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Olympics protests slam poverty, injustice

Published Mar 3, 2010 9:18 PM

Despite extensive media coverage of the recent Winter Olympics games in Vancouver, British Columbia, most television viewers outside Canada did not hear about the resistance to the games and the many protests that took place in Vancouver and elsewhere.

More than 12,000 police and security personnel turned Vancouver into a police state during the games, and progressive activists from Indigenous and other communities were harassed prior to the Olympics. The intense security presence and repression were no doubt a national dress rehearsal for this summer’s G-8 summit in Huntsville, Ontario, and the G-20 summit in Toronto.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), government and business leaders sought to show the world a postcard-perfect city complete with happy, cooperative Indians. To counter this, thousands of protesters took to the streets in an effort to rip the mask off the false image of Vancouver. Activists attempted to expose the ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples — First Nations, Métis and Inuit — and focus attention on poverty and injustice in Canada.

Before the games even began, the Olympic torch relay was disrupted in more than 30 cities and First Nation territories. On Feb. 12, the day of the opening ceremonies, thousands of people marched in a “Take Back Our City” demonstration that was led by Indigenous elders and included activists from many backgrounds.

On Feb. 13, the first full day of competition, Vancouver woke up to a “Heart Attack” demonstration that clogged the streets and disrupted business as usual. Some of the protesters targeted the Hudson Bay Co. store, the primary purveyor of Olympic souvenirs and a long-time symbol of the devastation of nature and expropriation of wealth from Canada’s land and Indigenous peoples.

The high cost of games

Hosting the Olympics is an expensive endeavor. Montreal, which hosted the 1976 Summer Games, incurred a $1 billion debt that took three decades to pay off. The debt for the Vancouver Olympics is expected to be much higher, around $6 billion. This comes at a time when social programs, housing and education are being drastically slashed. The province of British Columbia has immense natural resources and wealth, but it also has the highest child poverty rate in Canada.

Although VANOC claimed that the Vancouver games would be “green” and sustainable, the actual environmental impact was devastating. Tens of thousands of trees were cut down. Mountains were blasted for an Olympic venue in Whistler and for a highway expansion. Millions of salmon died in the Fraser River because of the huge amount of gravel mined there to make concrete needed for construction projects.

British Columbia consists largely of unceded Indigenous territories. A fraudulent treaty process is underway, but the government continues to sell, lease and develop Native lands to corporations, including mining, logging, oil and gas pipelines, and resorts. Meanwhile, Indigenous peoples suffer the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, imprisonment, police violence and disease in Canada.

VANOC and Olympics sponsors such as the Royal Bank of Canada spread a lot of money around to be able to ensure some degree of First Nations cooperation, and some members of First Nations communities — desperate for jobs and any level of economic development — hoped to benefit temporarily from the Olympics. Nonetheless, many Indigenous people opposed the games.

Harriet Nahanee inspires activists

Anti-Olympics organizing began well in advance of 2010. Early Indigenous resistance resulted in the 2007 death of elder Harriet Nahanee, a 71-year-old Pacheedaht activist, who was sent to jail for refusing to apologize to a court for protesting the expansion of the Sea-to-Sky Highway at Eagleridge Bluffs — construction that would lay the path for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Nahanee, ill with flu and asthma at the time she was imprisoned, was reportedly told, “You can see a psychiatrist,” when she asked for medical care. She died shortly after her release from prison.

A survivor of the program that once made Native children leave their communities and go to residential schools, Harriet Nahanee fought for the recognition of Aboriginal land rights and the protection of the environment. She also fought against discrimination and the marginalization of First Nations people in cities like Vancouver. Many Native youth have said that their anti-Olympics and other activism were inspired by this magnificent elder.

Nahanee was not the only grandmother to be jailed for opposing the Olympics. A white environmental activist in her 70s, Betty Krawczyk, was arrested at the same time as Nahanee. She served seven months in prison in 2007 for ignoring a court order that forbade her from further demonstrations at Eagleridge Bluffs.

Women, homeless fight back

Modern Olympics often cause the displacement of poor people in host cities, and Vancouver was no exception. Homelessness nearly tripled as a result of new construction and the destruction of low-income housing units. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) area was heavily impacted. Many of the homeless population in Vancouver are Indigenous; it’s a magnet city for people from impoverished reserves where there are few jobs.

Prior to the Olympics, Vancouver criminalized begging for money, sleeping outdoors and other activities commonly engaged in by homeless or economically marginalized people. New city benches were designed so people could not lie down on them.

On Feb. 15 hundreds marched through the streets of downtown Vancouver against militarization and the Olympics police state. That same day, homeless people, housing organizers and others set up a tent city in DTES. Organizer Harsha Walia said activists will stay there for an indefinite time, and she’s not worried that they are not permitted to do so.

At the start of the march Walia told the crowd the games have accelerated gentrification in the DTES and that police are harassing area residents. “Every day you walk down this block you see the police beat people down,” she said. “The 2010 Olympics is leading to the criminalization of homelessness.” She was speaking in front of a banner depicting fuzzy Olympic mascots surrounded by flames, skulls, $100 bills and swastikas. (theprovince.com)

Large events such as the Olympics lead to increased exploitation of women. Although not part of the overall anti-Olympics protests, the annual Women’s Memorial March took place Feb. 14 during the games. This grassroots march honors murdered and missing women — a disproportionate number of them Indigenous — from across Canada. Vancouver’s march had about 5,000 participants, and there were sister marches in Calgary, Montreal and other cities. March organizers and families believe that authorities in Canada do not take seriously the murders of Indigenous women.

Information for this article was compiled from an interview with a protest participant and from Web sites, including theprovince.com, the National Post, Canadian Press, the Straight, no2010.com and YouTube.