Winter Olympics & Aborigines’ Rights

The Winter Olympics in Canada are set to start soon amidst much fanfare but the controversies surrounding the event’s location and treatment of Aborigines (both Native American and now Australian) show no signs of being addressed.

Controversy began when Canadian officials decided to build the site for the Winter Olympics on Indigenous people’s ancestral lands. The community split over those who saw this as an opportunity to work in a highly public way with the Canadian government to represent Indigenous cultures (namely the Musqueam, Squamish, Lil’wat, Tsleil-Waututh nations) and those who were both concerned about the potential damage to the land and the expense. With regards to the later, several Indigenous activists known as the Olympic Resistance Network (ORN) felt that the treatment of Canadian’s Indigenous population and the current issues they contend with preclude any joint move to represent harmony and cooperation between the government and the people on a global scale. Worse, the funds used to engage in representing Indigenous Cultures of Canada to the world could have been spent to rectify gross poverty, systemic abuse, and addiction issues. Some have even argued that the land was never granted to Canada and therefore cannot be used for the games. Those on board, felt these concerns were out of line with the overall gain of re-imaging Indigenous people as successful business people, teachers, social workers, artists, etc. as well as  “modern”.

For their part, the Canadian government spent a considerable amount of the Winter Olympic budget on “cultural information” and Indigenous businesses. Among other things, they built the Lil’wat people a state of the art cultural center that will serve as an educational place for Olympic visitors during the games and a place for information, events, and community building when they are over. The Inuit also welcomed the Olympics for the building of a “Aboriginal Pavillion” which showcases information and products by/for all of the nations involved in the Olympic planning. 10% of the overall Olympic budget has gone to Indigenous businesses for services during the Winter Olympics ranging from site coordination and building, to goods and services, to cultural events and artwork, including the commissioning of an Indigenous artist to design the Olympic medals for the games. (Native American owned North Shore company has pointed out however, that the Olympics Committee has also contracted with offshore companies, including sweatshops in China, to produce much of the Olympic products and placed Indigenous inspired logos on them or passed them off as “authentic Indigenous products” confusing what is actually made by and benefiting Indigenous businesses and what is not. Outsourcing may in fact result in the closing down of several Indigenous owned businesses as a result of unrealistic investment based on projected earnings due to the promise of Olympic investment.) The Canadian government also funded the first First Nation Snow Board Team who will compete for the first time this year; a move, that ORN found to be little more than a PR stunt that masks drop out rates and high pregnancy and abuse rates amongst Indigenous youth as a result of colonial trauma and underfunding of social programs by the state.

This controversy has not stopped with questions of legitimacy and divides over ideology and goals. Instead, the organizers and participants in the Winter Olympics have been responsible for several of the problems the ORN predicted. Some claim that sacred images have been “misappropriated” by the Olympics, including the official logo for 2010 which some Inuit leaders have said is not only sacred but drawn incorrectly. While the official mascots for the Games were chosen by the 4 consulting First Nations, some have also argued that these too are appropriations of the sacred; the mascots include Miga and Sumi figures from Indigenous’ stories or mythology.  Despite State & Indigenous supporters talk of cultural competence at the Games, still others have pointed out that the Inuit are overrepresented in these symbols when the Games themselves will be taking place on Salish lands. The criticism is not only about ignorance related to differences in Indigenous groups but also about global perceptions: the Inuit are widely known outside of Canada because of internationally distributed documentaries and mainstream films while the Salish have no similar global cache with which to push product.Worse, McGill University chancellor and Canadian International Olympic Committee representative Dick Pound published an official statement welcoming the Olympics by referring to the Indigenous Population as “Savages.”

According to No One is Illegal, 1000s of Indigenous people, migrants, and poor Canadians have been evicted or removed to build the Olympic infrastructure and hide poverty. Others have reported direct police harassment and surveillance of Indigenous organizers, a problem in its own right which is being expanded by the current global war on terror and its failure to protect basic civil rights of activists. The head of security for the Games also has a history of using force against protesters, particularly those of involved in Indigenous activism, including pepper spraying peaceful protesters and involvement in the truck explosion during the Gustafsen Lake Standoff (another conflict between the Canadian government and Indigenous activists in 1995). Deforestation of the area has also not only led to environmental degradation but the potential destruction of sacred Indigenous’ grounds through mountain topping.

