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An Olympic Land Grab


In sport, as in life, “security” trumps peace. That’s what happened when the International Olympic Committee chose Vancouver, Canada, over PyeongChang, South Korea, for the 2010 Winter Games.

PyeongChang pitched itself as the peace candidate: with the world in turmoil, bring the games to the very border of George Bush’s “axis of evil” and make a gesture of reconciliation. Vancouver sold itself as the safety and security candidate: with the world in turmoil, hold the games somewhere you can be almost certain that nothing will happen.

The Vancouver-Whistler Olympic bid presented British Columbia as a model of harmonious, sustainable living, a place where everyone gets along: Native and non-Native, rural and urban, rich and poor. But two weeks after the euphoric celebrations, the sheen on Vancouver’s harmony sales pitch is already wearing off.

“I’m going to stop them,” Rosalin Sam of the Lil’wat Nation told me. “I’ll lay in the path of the machines. I have to protect our land.” Sam is referring to the planned construction of the Cayoosh Ski Resort on Mount Currie, near Whistler, the heart of the Olympic competitions.

Mount Currie is pristine wilderness, a habitat for bears, deer and mountain goats, used as a Native hunting ground, as well as a source of teas, berries and medicines for 11 Native bands. “Some people go to church, we go to the mountain,” Sam says.

Her objection is not to the Olympic games themselves, but to their role in the transformation of British Columbia’s economy. With resource industries like fishing and logging in crisis, the games are being positioned as a 17-day globally televised commercial for BC’s new economy: winter tourism.

The province has some of the world’s best skiing and is already a major tourist destination. But the political and economic forces behind the Olympics want much more: expanded ski hills, new resorts on undeveloped mountains, and of course hotels and roads. These are industrial-scale vacation factories, and that’s the trouble: most of the expansion reaches into land claimed by BC’s First Nations – claims that have never ceded.

According to Taiaiake Alfred, director of the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria: “Tourism can be as disruptive as logging or mining.” Mountains are carved up for ski runs, wildlife is driven away, and towns are turned into parking lots with sushi restaurants. “The real money,” Alfred says, is in “speculative real estate.” In Whistler, local agents boast that real estate value has gone up by 15% every year for the past 15 years.

For all these reasons, ski resorts have become one of the most explosive political issues in British Columbia. Three years ago, the Lil’wat Nation held a referendum on whether it approved of the Cayoosh Ski Resort: 85% of the population voted no. To block resort construction, they set up a protest camp on the mountain supported by all 11 chiefs of the St’at’imc Territory.

A proposal to expand the Sun Peaks Ski Resort from 4,000 to 24,000 bed units has encountered even fiercer opposition. The Native Youth Movement’s road blockades and protest camps faced extreme police repression, with many leaders jailed and dwellings and sweat lodges repeatedly demolished.

Now that Vancouver has won its Olympic bid, the snow fights will escalate. According to Arthur Manuel, former chairman of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council and former chief of the Neskonlith Indian Band, there is a split emerging in First Nations communities. On one side are chiefs and entrepreneurs who see the Olympics as an opportunity – for a new community centre, affordable housing, a way to sell Haida art. On the other is a grassroots movement of people who hunt and fish, and see industrial-scale tourism as a threat to their very survival.

“Indian people are the poorest of the poor. Families get $165 a month,” Manuel says, referring to the high percentage of Native people on social assistance. “They, not the chiefs, are dependent on hunting. More tourism is going to take food off their tables and they are going to end up on Hastings [the heart of Vancouver's drug district]. That’s what happens when you force Indian people off their land.”

These issues seem to have been lost on the IOC. Rather than consulting all the bands whose people will be affected, the bid committee picked a few development-friendly leaders to play along and ignored the rest. Submissions to the IOC by Native groups opposed to the games received no response.

These games are far from blessed.

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