Commentary  First Nations, first priority


According to McGill Chancellor Dick Pound, “400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages,” – savages, in reference to the large and diverse population of First Nations people. Pound, who also sits on the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympics (VANOC) and is the Canadian representative to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said this to LaPresse in French when relating China’s history to Canada’s.

Some are calling for Pound’s resignation as McGill Chancellor, and B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said he should resign from VANOC. While calls from groups like the Association of First Nations have garnered media attention, McGill has simply distanced itself from Pound’s remarks, stating that his opinions are his own and do not reflect the University’s values. In his defense, Pound has said that the statements were taken out of context. Still, the reluctance of both McGill and Pound to retract the racist comment is troubling, and is yet another example of the continuing negative stigma toward Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

The Canadian government’s inhumane treatment of Aboriginals has long been the country’s best-kept secret. So often we see the continuation of this treatment in countless messy drawn-out court battles over questions of legitimate land and title claims. As First Nations groups voice their demands through negotiation processes, blockades, and protests, they are too often portrayed with a negative slant in mainstream media. The paternalistic voice with which their problems and complaints are covered mirrors the ineffective top-down strategies pumped out of government offices. The poor attention paid to this demographic was driven home when the UN deemed Canada’s flippant care of First Nations a human rights concern. Further, Canada was one of only a small handful of countries to refuse to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Canada is sadly not alone in its unfair treatment of native minorities within its borders. As highlighted by this year’s Olympics in Beijing, scathing attacks against China for its mistreatment of minorities – particularly its oppression of Tibetans and Muslims – landed these human rights issues in the centre of media criticism. With Vancouver fast approaching its 17 days in the spotlight as host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, it only makes sense that equal media attention be paid to persistent discrimination in Canada – especially in B.C.

As First Nations in B.C. never signed a treaty ceding the land allotted for the Games to the government, there are growing complaints that the Olympics are being hosted on stolen land. When the Spirit Train – a cheesy, cringe-inducing hype-machine designed to foster Olympic spirit – chugged its way across Canada, it was constantly met by Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals alike protesting the 2010 Games as a perpetuation of land claims injustices.

Ironically, Vancouver will likely celebrate First Nations culture in the Opening Ceremonies. With such a divide between public spectacle and policy, these celebrations become little more than tokenistic gestures. The Olympic spotlight will soon be shining on Canada, and it’s time for Canada to genuinely heed First Nations’ concerns, and for land issues to be resolved respectfully.