Patrick Stewart doesn't consider the filching of the Olympic flag by the self-proclaimed Native Warrior Society in the early-morning hours of March 6 as a criminal act. Neither does he regard the incident as a random act of protest.
A member of the Nisga'a Nation, Stewart frames this audacious deed within the context of the historical antagonism between the people who first inhabited the land we now call Canada and those who came upon its shores later.
"That's the relationship that's been here since the white people came," Stewart told the Georgia Straight . "There's been such a long period of history where First Nations have been so controlled."
A Native-housing advocate and president of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia, he recalled the times when aboriginal people weren't allowed to speak their own language, were banned from congregating in groups of three, had access to legal services denied, and were refused the right to form their own political parties.
"It's not that the desire for self-determination has ever gone away, because First Nations were self-determining before the white people came and that got taken away," Stewart said. "That was always by force."
Stewart added that it's no surprise that in current times, "when we make too much noise, it becomes a news event.
"The issues never go away," he said. "They're always there. There's always been that undercurrent of resistance."
The Straight asked Insp. John de Haas, head of the Vancouver police department's diversity and aboriginal policing section, about how he looks at recent news events involving Native peoples. There was the death of Harriet Nahanee, a First Nations elder and environmental activist, in whose honour the theft of the Olympic flag was dedicated by the Native Warrior Society. Also, the B.C. government has acceded to demands to hold a public inquiry into the 1998 death of Frank Paul, a 47-year-old Mi'kmaq man dragged out of a police jail cell and left in an East Vancouver alley, where he died of hypothermia.
"I favour dialogues as opposed to criminal acts," de Haas said. "The general public appreciates dialogue. I think people who have issues are better served to present them in a way that they will be heard."
De Haas has been in the forefront of efforts by the police to reach out, particularly to Native youth. On February 28, he cheered on both sides as Vancouver cops played floor hockey with First Nations youngsters at Britannia Community Centre.
"There are a lot of young people out there and we've met fabulous young people who understand the importance of connecting and talking," he said. "That is a very traditional approach, which is to have a circle and talk."
De Haas said that an inquiry into the Paul case is "all good and it's all important". Since last year, he and representatives of Native organizations have been working to organize a community dialogue regarding Paul's death. The dialogue will be held sometime this spring.
"We knew it was a burning issue in the community," he said. "It was a barrier in the relationship both sides wanted. We have a community that experienced racism and indifference for such a long time in Canadian history that we need to understand that transparency, openness, and dialogue are absolutely critical to build relationships, mutual trust, and mutual respect."
Preston Guno, a First Nations youth leader who cochairs the aboriginal youth–VPD working group with de Haas, is confident that the Olympic-flag incident won't affect ongoing efforts to improve relations between Native youth and the police.
Asked what he thinks about this action, Guno told the Straight : "Freedom of expression—effective and symbolic."