Olympic torch ignites passion – and protest

A wave of anti-Olympic sentiment and protests in Canada are threatening the international symbol of the Games as it makes its way across the vast Far North.

The world’s eyes are now on the North American state as it gears up to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, running from February 12 to 28. Although it is a widespread notion that the Olympic Games bring wealth, employment, international recognition and general prosperity to whatever country hosts the high profile event, the Games have historically been used to denounce a wide range of social injustices and human rights abuses.

This year’s edition of the Winter Olympics is no different. Extra attention has placed increased scrutiny on many of Canada’s actions, both past and present, which continue to tarnish the country, commonly referred to as the Great White North.

Relay tainted by protests

Episodes of growing anti-Olympic sentiment and protest have marred the Olympic torch relay, which set off from Canada’s east coast last October 30.

Covering approximately 35,000 kilometers of Canadian terrain, the 2010 Olympic Torch Relay will run through every province and territory over a 106-day period, involve 12,00 torchbearers and unite all Canadians in celebration, until reaching its final destination in the host city, Vancouver, British Columbia, on February 12, 2010.

Up until now, most protests along the relay route have remained peaceful, with demonstrators picketing and handing out pamphlets in specific communities along the route.

However, the torch relay and ensuing protest is heating up. Demonstrators have disrupted the flame procession or caused its route to be changed in Montreal, Toronto and other central Canadian cities. These interruptions all ended peacefully until anti-Olympic protests hit their peak on December 28 when a torchbearer was shoved and fell to the ground.

Cortney Hansen, 28, of the province of Ontario, almost unintentionally extinguished the flame on the wet pavement in her fall. According to eyewitnesses, she was accidentally pushed in an altercation between protesters and police; she then tripped and fell to the ground in front of shocked 1,000 onlookers.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Erica Goldman told RT as she recounted the incident. “I think all people have the right to voice their opposition to any issue, but they should do so peacefully and without causing violence or upset. But there’s a proper time and a place. I saw the fall with my own eyes and it was horrifying. My son and daughter were pretty shaken up over it and wanted to know why anyone would protest the Olympics.”

Luckily for Olympic fans the flame kept burning

Hansen continued the run, and was later treated for minor injuries. A 19-year-old demonstrator was arrested for assaulting Hansen.

A few days later, further along the relay route in Ontario, another eight protesters were arrested for an attempt to disrupt the torch run.

“We were out because the Olympics are taking place on indigenous territory out in British Columbia,” Mark Corbiere, a spokesperson for the protest group, called the Olympics Resistance Network, told the press. “It’s a land grab from the colonial history of the Canadian government.”

Alleged “land grab”

The greatest claim by anti-racism and anti-capitalism protesters, many of which are of Aboriginal origin, is that most of the Canadian province of British Columbia is still sovereign Native Aboriginal land, over which neither the Canadian or BC governments have the legal or moral authority to govern, let alone hold such a high-profile international event on the contested land.

Widely seen in protests across Canada in the lead up to the Vancouver Olympics, “the slogan ‘No Olympics on Stolen Native Land’ is a way to raise anti-colonial consciousness in Canada and across the world about the true and unfettered history of colonial Canada,” says Eliza Dupre, an Aboriginal protester from an Olympics protest group based in central Canada.

“Just because the Vancouver Olympics are being organized with a group of Aboriginals in Vancouver [called the Four Host First Nations, which comprises the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations], doesn’t mean that all Aboriginals in Canada support it,” she adds.

It is the first time ever that a local community of indigenous peoples has taken part in the planning and organization of an Olympic Games from the bidding phase, but this unprecedented partnership is seen by protesters as “the result of literally buying people off to pacify and silence opposition,” says Dupre.

The costs of raising the flame

Another hot potato is the negative environmental impact the Olympics will have on the local and mountain ecosystem in and around the host cities of Vancouver and Whistler. Despite its claim of being the “greenest Olympics” ever, protestors believe that the 2010 Olympics will be among the most environmentally destructive in contemporary history.

Dupre notes that “tens of thousands of trees [have been] cut down, mountainsides blasted and natural habitats destroyed for Olympic venues near Whistler, [as well as] the massive highway expansion that was recently completed.”

Protesters also claim that Vancouver’s poor, which includes many Natives, are the ones that will pay the highest price. “The 2010 Games has already meant hundreds of evictions from low-income housing, more homelessness, criminalization, and increased police presence and repression toward the poor and marginal,” a member of the Anti-Poverty Committee in Vancouver told RT via telephone.

Even animal activists are the using the increased media attention of the Games to denounce Canada’s fur and seal trade. Lindsay Rajt, from the People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals, says the Vancouver 2010 Games are being targeted because the “world will soon be turning its attention to Canada” and “Canada’s image is now equated with seal killing.”

Although global sports fans and most Canadians highly anticipate and support the Games, Vancouver residents also fear some reprisals, such as increased traffic and higher taxes to cover the $6 billion cost of the event.

“I think it's awesome that the Olympics will be in Vancouver, but there are a lot of people who are very opposed to it because of all the money and all the headaches they cause. Vancouver is bad enough as it is with traffic and everything. It remains to be seen how it will really be like come February, but I am hoping for the best,” says Julie Robins, a BC native, who lives and commutes between Vancouver and Whistler.

Although millions of viewers across the globe will no doubt follow the Olympic action with enthusiasm and sportsmanship, it appears that the Vancouver Olympics won't be fun and games for everyone.

Brenda Dionisi for RT