The Olympics Land Grab

July 16th, 2003
By Naomi Klein

In sports, as in life, “security” trumps peace.

That’s what happened when the International Olympic Committee faced a choice between Pyeongchang, South Korea and Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games.

South Korea 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, on the other hand, 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 the province of 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.

Before the vote, IOC President Jacques Rogge tipped his hand by declaring South Korean’s peace theme to be “secondary” and telling the Los Angeles Times that his top priority was “the best possible security.”

But two weeks after the euphoric celebrations, the new-age 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 if I have to. I have to protect our land.” Sam is referring to the planned construction of the Cayoosh Ski Resort on Mount Currie, a 30 minute drive from Whistler, the heart of the Olympic competitions.

Currently, Mount Currie is pristine wilderness, a habitat for bears, deer and mountain goats. It is used as a traditional Native hunting ground, as well as a source of teas, berries and medicines for the eleven Native bands that claim it as their territory. “Some people go to church, we go to the mountain,” Sam says.

Her objection is not to the Olympic games themselves, but to the role the games are already playing 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 best skiing in the world, and it is already a major tourist destination. But the political and economic forces behind the Olympics want much more: massively expanded ski hills, new resorts on undeveloped mountains, and of course hotels and roads connecting them all. We aren’t talking about “leave only footprints, take only pictures” eco-tourism here; these are industrial scale vacation factories.

And that’s where the trouble comes in. Most of this expansion is reaching into land that is claimed by BC’s First Nations ­ claims that have never been ceded under any treaty and which were affirmed in the landmark Supreme Court of Canada Delgamuukw decision in 1997.

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 per cent 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, when the Lil’wat Nation held a referendum on whether or not they approved of the Cayoosh Ski Resort, 85 per cent of the population voted “no.” To block resort construction, they set up a protest camp on the mountain that is supported by all 11 eleven 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 have been met with extreme police repression, with many of the leaders jailed and dwellings and sweat lodges repeatedly demolished.

Now that Vancouver has won its Olympic bid, the snow fights will only escalate. Though Cayoosh and Sun Peaks are not part of the official Olympic facilities, they both stand to benefit directly from the tourist spill-over. And it’s all in the family: former Olympic skier Nancy Greene Raine was a powerful board member on Vancouver’s Olympic Bid Committee. She is also Director of Skiing at the Sun Peaks Resort and her company, NGR Resort Consultants, is the developer behind the proposed Cayoosh Resort.

According to Arthur Manuel, former Chairman of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council and Former Chief of the Neskonlith Indian Band, there is a deep split emerging in First Nations communities. On one side are chiefs and entrepreneurs who see the Olympics as an opportunity — a chance for a new community centre, some affordable housing, a way to sell Haida art. On the other is a growing grassroots movement of people who still 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 are the ones ­ not the chiefs — who 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 drug district] because that’s what happens when you force Indian people off their land.”

These types of “security” issues seem to have been lost entirely on the IOC. Rather than consulting all of the bands whose people will be affected by the games, the bid committee hand picked a few development-friendly leaders to play along and ignored the rest. Submissions to the IOC by Native groups that opposed the games received no response. “The IOC didn’t follow protocol, they should have called a meeting of all 11 chiefs so the chiefs could go the people. This structure has been there for hundreds of years,” Sam says.

Yesterday, Sam and Manuel, representing the opponents of the Cayoosh and Sun Peaks Resorts, took their fight to another level. Proclaiming that “whoever supports the 2010 games in Vancouver-Whistler violates the internationally recognized rights of indigenous people,” they sent out a press release calling on “the international world, including athletes and tourists, not to infringe on our Rights and Title, and stay away from the 2010 Games.”

The Vancouver Olympic Bid Committee saw this coming, and warned in its internal documents of the need to get at least some First Nations leaders on side. “If the First Nations perceive that their rights are not being acknowledged and accommodated by British Columbia, they may go to the media, take direct action or initiate litigation. This would have a negative impact on the bid.”

No surprise then that the bid committee liked to start its sales pitches with a traditional First Nations blessing. Look forward to many more such displays of cultural sensitivity, culminating in the sound of drums and the smell of sweet grass at over-the-top Olympic opening and closing ceremonies (think Sydney and Salt Lake City). But don’t confuse these ceremonial blessings with genuine political consent.

These games are far from blessed.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.