Other concerns include:

  • The building of resorts and “temporary housing” that will last beyond the Olympics to permanently displace Indigenous and poor people from their neighborhoods and their lands
  • Potential increases in long term homelessness for an already struggling population based on similar increases as a result of Olympics events elsewhere around the world
  • union busting during the planning of the Olympics that disproportionately impacts poor and Indigenous workers
  • Increased funding (up to $1 billion) for military and policing that includes infrastructure that will remain after the Olympics and has been geared toward policing Indigenous Activists and their allies
  • The use of border security to keep out allied Olympic protesters, stifling global free speech and isolating Indigenous activists
  • Increased vulnerability for Indigenous women displaced and/or pushed into informal work by the Olympics build

These complaints also have specific ramifications for women, ie

  • increased trafficking in women specifically for the Olympics facilitated by the Vancouver hub
  • Attempts to preempt/prevent the annual march to draw attention to Canada’s 500 missing and murdered Native American women and the violence against them in Vancouver
  • The Native American Women’s Association Estimates there will be a 10-36% rise in violence against women as a result of the Olympic games (based partially on DSV statistics at previous Olympics)
  • The Canadian government is offering no funds for increased staffing around or training about women’s abuse issues despite these concerns (1)

Native women have been at the forefront of using the media designed to highlight the Winter Olympics to instead underline the abuse of Native women going on unchecked by the Canadian government. Thus the NAWA march will include an Olympic component while the Manitoba women organized information distribution and protest signs related to abuse and disappearance of women during the torch run through their area. And Chief Nelson issued a statement about the racial component of violence against women in Vancouver that targets Indigenous women.  Both Indigenous women and a multicultural coalition of other women have also come out in mass to protest the expense of the Olympics while women and children are in desperate need of quality health care in the region. Women’s health and abuse services have been seeing steady declines in funding over the years, while the Olympics committee is able to mobilize billions to fund the Games. While revenue will help the city, the city and state’s refusal to allot money toward women’s issues directly exacerbated by the games does not bode well for how much of the revenue generated by them will ultimately go to women’s programming.

The changes to civil rights laws and policing have been particularly frightening. Among those changes, The Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act of 2009 allowed Canadian police and Olympic security to enter people’s homes without warrants to seize “anti-Olympic signs.” Fines were also introduced to the Vancouver Charter for having anti-Olympics signs or engaging in anti-Olympic protests; these fines are up to $10,000 and 6 months in prison. Not only do these measures radically impact free speech in a supposedly democratic nation, but they also place undue burden on Indigenous people, who are most impacted by the Olympic games, and the poor who cannot afford such hefty fines. Among those arrested already, Indigenous environmental feminist activists Harriet Nahanee profiled last year on this blog, and environmental activists Betty Krawczyk. Their arrests sparked major protests in Canada but the international world took little notice until Amy Goodman, of NPR, was harassed at the border for potential political activism relating to the Olympics when in fact she was just going to attend a book promotion event for her latest book.

As if this list was not bad enough, enter the Russian skating team of Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin. The Russian duo participated in Olympic opening events meant to “honor Australian Aborigines” in either a clear misunderstanding of how Canadians use the term “Aborigine” or a blatant blanket otherizing of indigeneity that is in keeping with the ideology behind the performance itself. (In other words, they either misunderstood the term Aborigine or think that distinctly different cultural groups on different continents are interchangeable.) As if that cultural faux paux was not enough, the duo dressed in derogatory costumes that had little reference to actual Australian Aborigines but instead mimicked a colonial-racist image of Indigenous Savages. In fact, their performance straight out of some colonial fantasy that infantalizes, dehumanizes, and otherizes all colonized people as equally “savage” or “wild”. Thus their music appeared to have African influences, while their costumes appeared to be a homage to bad artistic renderings of Native Americans in colonial children’s books (or perhaps Avatar), and the explanation of their dance referenced Australian Aborigines. Their choreography was entirely made up, reflecting none of the cultures they borrowed from nor claimed to “honor”. Instead the performance is wholly imagined from what they, and other colonialist narratives, imagined those cultures were like, ie occasionally-Noble Savages. Perhaps in the best testament to the problematic nature of the Olympics in general, the duo won an award for their “Aboriginal tribute” and plan to use it as one of their main pieces in the attempt to win Olympic Gold. The insult to Aborigines world wide is compounded by the Winter Games perpetual narrative of Aboriginal harmony and cultural uplift.

