Saturday, February 13, 2010

2010 Olympics Opening Ceremony -- A Canadian Fantasy

For the millions of people around the world watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics broadcast from Vancouver last night, it must look like Canada is a vibrant, diverse place rich in the storied shared history of hundreds of aboriginal nations with all those intrepid European pioneers and later the arrival of displaced people from around the globe. What a beautiful, wealthy nation they have created together, rich in culture that borrows from those shared stories and the reverence with which this history is celebrated.

Um... NOT.

It is said that symbols are everything, with the national myth of a country being the most symbolic of all. I found it very interesting last night that all those indigenous people come out in their traditional finery, speak the surviving languages into the universe to welcome in everyone from the globe, and then dance happily about the stadium in what looks like a lovely display of formalized greeting. But what was very interesting to me was as the indigenous people were dancing away, they were surrounded by white people dressed in white. I tried not to read anything into it, but my daughter and my niece who were watching the spectacle with me were like, “Why are all those white people circling the Indians? Are they making sure they are going to stay away from the athletes?”

I laughed, but found myself bothered by uneasiness. And then it hit me – in a nation that does not address the legacy of colonialism with regard to its aboriginal peoples, that does not allow them full access to the kind of wealth generated by the rest of the nation, that keeps them indentured on a reserve-based system and our very existence dictated by the terms of a paternalistic Indian Act, this is exactly what was happening. Symbolically we were being kept away from the rest of the action, only trotted out as window-dressing and part of the colourful spectacle that is Olympic pageantry. It made me think of what happened to the proud Lakota after the decimation of their people post-Wounded Knee – able only to find work in Bill Hickok’s Wild West show, dancing around desultorily in their finery and looked upon as objects of curiousity, a throw-back to the past and also the spoils in a war that secured a continent for the expansion of colonial supremacy.

I have often thought of our relationship to the colonial construct government as being trapped in an abusive marriage. Seduced, betrayed, abused and abandoned. Seduced by these newcomers and their new technology, their guns and trade goods, their religion and rum, their talk of alliances and treaties and sharing the land. Betrayed by an entire system that once entrenched, denied us our rights under those very treaties we had made and deliberately cheating us out of fair settlements and compensation for our homelands. Abused by a religion that told us our ways were savage, and forcing our children into residential schools in order to conform to the colonizer’s culture, and by a parochial Indian Act that dictated the terms of our very existence as indigenous people by telling us who could claim that status. Ultimately we have been abandoned because the government of Canada does not want to deal fairly with those outstanding land claims, offering us pittances for what was rightfully ours and attempting to extinguish our rightful title to vast acreages that should still be ours. And so the opening ceremonies remove all reference to the Canadian reality and instead reach once more for the myth that Canada is a peaceful, diverse and welcoming place, and that everyone lives in prosperity and equality for all while respecting the cultures that contribute to the fabric of the nation.

Thus does the abuser wear the mask of the loyal, supportive husband and the abused the happy, loved consort.

In discussing the ceremonies with an (enlightened white) friend of mine, she told me her partner had said that he had hoped for a contingent of masked warriors ambushing the ceremonies on snowmobiles and ATVs, flicking cigarette butts at the crowd and littering the ground with empties, a giant fuck-you to the Games and all they represent. I laughed, delighting in the imagery. That would have been a much more fitting representation of the reality of what has happened in indigenous communities and exposed the dirty laundry of Canada’s colonial legacy to the world, instead of this sanitized and carefully-choreographed fantasy.

I am lucky to count among my acquaintances Taiaiake Alfred, eminent Iroquoian scholar and thinker who has written about the colonial experience and indigenous resistance and how to address the problems of governance for our people. He said that how onkwehonwe people respond to the Olympics is a litmus test for how deeply colonized we are, and I agree with him. Our own communities are divided over the issue, with those of us who view the collaboration of our people who have been turned into Olympic cheerleaders with suspicion and being told by our own people that we are too angry and not seeing the opportunity these games represent. I don’t deny that for many indigenous people they have profited from the Games, and more power to them, but for myself view the entire thing with scepticism. The amount of money poured into this thing is staggering – money that could also have run arts programs, daycares, hospitals, better transit systems, infrastructure and green job initiatives.

I myself have been sucked into the Olympic spectacle before, with its seductive glamour of competitive sport and the drama that it represents, but as I’ve developed my own personal economic/class/race analysis, I don’t think this way anymore. The Olympics have become a bloated, exploitive thing that instead of honouring the purity of athletic endeavour relies on how much wealth a competitor nation can pony up to essentially buy medals. It is the ultimate circus, distracting people from the very problems of class and race divide that oppress the majority of the world’s population, and the nations who win those medals reinforce the hegemony of the North over the South, of white over brown, of rich over poor.