The Vancouver Olympics and John Furlong’s sins of omission

Author, journalist and Olympian LAURA ROBINSON* takes us further into the discussions of the legacy of the Vancouver Games with a look behind the biography of John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee and into what information on the 2010 Winter Games and his personal background made it to the book and what did not.

John Furlong, VANOC CEO. Photo by Flickr user United Way of the Lower Mainland used under a Creative Commons License 2.0

HOW EXACTLY did VANOC CEO John Furlong manage to emigrate from Dublin, Ireland to Prince George, B.C. – a remote part of Canada in 1974 when he was twenty-four, with a wife and family?

He wrote in his recently released book about the Vancouver Olympics, Patriot Hearts, the he was “recruited” to be the “athletic director” of a high-school in Prince George, B.C., but fails to mention who recruited him. Had he delved into the details of his passage to Canada, not just in his book, but in the decade when he was the front man for the Olympic bid and then the organizing committee, perhaps there would have been less likelihood of him getting the job – and support from Aboriginal organizations across the country.

Sins of omission

Furlong kept his past a secret. Nowhere in all the bios and hundreds of articles will you find that he was part of an international missionary movement called the “Frontier Apostles” in Northern B.C. They helped the Catholic diocese increase the Catholic student head count by building, and then working at Prince George Catholic High-School – a day and residential school where 80-90 per cent of the students were Aboriginal. Some students came from as far away as Prince Rupert, a 700 km distance. Expansion worked in the church’s favour. Not only would souls be saved, but the federal government paid for every First Nation student attending.

In 1974 Furlong heeded the call of the Oblate Brothers, received the small stipend and room and board afforded the missionaries and, according to students, became the phys ed. teacher and a coach.

“He was a decent guy in those days. A motivational guy who brings out the good in you” says Terry Sam, who competed on the teams Furlong coached. “But he’s sort of too busy for us now. He didn’t have time for us – to talk” he says, adding he would see his former coach in Prince George when Furlong came to see his grandchildren, and with the torch relay, but Furlong would only have passing words with him. He also says he saw Furlong in Vancouver, but by then Furlong would only say “hi” and brush past him.

… we made his resume for him. It was coaching us – we were good athletes – that moved him up the ladder and out of the school. Furlong used to tell us we were the best basketball team he ever coached.

“His shoes got too big for him” says Sam, who still comes to Vancouver to run the Sun Run – the biggest mass race in Canada, at age 54. “But we made his resume for him. It was coaching us – we were good athletes – that moved him up the ladder and out of the school. Furlong used to tell us we were the best basketball team he ever coached.” (In his book Furlong also says he coached the Irish women’s national team).

Another former student, who wishes to remain anonymous, says the same thing. “He wouldn’t give more than a sentence when I bumped into him and tried to talk to him about the teams he coached. He avoided talking about those days.”

Furlong wrote in his book that he became the Parks and Recreation Director for Prince George in 1976, but he left out another teaching stint, this time at Immaculate Catholic School in Burns Lake, also under the Prince George Diocese, but in an even more remote part of B.C. Former student Thomas Perry wrote in the student newspaper at Simon Fraser University that he is one of the very few who “was able to overcome the abuse and negative reinforcement that were regularly used as teaching tools in my elementary school. The first school I attended was a Roman Catholic School called the Immaculate School; there was nothing immaculate about a school where every morning I was greeted with strapping from the nuns and priests who ran the school. I could barely speak the English language, which the teachers didn’t know, or at least never inquired about, so I continuously got into trouble for speaking my own language.”

By 1978 Furlong says he was the regional Parks and Recreation Director for Nanaimo, a city on Vancouver Island, over 800 km south. He was gone, says Sam, but left in a fashion that did not impress his former students. “He left his wife and kids in Prince George to go to Nanaimo. Who does that? I wish I could talk to him and see what’s going on.” To the athletes he once coached – Sam, his brother Howard, and their school friend and teammate Mark Prince – Furlong built his resume by using their athletic performances, then left them and his family for a better position far away. All three say, despite being some of his top athletes, he did not seek them out on his many visits back to Prince George over the ensuing years.

Not having time for former athletes, especially those who committed to excellence – is hardly the advice Furlong gave to the people of Prince George when he was there in December 2010, giving them advice for their bid for the 2015 Canada Games (the first big games Canadian athletes go to before the Olympics or World Championships).

“The No. 1 thing, I think, if I were CEO of these Games, I would want it to matter to everybody who lives here. The most important decision we (VANOC) made was the first one: we committed to a vision. Be sure of what you want to do and stick to it. Anchor it in a set of core values. It has to inspire people to get up and out of bed in the morning,” Furlong told bid organizers.

