In 1999, the International Olympic Committee adopted Agenda 21, a document that called for Olympic host nations to use the Games as a means for creating sustainable development for traditionally disadvantaged groups, including indigenous peoples.

The following year, the Sydney Olympics gave Australia’s Aborigines a role to play in the Games, highlighted by a memorable performance at the opening ceremony. It was a very visible, but arguably impractical response to the IOC’s Agenda 21 ambitions.

Though the world was exposed to Aboriginal culture, the scene was very different away from the media spotlight. Some of Australia’s indigenous leaders urged protests during the Sydney Games because of long simmering disputes about land rights and the lack of economic opportunity available to their people.       

Other post-1999 Olympics have had indigenous participation, but like Sydney the role was limited to performance. When Canadian tribal representatives took part in the 2006 closing ceremony at the Torino Olympics, it seemed that the trend of following Agenda 21 on a purely cosmetic level would continue. 

Yes, the Four Host First Nations (referring to the Lil'wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, the four tribes who originally occupied the land on which the Olympic events will be held) will be a visible presence when the torch arrives in Vancouver this February, as will the culture of indigenous people from other parts of Canada (the so-called First Nations tribes, Inuit and Metis). The Aboriginal Pavilion, a structure built specifically for the Games, will be the center of this cultural promotion. 

But it is the behind-the-scenes participation of Canada’s native people that will truly set these Olympics apart from previous ones in terms of sustainable economic and social development.

The Olympics have always been used by the host nation to create economic opportunities (through tourism, infrastructure improvements, etc). Vancouver’s Olympic Committee (VANOC) is taking unprecedented steps to include Aboriginal people, not just in those aspects of the Games that receive media coverage, but on a more grassroots economic and social level as well.

Sports

The first evidence of this unprecedented indigenous participation came in the form of grassroots athletic scouting events held across Canada.   

Special competitions were organized for indigenous youth beginning in 2005. These mildly competitive events were held with the goal of identifying athletic talent in indigenous communities. Promising participants were invited to attend sports-specific camps to develop their skills and capitalize on their previously undiscovered athletic prowess. The events were also used to help promote physical fitness and sport among indigenous youth.  

VANOC has also aided in the funding of the First Nations Snowboard Team, which competes at events in British Columbia and provides a recreational outlet for indigenous youth. Though there is a competitive aspect to the team (they placed well in provincial contests), the goal is mainly participation. Members are required to do well in school and maintain a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle in order to continue as part of the team.

Economics

The economic opportunities given to Canada’s indigenous people during the Olympics will not be as visible as their Opening Ceremony duties, but it is this aspect that proves that Vancouver has taken Agenda 21 to heart. Indigenous people have been encouraged to apply for some of the several thousand paid positions (both full-time and temporary) that need to be filled for the Games. Though there is no stated “quota,” per se, aboriginal people have been asked to identify themselves during the first part of the application process. 

With over $2 billion being spent to prepare for and host the Olympics, the Vancouver Olympic Committee has attempted to “optimize opportunities, both for Aboriginal businesses and those that strongly support the Aboriginal community.” The goal of producing sustainable development has affected the way that the Olympic Committee makes purchases and awards contracts.

Again, no quota or financial goals have been mentioned, but the promises to create opportunities for qualified businesses have been reiterated throughout the process of building for the Olympics. Non-native-owned businesses have been encouraged to support the indigenous community if they win a bid through donations to tribal educational programs or the subcontracting of work to qualified tribal businesses. 

A more visible economic step is taking place with the Vancouver 2010 product licensing program. Native arts will be incorporated into official Vancouver 2010 merchandise. These include apparel with designs made by First Nations artists and souvenir-type merchandise made by native craftspeople. This type of licensing and merchandising is a way to monetize the indigenous cultural participation that has been seen in past Olympics.   

Promoting the host city as a tourist destination is a major part of the Olympics, with a successful staging of the Games leading to more tourists (and therefore more jobs and a stronger industry). The Aboriginal Tourism Board of B.C. is working to make sure that they are part of the promotion process.    

Results?

Is this more than a “feel good about ourselves” scheme by the Vancouver Olympic planners? There has been a strong media campaign, over the past several years, to publicize the possibilities for involvement in the Games amongst indigenous communities.

Using both national and local media outlets, VANOC has been trying to make it as easy as possible for First Nation, Inuit and Metis peoples to get involved in the Olympics and for qualified businesses to obtain the information necessary to bid for projects, take advantage of the influx of visitors, and license their designs or products. 

Will all this lead to sustainable development? Time will tell. There are no previous examples by which to measure the impact of this Olympic involvement on Canada’s First Nations. If even a portion of their initiatives is seen as successful, Vancouver 2010 will be the blueprint for future Olympics when it comes to creating sustainable development for traditionally disadvantaged groups.

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