By SHAILAGH KEANEY*, The Dominion, February 3, 2010
MONTREAL (December 10, 2009) – On October 30, 2009, the Olympic Torch was ignited in Canada and set out on its 106-day relay. A “unique moment in Canadian history” when people can “feel the Olympic Spirit and reach for gold,” according to major Olympic-backer Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), the cross-country tour has aimed to build hype for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
But the torch was not the only thing to be sparked and hype was not the only thing to be built in the months leading up to the Games.
The trajectory of the Torch Relay, set to finish on February 12 in Vancouver, will have brought the torch to 1,000 communities throughout the part of Turtle Island now known as Canada. The Relay events feature flashy setups, local artists and promotional trucks for Coca-Cola and RBC, two of the Relay’s major sponsors.
Police have accompanied the torch throughout, with a resulting $4 million security budget.
True to form, many people have been swept up in Olympic hype and have waited in crowds and on roadsides with children in tow, anxious for an Olympic moment of their own. Hidden beneath the Relay’s messages of inspiration, however, is a harsher reality that demonstrators coast-to-coast have attempted to display in nearly 20 cities so far.
People have greeted the torch along its route with their own messages, including the theft of Indigenous land, corporate profit grabbing, ecological destruction, militarization and migrant exploitation, all directly associated with the Olympics. Some have also used the Relay to bring forward issues of sovereignty, lack of justice for hundreds of missing and murdered Native women and opposition to the seal hunt.
As the Torch Relay has moved from community to community, it has been a magnet for opposition to the Olympics and has simultaneously stirred assertions of sovereignty in First Nations communities along its route.
At the Torch Relay kickoff event in Victoria, 400 people held a zombie march and took part in an anti-Torch Relay festival. At one point, the protest jammed the street and forced the torch to be extinguished and re-routed. In the week before the event, at least 25 people were visited by Integrated Security Unit and asked questions about the torch, according to an article on anarchistnews.org.
From there, the torch traveled north across the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, bypassed the Alberta tar sands, circled up to the northern tip of Nunavut and back down again to the Atlantic Provinces where it would once again meet opposition.
It saw dissidents with banners in Halifax, followed by more in Quebec City. Five days later, residents of Kahnawake saw to it that the RCMP would not enter their territory; local Mohawk Peacekeepers accompanied the torch instead.
Montreal’s sizeable opposition came next, with 200 people blocking the stage set up for the occasion and delaying the fanfare for almost an hour. “We are here today to express our solidarity and our resistance with people in British Colombia and all across Turtle Island who are resisting these disgusting Olympics that are being built on stolen Native land, which are causing displacement all over downtown Vancouver [and] all over the interior of so-called British Columbia,” announced demonstrator Aaron Lakoff through a megaphone. Police in riot gear eventually arrived on the scene and heavy-handedly shoved the demonstration out of the way.
Five days later a small but respectable troupe leafleted in Peterborough, and in downtown Toronto, a demonstration of over 250 people arrived to stand in opposition to the torch. Speakers and a march were followed up with a banner reading “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land” in the Anishinaabemowin language, which was unfurled over the torch relay’s stage. Two people were arrested, both charged with mischief and one with assault.
Ian Robertson, a journalist working for The Toronto Sun, was shoved to the ground by a police officer during the Relay, suffering a concussion. Constable Mandy Edwards, spokeswoman for the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit, described the situation as being handled in an “appropriate manner,” and explained to the Canadian Press that Robertson was shoved only after already being told twice that he was getting too close to the torch bearer.
“This is an Olympic Torch Relay. It’s a feel-good event. It’s the last place where you would find heavy-handed, police-state, goon tactics,” Robertson told The Canadian Press.
After Toronto, at the scheduled stop in Six Nations, in anticipation of the Torch, the Onkwehonwe were engaging their own struggle for sovereignty. The Canada-imposed band council had agreed to host the torch, despite opposition from community members. “In 2009, there was a town meeting where 90 per cent of the people in attendance opposed the torch,” Lindsey Bomberry of the Onondaga nation explained to The Dominion.
