Recently, members of indigenous communities across Canada have expressed outrage at racist comments made by Richard Pound, who is Chancellor of McGill University, a Canadian representative on the International Olympics Committee, and a member of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic Games. During an interview in August, Pound responded to criticism regarding this summer’s Beijing Olympics saying, “We must not forget that 400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages, with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants of European descent, while in China, we’re talking about a 5,000-year-old civilization.”
Pound’s comments, as well as his subsequent attempts to excuse himself by claiming not to know that the phrase “pays de sauvages” was no longer acceptable in French, are offensive and inaccurate. Furthermore, they are evidence of a deeper current of racism and colonialism within Olympic organizing and within the administration of institutions like McGill.
Pound’s words are offensive on many levels. They grossly mischaracterize the history of native peoples in Canada. They reinvigorate the colonialist trope of native “savagery,” a discourse used as a tool of violence and displacement for centuries, and further imply that Canada’s “civilization” originated in the presence of European settlers and, by extension, in the genocide of native peoples.
Pound has failed to take responsibility for his statement, despite its gravity. Instead, he has raised his hackles at the “injustice” of being called racist, claiming that his critics’ accusations “trivialize [his work] in the Olympic movement to fight against discrimination based on race, politics, or gender.” But fighting racism in the Olympics is not just about fighting discrimination against non-White athletes, as Pound claims to have done. It’s about fighting for the rights of indigenous communities on whose unceded territory the Olympics will occur; it’s about fighting for shelter and safety for Vancouver’s increasingly repressed population of homeless people and sex workers; and it’s about ensuring that native elders like Harriet Nahanee will not die as a result of arrest and incarceration when native individuals take a stand for their land and communities. Where is Pound in these struggles?
Some argue that education, not resignation, may be the best way to address this issue. It’s true that McGill has embarrassingly little to offer in the way of First Nations Studies, and indigenous students continue to face barriers to access. Yet, Pound’s resignation is an important step that needs to accompany the fight for institutional and educational changes. The McGill community cannot claim to care about indigenous rights as long as we allow Pound to remain the highest symbolic representative of the University.
As students at McGill, we invite you to a demonstration on Monday November 17 at 3:30 p.m. outside of Pound’s law office on the corner of Rene Levesque and Peel. Add your voice to the growing chorus denouncing racism and colonialism at our University!
Maria Forti is a U3 Humanistic Studies student, and Nat Marshik U3 Women’s Studies student. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.