Olympic organizers reach deal with Mohawks
to drop RCMP escort for torch relay
December 08, 2009
Peter Rakobowchuk, THE CANADIAN PRESS
KAHNAWAKE, Que. - The Vancouver Olympic organizing committee agreed to drop the usual RCMP escort for the Olympic flame as it passed through a Mohawk reserve Tuesday in what turned out to be a joyous celebration.
Games organizers made the concession after a flurry of negotiations with community members who were upset by the prospect of a non-aboriginal police force patrolling their territory.
The agreement allowed the flame to pass through a community that played a role in the Oka crisis, a tense summer-long standoff between aboriginals and police in 1990.
Schoolchildren waved paper torches and 500 people cheered from the sidelines Tuesday during the celebration in Kahnawake, a community south of Montreal.
The torch was carried by Olympic medallist Alwyn Morris,
a local hero who won gold and bronze medals in canoeing at the Los Angeles Olympics.
"What a great thing to rekindle the (Olympic) spirit in the community and give some hope and dreams to some very young people here who may want to follow in those footsteps," Morris said.
The compromise sent a signal that organizers are serious about aboriginal communities playing a role in the Olympics, as the other options would have been to bully forward with the RCMP or cancel Tuesday's visit altogether.
But the fact that organizers did give in to concerns could also send a signal to other groups that the mere mention of trouble could be enough to scare the relay away.
A cloud of controversy hung over the flame as Morris carried it along one of the main streets. In addition to jubilant crowds, there were several protestors holding huge banners protesting the event Tuesday.
Grand Chief Mike Delisle Jr. noted that the Mohawks have had "a long, storied, sometimes troubled history" with the Mounties.
"They've raided our community in the past for what is considered illegal and contraband tobacco," he said.
John Furlong, head of the Vancouver Games organizing committee, explained that the festivities were not considered an official relay event, which allowed the security protocol to be changed.
"It wasn't frankly really a leg of the relay in the traditional sense," he told reporters in Vancouver.
"What we did was we found a way to sort of break away from the relay for a bit of time so we could bring a torch in there and share it with the kids and families.
"It was a good day, it was a situation that needed a solution that was going to work and we got one."
The flame's visit to Kahnawake was originally supposed to be an official stop on the relay, one of more than 1,000 carefully choreographed moments along the 106-day event.
The decision to divert from the original plans was a significant one for the organizing committee which, along with governments, has spent millions trying to get aboriginal communities onside for the Games.
Torch relay sponsor RBC, wise to the fact that protest from aboriginal communities was a potential threat to the relay, also hired former Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine to work with communities along the route.
He did not return a call for comment but, according to one of the groups involved in the negotiations for Kahnawake, was not involved in the issue.
Delisle said he had worried the latest controversy might have "put a bit of a damper" on Tuesday's event as the torch made its way through his community.
"But, by the faces of the kids today, I doubt it," he added.
"There's been a lot of angst and consternation over the past two weeks or so. I think cooler heads prevailed," he said.
"It was a show of respect and a sign of recognition in terms of the RCMP backing away (and) the Olympic committee acknowledging the fact that we have a peacekeeper authority here."
The head of the Mohawk band council called the flame "a beacon of hope."
"That's what the flame is supposed to represent - brotherhood and peace. Peace is part of our foundation and part of our founding principles."
A handful of locals did stage a demonstration and carried large white banners that declared the Olympic torch was not welcome in Kahnawake or any native community.
"We don't support the torch coming through Kahnawake because of the land that's being destroyed in B.C. (for the Olympics)," Cheryl Diabo said in an interview.
"We support our native sisters and brothers who stood in line in our defence in 1990 during the crisis that we faced, and it's only natural that we do the same.
"We don't support the destruction of any land anywhere."
Diabo is a member of the community's Mohawk traditional council.
One of the banners that was stretched out beside her read: "Remove the Poison, Remove the Torch."
In the coming weeks, the torch is expected to pass through both Six Nations and Tyendinaga, two areas where violent confrontations have happened in recent years between residents and police.
Groups in both communities have committed to protesting the torch, though Furlong said he didn't expect another compromise was going to be required.
"We're not anticipating that it will, but the goal is . . . to try and find ways to make it all work and there's a lot of very happy young kids today because we did it," he said.
"We've very happy because that's the vision, to try and make sure we live up to our commitments and our promises."
(With files from Stephanie Levitz)
In a town haunted by Oka, nobody is ‘Canadian’
The Globe and Mail
By Sean Gordon, The Globe and Mail Posted Tuesday, December 8, 2009 9:07 PM ET
KAHNAWAKE, QUE. - The precious cargo arrived in a nondescript blue rental car, unadorned by the usual travelling fanfare that surrounds its every movement.