Visions and values

Furlong talks about “vision” and “values” in Patriot Hearts frequently, but never actually defines the words. Did he bring his strong missionary vision to sport – one based on the conviction that other belief systems are simply wrong because they do not share the values of the missionary? Would Aboriginal organizations and provinces across the country have footed the bill to send dancers to the opening ceremonies and other cultural performers to the Aboriginal pavilion if they’d known Furlong came to Canada to work at a school that took away First Nation languages and replaced them with English, while killing their culture and replacing it with Christianity? Would they have believed him when he told them Aboriginal youth would receive lasting legacies from these Games?

Most of the world does not know that Aboriginal children in Canada were taken from their families by the police, the churches and by “the Indian Agent” – a white person representing the federal government who had legal power over Aboriginal people. Approximately 150,000 children were taken for over 150 years. From 2010 to 2015 Canada will be in the midst of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian residential schools – not unlike the one held in South Africa after apartheid ended. There is evidence of mass graves, abortions done on girls carried out in the basements of schools after they were raped, and a litany of other unspeakable practices. The last residential school closed in 1996.

Sam says he was punished because he chose not to go to mass. “They’d ground you for two weeks – no activities, no sports, no going downtown. You were confined to your dorm. After awhile you did what they said just so you could get out. I didn’t like that at all.”

Margo Sagalon, Terry Sam’s sister, a counselor today, and former student at Prince George Catholic, says she has no reason to believe students suffered sexual abuse there. “Over the years no one has reported sexual abuse to me and I have counseled many, many former students. But there are hundreds of us survivors. We were only allowed to go home for the summer and holidays. We had to pray and do all that crap; go to church. It makes me mad that we’re not even recognized as a residential school. The Department of Indian Affairs paid our tuition directly to the church. We didn’t ask to go there. We lost our language and our culture.”

Canada’s dark shadow

There is a $15 billion nation-wide class-action lawsuit against the federal government from former students of “day schools” that Aboriginal people went to that were excluded from the federal government’s Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. If schools were privately built by churches and had day students – as did Prince George Catholic – they were not considered “residential schools” even though most of the students lived there.

The students who attended them were not eligible for the Common Experience Payment others received or extra payments if they suffered abuse. Sagalon collected names of former students who went to Prince George Catholic as part of that class action. All of the schools – residential and day schools – are a dark shadow from Canada‘s past when millions of dollars each year were spent to “kill the Indian in the Indian” through a litany of ways, such as forcing them to be Christians and banning their language.

When Furlong was asked through his publishers, Douglas & McIntyre, about his involvement as a Frontier Apostle and his non-disclosure of his missionary work, the following response was received:

John Furlong worked at Prince George Catholic High School for two years as the athletic director. The students at this school were Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, international and “day” students. It was a fee-paying private school. Furlong had, and continues to have, impeccable relations with aboriginal students, parents and Aboriginal leaders in Prince George, BC and across the country.

Furlong skips over the fact that the vast majority of Native students resided there, something the Prince George Diocese confirmed in March, 2011. Other “day” students boarded at white homes in Prince George, far from their families. The “international” students were mainly the Frontier Apostles’ children. Sam also adds, “He was a gym teacher who coached. We didn’t have an athletic department.” Further to that, Sam says there was no swim team at the school, despite Furlong’s claim in his book that he brought a fast but small team to the regional championships. He mentions that Jim Fowlie, who went on to break world records, did the relay all on his own and won, giving the school (carefully not mentioned once more) the championships. There is no swim team in the 639 pages of school activities and athletic teams from various yearbooks on the Prince George Catholic Facebook website. There was a private swim club in Prince George that did have a roster of good athletes, including Fowlie.

Opening ceremonies

Furlong plays with the facts all the way through Patriot Hearts. For instance, he outlines how he and Australian opening ceremonies producer David Atkins wanted “to give the international world a real insight into Canada’s view of the Aboriginal community” by having them greet the athletes as they entered the stadium. “We would ask these communities to send us their best and their brightest, their future leaders….We would dress them in modernized version of their tribal regalia to create the colour and pageantry for which we were striving.”

Furlong wrote they wouldn’t tell the youth they would be in the opening ceremonies until “we had them locked in a hall in Squamish” but added that VANOC was running out of cash. When he met with then Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine, the elected head of Native people across Canada, to “seek his blessing” he told Fontaine, “We may even need a little help because financially it’s extremely difficult to do.” Furlong reports that Fontaine was extremely supportive and writes, “Sweet mother of mercy…. I quickly rolled up my papers and left to tell David Atkins we had lift-off.”

