Canada: The Show Went On

Linda Matchan, for the Pulitzer Center
Vancouver, Canada

Much has been made of the unprecedented Aboriginal participation in the planning and hosting of the 2010 Olympic Games. This has a lot to do with the fact that many of the sporting events are taking place on the traditional territorial lands of the Four Host First Nations – the umbrella group consisting of the Lil'Wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations (First Nations are one of three officially recognized Aboriginal peoples in Canada, along with the Inuit people of the Arctic and the Metis people of mixed Indian-European descent).

As the First Nations people of British Columbia want no one to forget, this land was forcibly taken from them by European settlers. Only recently has Canada formally broken its silence about this and other injustices done to Aboriginals. In 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a formal apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools "for failing them so profoundly" and sought forgiveness for the damaging impact the schools had on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language.

Artcirq and the other performers from Nunavut rehearsing in the Northern House for the medals ceremony. Photo by Jesse Beecher

The Aboriginal presence at the Olympics is conspicuous to anyone who watched the opening ceremonies on TV, which were dominated by four massive totem poles representing each of the Host First Nations. The work of Aboriginal artists appear in every Olympic venue. The gold, silver and bronze medals feature West Coast aboriginal designs.

"The 2010 Winter Games mark a time of transformation for our people," said Tewanee Joseph, executive director of the Four Host First Nations. "We are full and active partners in every aspect of the Games. No longer window dressing, Dime Store Indians or an after thought in a headdress trotted out at Opening and Closing ceremonies."

Not all Aboriginal people are buying this. As Joseph himself acknowledged, First Nations people experience an unemployment rate that is at least double of other Canadians. The suicide rate in Aboriginal communities is twice the national rate. Two out of three Aboriginal children living on reserves will not graduate from high school.Artcirq5
A Inuksuk erected for the Olympics on English Bay in Vancouver. Photo by Jesse Beecher

Members of an Olympic Resistance Movement have argued that the Olympics is merely window dressing. They say the money would have been better spent on remedying the after-effects of colonialism, such as homelessness among Aboriginals, many of whom live in Vancouver's Downtown East Side known as the poorest postal code in Canada.

Canada's Arctic Inuit people have many of the same social problems, though they have not been addressed so vocally at the Olympics (It is the source of some pride, though, that the official Olympic logo is an inukshuk, a traditional stone sculpture used by Canada's Inuit people).

But the Inuit's diminished status in Canada was not far from the minds of the members of Artcirq, part of an ensemble of Inuit people who performed a half-hour show celebrating their traditions at Sunday night's medal ceremony at B.C. Place.

Some 20,000 people filled the stadium – an enormous coup for Artcirq which is accustomed to performing before small audiences. "I couldn't believe that I was on the stage," said acrobat Jimmy Qamuqaq, who lives in Igloolik, Nunavut.

"I was speechless," said Jimmy, after the show. "Everyone clapped. It was a very big energy. For me, I think we made them see that Inuit exist and Nunavut could be known more. And hopefully there will be much better chances for us to have possibilities. Sometimes, we feel invisible. Artcirq6
Nunavut performers during a show outside Vancouver. Photo by Jesse Beecher.