Typically, the Olympic flame is accompanied by a phalanx of Mounties, and preceded and followed by heavily branded Vancouver Organizing Committee vehicles.
But Kahnawake is anything but a typical stop on the Olympic Torch Relay. By prior arrangement, and after lengthy negotiations - which dragged late into Monday evening - the RCMP stayed off tribal land, and so did the rest of the torch road show.
They did so with good reason: The lessons of recent history are still painful in this community, which sits across the St. Lawrence from Montreal.
Put simply, since the Oka crisis, everything has changed in Kahnawake, and nothing has changed.
The Mohawk community has become a huge global player in the online gaming industry and is clearly thriving. Yet it remains beset by continuing problems with poverty, addiction and crime, and then there's the small matter of the continuing political stalemate between the band and the governments that would control it. Kahnawake is a place where the word Canadian is often set in quotation marks.
"If you go to any man, woman or child in this community, no one would tell you they're Canadian," said Michael Delisle Jr., grand chief of the Kahnawake Mohawk Council, who nevertheless said the torch is "a beacon of hope" to his community and that it was "a great day."
And so the torch's passage illustrates a mostly unspoken dichotomy: The Olympic ideal is held up as a symbol of hope and achievement to young people in aboriginal communities, but in Kahnawake that inspiration has little to no connection with the national celebration the 2010 Games organizers envision.
"You have a persisting disaffection with the federal government, and the claims to federal authority over Kahnawake. That hasn't evolved much or at all since Oka ... the Mohawk conception of national sovereignty is completely at variance with Canada's or Quebec's or with that of most of the Canadian population," said Ronald Niezen, a native affairs expert who teaches anthropology at McGill University.
Though the 1990 Oka crisis primarily involved a dispute at Kanesatake, a Mohawk reserve northwest of Montreal, members of Kahnawake blockaded a bridge linking their community to the city in solidarity.
Those roadblocks prompted construction on what would become Highway 30, the proposed extension of which is currently being contested by the Mohawks.
The situation today is nothing like the simmering tensions of the summer and fall of 1990, but the political positions remain intractable.
Indeed, the RCMP and Sûreté du Quebec provincial police are not welcome in Kahnawake unless they seek permission and co-operation from the community's police force, and the relay organizers were willing to make allowances to get the torch there, including shortening the original route.
"The goal, and we had the full support of the RCMP, is to find a way to make it all work. And there are a lot of very happy young kids today because we did it, and we're very happy," VANOC head John Furlong said. In the event, a crowd of several hundred school children and residents gathered under dazzling blue skies to cheer the relay.
Just before noon, the canister holding the flame - by then surreptitiously transferred into a Mohawk Peacekeepers squad car - was brought out to light a torch held by Kahnawake's own Alwyn Morris.
The 52-year-old, one of two medal-winning Olympians to hail from the community of about 7,500, said "the torch relay is about unity, it's about peace, it's about bringing together family and friends and uniting the country." He also expressed hope the day would help clear up a few misconceptions about his community.
"Unfortunately [the reserve] is given some very unappealing stereotypes. I was at the Olympic Games, I represented Canada at those Olympic Games, it didn't take anything away from Canada and I'm also a Mohawk. It's not something to be afraid of."
The two-time Olympian is a fitting exemplar of his community for more than athletic prowess. After winning two kayaking medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Games - a gold and a bronze - he returned home to work in addiction counselling and as a senior adviser to the band council.
In 2007, he quit that post to found a company in the reserve's booming industry, online gaming.
Kahnawake's computer servers are home to more than 500 Internet casinos, an activity that is technically illegal under Canadian law (as is much of the community's robust discount tobacco trade). But the gaming business has created hundreds of jobs and despite hefty federal funding for education and health, the general perception is Kahnawake has been left to its own devices.
"There's so many things that are happening in the community in terms of economic development. A lot of it, unfortunately, is in spite of what comes in by virtue of governmental support," Mr. Morris said.
Coincidentally, the first day the flame wasn't escorted by Mounties was also the first day on which a protester was arrested. As Mr. Morris alternately walked and jogged the few hundred metres between a gas station on Kahnawake's main drag and a school, a protester ran up and tried to hand him a stack of tracts. The protester was grabbed by a couple of burly Peacekeepers and after a brief scuffle was shepherded into the back of a squad car.
Just down the road, a traditionalist Mohawk group held a protest that comprised a handful of people holding bedsheets painted with slogans such as, "Remove the poison, remove the torch." Demonstrators grumbled Mr. Morris was trying to drum up attention for his business interests, while passing band members replied with insults aimed at the protest. A few children even booed.
With a report from Rod Mickleburgh in Vancouver