Sell-Out Fontaine Carries Olympic Torch

Former national chief carries Olympic torch, says Games not time for protest

By Chinta Puxley (Candian Press) – Jan 8, 2010

LONG PLAIN, Man. — Disgruntled aboriginals have a right to protest the Vancouver Olympics, but the Games don't really provide the best forum to highlight the chronic social problems facing First Nation communities, Canada's former national chief said Friday.

Phil Fontaine, former head of the Assembly of First Nations who now works as an adviser to Olympic sponsor Royal Bank, carried the Olympic torch partway through Long Plain First Nation on Friday. Crowds were sparse, with just a few hardy spectators braving the freezing temperatures to cheer on the flame.

Some First Nations groups say the Olympics offer an opportunity to focus international attention on Canada's treatment of aboriginals. The torch relay was effectively blocked in several First Nation territories, while other aboriginals lined the torch route in Manitoba this week to highlight hundreds of murdered or missing aboriginal women.

But Fontaine said this isn't really the time to dwell on the negative.

"There are people who see this as an opportunity (for protest). I see this as a celebration," he said at the Long Plain school following his torch run.

"It's really a celebration of indigenous cultures ... We represent a very positive presence in Canada. We've been significant contributors to Canada's well-being. We will be important, as we've been in the past, to Canada's future. The world should be aware of that."

People should be aware of Canada's troubled relationship with its aboriginal people, but Fontaine suggested that education should take place in the political - not sports - arena.

"That process of public education is very much a political process."

Only a few First Nation communities have protested the Olympic torch run so far, Fontaine added. The Vancouver Olympics has unprecedented support from the country's aboriginals and Fontaine said that was partially responsible for Canada's successful bid.

The Olympic flame is travelling through 119 aboriginal communities and is scheduled to receive 130 traditional native blessings, Fontaine said. Still, he said he knows not everyone is on board. In a few cases where First Nations warned of disruptions to the relay, Fontaine said the torch was still able to go in and out of those communities unfettered.

"We knew that there wouldn't be 100 per cent support," he said. "People have a right to demonstrate, to protest. That's part of our system here and it's a right people have. The Olympic torch run was not about to deny those people that right."

Roseau River Chief Terry Nelson helped organize a protest earlier this week when the torch passed through his territory on its way to Winnipeg. A handful of people lined the road, holding signs drawing attention to the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.

Nelson said people have accused him and others of "tarnishing the image of Canada" by holding such demonstrations while the world is watching. But he said the international community needs to know about the plight of Canada's aboriginals and the Olympics is the perfect time to educate the world.

"The fact that we're bringing up the issue of over 500 missing and murdered women doesn't tarnish the image of Canada," Nelson said. "The fact that there is a list of over 500 murdered and missing native women is what tarnishes the image of Canada."