchill, speaking to the Straight in a UBC classroom the day after the APC event, conceded that certain members of the Native community would profit from the Olympics. But, he added, "The overall economic calculation that would have to be applied in having a rational assessment in the destruction of the land, the forfeiture of rights, and the collaboration, and all the rest of that”¦the net loss would exceed any kind of profit."
Churchill spoke at the October 28 APC event to, in his own words, "add a bit of teeth" to the Vancouver anti-Olympic movement.
Hill simply said, "If we demonstrate that we are going to disrupt the Olympics and make it a disaster for the rich and powerful, then that is going to send a strong message to transnational corporations," he said.
As the city's Olympic clock counts down, a split in B.C.'s Native community could mean Games organizers have one more thing to worry about.