That’s the official story. When Furlong was again asked to comment in more detail about the difference between what he wrote and what history tells us, Douglas & McIntyre’s publicity dept wrote the following email:

John Furlong responded to your questions a few weeks ago. He doesn’t have anything further to say.

Absolute rights in perpetuity

Montreal, December 10, 2009

With or without Furlong’s input, let’s look at reality. Young people found the application to the Olympic Indigenous Youth Gathering on-line. They did not have to go through Aboriginal leaders because they had to sign a multi-page contract with VANOC, agreeing to be unpaid “volunteers”; they had to send VANOC photos of themselves, but only in regalia – this was about creating a romanticized notion of what Indians look like – not as Furlong wrote, about how Canadians view Aboriginal people. If Aboriginal leaders had read the contract, chances are they would not have allowed the youth to sign it.

Generally Aboriginal people are invisible to Canadians. Most could not tell you that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission even exists, despite its five-year mandate.

VANOC gave the young people strict instructions on how they wanted the regalia changed or simply disallowed it. The dancers performed their traditional dances for Atkins, but he gave them new dances that were to look as though they were traditional. The young people could not criticize VANOC, the IOC, the “Olympic Family” or any other organizations attached to the Olympics; and had to give VANOC and the IOC absolute rights to their images, creative property and intellectual property in perpetuity.

If they created a painting, dance, or a piece of music during the “Youth Gathering” – which turned out to mainly be rehearsals for the opening ceremonies, VANOC and the IOC owned it. Aboriginal people had no right to their own art. If they did or said anything VANOC deemed to be un-Olympic, VANOC could ship them home.

The “hall” Furlong had the 350 young people locked away in was a remote camp, 20 minutes outside of Squamish (between Vancouver and Whistler) where they lived crowded into rough cabins. Just days into the Games the present Assembly of First Nations Chief, Shawn Atleo, said he had not known about the above terms, and was disturbed that Aboriginal creations were now owned by the IOC and VANOC. “If Canada had signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples, I think things would have turned out differently.” At that time only Canada and the U.S. had not signed the declaration. Canada now is a signatory.

“Never in our wildest dreams…”

Patriot Hearts skips all of these truths, and many others too lengthy to go into here. But Furlong has made his way up the sport administration food chain. His website, has its own set of arms and gives many testimonials about his ability to move a crowd. Furlong charges $20,000.00 CAN per keynote address. That amount did not seem too high for the International Council of Shopping Centres, the B.C. Pharmacists Association, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association and the Canadian Construction Association, who conveniently had their conference in Hawaii – far away from Canadian journalists who question an email he sent eleven months before the Olympics showing he had prior knowledge about the possible dangers of the fatal Olympic luge track.

Furlong wrote to VANOC staff “[I]mbedded [sic] in this note (cryptic as it may be) is a warning that the track is in their view too fast and someone could get badly hurt. An athlete gets badly injured or worse and I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing…. I’m not sure where the exit sign or way out is on this. Our legal guys should review at least.”

Yet when Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died, Furlong is quoted as saying, “It’s not something I prepared for, or ever thought I would have to be prepared for.” In Patriot Hearts, which came out before the above email was public, Furlong wrote, “Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine the death of an athlete on Opening Day.”

To this day, no one is allowed to use the men’s starting gate on the luge track. The track is located in Whistler, 150 km north of Vancouver. But Furlong appears to have moved on from the scandal surrounding it. He has been named as the Chair of Whistler-Blackcomb’s Corporate Governance Committee. Whistler-Blackcomb is the massive resort/ski area located at Whistler. In November, VANOC paid them $32.1 million in “make whole” compensation, after the resort argued that the Olympics had hurt business.

Most recently he has also been made a director of Rocky Mountain Railtours, the luxury rail company whose train makes the run to Whistler. While environmentalists argued for this rail line to be a dedicated transportation route during the Games, VANOC chose a widened highway and vehicles instead. Rail use was restricted to Rocky Mountain Tours who rented out the train to politicians who met with corporate leaders on their way to Whistler.

John Furlong certainly has come a long way since his first missionary position.

*Laura Robinson is a journalist and the author of Black Tights: Women, Sport and Sexuality. She is a former member of the national cycling team and former Canadian rowing champion. She coaches mountain biking, Nordic skiing and track at Cape Croker First Nation Elementary School, Chippewa of Nawash First Nation, Ontario.

Source: Play the Game

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