Besides all of the issues with the racial aspects of the Games, I find myself wondering about the lack of response to them outside of Canada. When the Brazilian government forcibly removed homeless and subsistence level Brazilians out of the city and was rumored to have massacred many of them, public outcry was substantial as was international human right’s work around the issue. When the Indigenous, immigrant, and homeless populations in Whistler were forcibly removed only Canadians seemed to come out in protest. When rumors of the Chinese government rounding up political dissidents before the games spread, the existing protests against them for human rights violations went global even disrupting the torch ceremonies. When rumors of the Canadian government expanding surveillance and policing and using it to “interview, track, and potentially detain” Indigenous activists came out, not only did the eye witness testimony not spread outside of Canada, but no protests occurred outside of it either. While photographs of anti-China disruptions of the torch went global, the only image of similar intervention in Canada I saw was on the website of ORN. Even muted conversations about gentrification and displacement related to the Olympics that went on in Atlanta during and after the games outweighs similar discussions about Indigenous’ sacred land in and around Whistler.  Olympic hopefuls like Japan have also been universally criticized for their environmental stance and/or degradation, while the leveling of mountain tops in Whistler to make room for ski runs has again received little concerted attention outside of the area. Given the long history of abuse against the indigenous population in Canada, the current conditions resulting from them as well as underfunding and [often sexualized] racism exacerbating it, and the current abuses alleged against both people and environment, one has to wonder why the oppression of Indigenous peoples in the Americas warrants less attention than all of the other examples provided? Is it because much of Whistler is considered a resort town for the famous (making movies in Vancouver) and the rich (around the world)? Or is it because unlike China or Japan, Canada is not seen as an economic threat to the rest of the West? Nor is it a “third world” like Brazil. Regardless of whether it is one or all of these things, I think we all need to think long and hard about the permanent ramifications for the Indigenous, and other marginalized, people in Canada this Winter Olympics. The already documented abuses, and the projected future ones, illustrate a specific case of the State targeting the perpetually vulnerable and a much larger example of what the Olympics has really come to mean for impacted communities. For activists and social justice workers, Vancouver 2010 also forces us to question why the Olympics is only an international justice political proving ground when national interests, and/or mainstream recognizable identities, are at stake.



  • Protest in Whistler/ORN
  • Official Olympic Symbol for Winter Games 2010
  • Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre Elders’ Council torch protest/ORN
  • AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev
  • What Olympics Really Stands for In Communities Poster/Corey Rollins


  1. read more about Indigenous women’s organizing and its relationship to the Winter Olympics here

7 thoughts on “Winter Olympics & Aborigines’ Rights

  1. I need to read more about this but the Domnina and Shabalin piece that appropriates “Aboriginal dance” is one of the three pieces they’ll be performing in Olympic competition (and presumably the World Championships as well). As it is, they’ve just won the European Championships with this as their original dance. Blackface is involved.

    I’ve also read that an Australian ice dance team did a similar piece last year but they spent significant time in consultation with the Aborigine community to ensure that their dance represented accurately and respected Aboriginal culture.

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  3. This is really really important essay. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Olympics–on the one hand, I grew up deeply invested in them (the 80s “can you believe in miracles???” thing and then just the human stories that go always with “sports competition–), I love the way people resist politics in sports (i.e. the fist in the air, the hug between communist and capitalist, etc)–

    but–The first olympics I really watched after becoming more politically aware and radicalized was the greece olympics–and there was ALL the stuff you talk about here, permanent displacement, violence, surveillance, sexual abuse…

    I have no answers–which is why I really like this essay–the olympics invoke such a complicated political response–I admire the shit out of the indigenous women who are using this moment to their benefit–and I’ll definitly be blogging about them in support.

    And I wonder how much of the lack of response to indigenous abuse has to do with the idea that North American Indigenous peoples are considered “the dead noble savage?” Like what permeates so much of anthropology depts–they are a “lost” people and we must study them all quickly before they all die forever and all that knowledge is gone!

    If we can all dismiss them as dead (or dying out), then we don’t have to deal with ongoing colonization, violence against the communities, etc. right?

    • thanks for this. so much to say back but as you can see from my post today on want ads for feminists, I am not in the headspace for speaking. Just wanted to let you know comments are coming just not now.

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