A declaration from the Onkwehonwe of the Grand River read, “This land is not conquered. We are not Canadian… We hereby affirm our peaceful opposition to the entry and progression of the 2010 Olympic torch into and through our territory.” People created a blockade to stop the flame from going over the Grand River or down Highway 54 into the heart of the Six Nations territory. As a result, the torch was re-routed and festivities were held at another location on the Six Nations Reserve.
“This was very significant,” says Melissa Elliott, a founding member of Young Onkwehonwe United (YOU), and member of the Tuscarora Nation. “Six Nations was the first community to have the torch rerouted. [The demonstration at Six Nations] was held entirely by Onkewonkwe people, and so it had our issues at the forefront: issues like sovereignty, like our territory and our land.”
“The Olympics is not just about sport. It is political, and it is colonial and it is imperial, and the Torch carries this symbolism. When we heard that it was coming through our community, there was strong opposition since we have already been facing what the torch stands for,” adds Bomberry.
The following day, people in Oneida succeeded in repelling the Torch Relay entirely using a blockade and a pledge to keep the torch from entering Oneida.
Two days later was Christmas Eve, and London folks served a holiday meal “to anyone who thought free food was a better deal than an overpriced flame,” according to an article posted on no2010.com. Around 40 people joined in.
In Kitchener, over 150 people marched with banners denouncing colonialism on Turtle Island. Banners were draped from RBC buildings, where “the government of Canada and the RBC were publicly shamed for their role in the ongoing genocide of Indigenous people and their support for the criminal developments of Alberta’s tar sands,” according to an article on peaceculture.org.
According to Alex Hundert of Anti-War At Laurier (AW@L), the RCMP intervened in the demonstration as it was winding down, formed a “hard line,” and pushed some demonstrators in the process. “There were people who were voicing the perspective that if the police were violating the family-friendly protest, then it was time to take the gloves off and all bets were off,” he says. “And it was in response to that that the local police called the RCMP off.”
Then came Guelph, where a small demonstration of 20 to 30 people made headlines when a torch-bearer was knocked over during a skirmish with police. Witnesses say she tripped over a police officer’s leg. Two protesters were charged with assault, but the charges were later dropped.
There was leafleting in Sudbury and then Nairn Centre, where an attempt at a highway blockade and banner drop opposing the Olympics was thwarted by police. A group made up primarily of Indigenous people arrived and were stopped almost immediately. “People were arrested before everybody was out of the van,” says Hundert, who was nearby.
Some days later in Roseau River First Nations, Manitoba, people held signs and photographs showing some of the over 500 missing and murdered women in Canada as the torch went by. Former head of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine criticized the event for “tarnishing the image of Canada.”
“The fact that there is a list of over 500 murdered and missing native women is what tarnishes the image of Canada,” Chief Terrence Nelson, one of the organizers of the event, rebuked.
In Winnipeg people dressed as Olympic rings each representing a particular issue: homelessness and the criminalization of the poor, massive police spending and the outlawing of dissent, environmental destruction, missing and murdered women, and the theft of Native land. Upon taking the street, demonstrators were pushed out by Winnipeg police. The torch was extinguished and transported forward in a truck.
Later was Saskatoon and then Calgary, where over 500 brochures were handed out. Teri, who helped to organize the leafleting, told The Dominion two people were ticketed for littering — apparently for a brochure that a police officer dropped.
The final stop will be in Vancouver on February 12, in the midst of the NO2010 Convergence, where people are anticipating a festival involving days of actions and protests against police brutality and calling for justice for missing and murdered women.
Over the past four months, the torch has been moving from North to South to East to West and back, draping the Canadian flag and littering miniature Coca-Cola bottles all across the country.
This, however, will not be the only legacy of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
“I think the torch relay is a major step where various forms of anti-colonial and anti-capital resistance that were rooted in very different places and different issues along those common themes had come together physically in several places,” explains Hundert. “One of the things that is going to be really interesting to see is the way momentum does get carried into Toronto and the G20.”
* Shailagh Keaney is a writer based in occupied Atikameksheng Anishnawbek territory.